The Year

Nearly ten years ago an idle brag in a pub led me to an inescapable journey into the Cycling Year Record. Being told by a friend that my annual tally of some 9,000 cycling miles was nearly 8 times lower than the record held by Tommy Godwin was a sobering moment. The retort played hard on my entire cycling being, my legs could not fathom the effort required to ride 205 miles every day, my head struggled with the concept of giving up everything but riding for a whole year and my heart began to beat a little bit faster as it vicariously fought the struggle cycling against the British winter. I had to know more, I had to answer the “why?”, “how?”, “who?” and “where?” questions. And given the lack of information in 2005 I had to get out there and brag on behalf of Tommy instead. He had sadly departed many years back leaving behind little trace of his incredible year.

And so ten years later a large box arrives at my front door. Contained within are thirty copies of The Year, my personal tribute to a rich history of endurance riding that was previously in danger of slipping unnoticed from the cycling annals. It’s a special moment when you part a row of books upon a shelf to make room for one you’ve written yourself. Made even more special by the fact that I left school determined to pursue a career in endurance drinking fortified by as many Rothmans as I could lift from my unsuspecting father’s cigarette stash. There was never a moment’s thought that I’d write a history book, at times it was questionable if I’d be able to write at all given the perilous state of my handwriting which one teacher once labelled “paper defacement” as opposed to literature.

As I pushed the freshly made book into its allotted place I thought through the years of discovery and analysis that had led to its making. It was by no means an easy task to unravel the history of this most pointless of tasks, the internet was barren and what information did exist online was often incorrect. The majority of the participants had passed away and in almost all cases had long faded from the cycling limelight after their years were complete. What information did exist was scattered across multiple archives and publications often buried in footnotes or tiny snippets. It took me years to build a proper picture of this record and separate the hyperbole from the fact. The cycling press were often so distracted by the rider’s ultimate achievement that they omitted to enquire about the background. Tommy’s year a case in point. Plenty of reporting concerning his final records but very little insight into his background and circumstances. As it turned out, this is where the real stories lay and I felt that this is what history was missing. The most incredible thing these men and women had done was actually make it to the start line, deciding to forfeit  a year of their lives in pursuit of a record that had no tangible reward. The greatest prize ever offered being a small gold medal given to Marcel Planes in 1911. 365 days riding all for a trinket whose value may feed you for a week or two.

In 2014 my wife and I had exhausted our trawls of the cycling archives. With the help of Tommy Godwin’s daughter Barbara I’d tracked down many of the descendents of the record riders and gathered further insight. I’d even had the privilege of meeting Billie Fleming, the only surviving rider. It was a great experience to be ticked off by this wise centurian for having more than 3 gears fixed to my modern bike, “Why would you need any more, three’s plenty?”. Now it was time to write, I’d agreed with my publisher Vertebrate that we’d be ready for 2015, and so I gave up my evenings and weekends to precis gigabytes of scanned information and notes into a lucid account of the who,when,how,why and where. To  complicate matters the flame of year riding was relit as Steve Abraham and Kurt Searvogel set out to beat Tommy’s figures over 365 days. Should I wait until they were finished?

No.

Their rides are a product of this rich history within which they will become deeply woven once they’re complete. But the story of where it all came from needs to be told and this was how I constructed and wrote The Year.

Placing that book onto the shelf I was tempted to consider my work done. Helen and I had toiled hard to piece together the facts and construct a true narrative as to how this record had reached its zenith of 75,065 miles. But now I’ve come to realise that publishing this book is only a step in my personal Year Record journey. I’ve spent time recently presenting The Year at a number of events and each time there are questions:-

  • Did they take drugs?
  • Is this really an unbreakable record?
  • I’ve heard that they used trains is this true?
  • What happened to their mileage cards?
  • Surely they could cheat, how do we know they rode these miles?

I can answer many of them, but often they trigger new thoughts that missed the cut when writing The Year. For example, Rene Menzies, a man who first set out to take the record at the age of 48. A man who was beaten by gamesmanship that year and subsequently set out and failed to take it again the next year. A man who would not give up and returned at the age of 63 to finally beat an Australian opponent who had long since retired from cycling having done time as a bigamist. Rene’s story of year riding is well documented in my book, but there was clearly more to him than just endurance riding. I need to know more and so I’ve resolved to brush up my French and dig deeper into the life of this tenacious Frenchman.

Then there is the new data from the 21st century riders. Steve and Kurt have ridden over 120,000 miles between them with electronic tracking devices strapped to their bikes. We’ve never had so much data in the entire history of the Year record, most of the tally cards used by previous riders now live in landfill. The only set that remains belonged to Marcel Planes and his 1911 record ride. I’ve seen some fantastic uses of this data especially from Jo Wood who lives and breaths data visualisation. It’s engaged a new cycling community in the trials of the two riders and allowed them to compare and contrast in detail the effort, terrain and cycling patterns of the two riders. Sadly it’s also brought out the trolls who deride the performances from the safety of their keyboard, but this is nothing new, Cycling magazine considered the performances of the pioneering Americans to be highly suspicious .. in 1901, questioning how any rider could possibly achieve more than 58 miles a day over a continuous period.

I also came across possibly my favourite ever misconception around the Year Record. You’ll have to make the unfortunate journey onto facebook in order to find it, the link is here . The discussion hypothesises that Tommy Godwin could not have ridden his 75,065 miles because his mileage patterns do not match that of either Kurt or Steve. It ends with the quote “Data does not lie”. There is clearly a complete misunderstanding of the battle between Godwin, Bennett and the previous record of Nicholson in 1938. The two British riders were competing daily against each other to edge ahead and take the record first. Their appointed coaches were out on the road urging them on and supporting them in cars … very much like Kurt and Alicia. There was no pace line of team riders, trade teams of this type just did not exist in the UK at that time. I’ve looked at the data of the two riders next to each other on a day to day basis. It clearly shows how each reacted to the other with Gowin eventually breaking Bennett and carrying on having adapted to this mode of riding. It also matches the weather reports of 1939. The data does not lie.

Finally, new attempts are already being launched. In 2016 we have two new aspirants for the Year. Kasja is setting out to beat the 29,603.7  miles of Billie Fleming whilst Bruce has set his sight upon the highest male tally, which may be more than 75,065 miles after Kurt Searvogel completes his ride on the 10th January 2016. I suspect that they will not be the last to take on this mighty yet pointless task and am hoping that we’re seeing a new  dawn in the history of the Year. For me personally it means that I can’t quite shut the book on the Year Record, I’ve still got a lot more to learn and a lot more to observe. I’m desperately proud of the end product that Vertebrate worked so hard to create and think it needs to be maintained. So it’s back to the drawing board to work out how best to do this in a digital age. It’s going to involve websites and javascript, late nights and coffee, swearing and debugging. So far I’ve managed to tick the swearing and coffee.

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