Tommy Godwin FAQ

Tommy Godwin Frequently Asked Questions

Over the years as I have researched the Cycling Year Record I’ve gathered various pieces of information concerning Tommy Godwin’s ride. I’ve also been asked a lot of questions by others who have shown an interest. This set of frequently asked questions attempts to answer as many of these as possible. Most of the information has been derived from newspaper and cycling magazine articles. Some of it comes from friends and family who knew him so I believe it to be fairly accurate. If there is a question that I have not covered please feel free to ask me via the email address dave@phased.co.uk.

Dave Barter, 9th December 2011


What routes did Tommy Ride?

Understandably Tommy shied away from the hiller parts of the country. Remember that his objective was to ride the highest mileage possible within a single year and precedents had been set by Ossie Nicholson who had previously taken the record upon the flat plains of Australia. His mileage diaries show that he varied his routes daily, this may have been to take advantage of favourable winds or weather conditions.

We do know that the routes ridden earlier in the year were designed to avoid the snow and ice. January/February 1939 delivered a terrible winter and Tommy’s friends worked hard to find areas of the country that were as snow/ice free as possible. Apparently at one point they noticed that a portion of the West country was clear and advised him to ride in that area until the weather settled.

As the weather improved, Tommy stuck to the south of England for the majority of his riding. He often rode routes that took in London, Hemel Hempstead and the Potteries area where he had many friends and colleagues. But there are reports of him riding routes that included Lancashire, Preston and even Land’s End.

There is anecdotal evidence that he was sent to Ireland and Wales during the war, but returned to Hemel Hempstead. It is unlikely that this true as there would have been gaps in his mileage diary when he took ferries or flew to Ireland (which do not exist) and Wales would have been the worst possible choice in terms of terrain for maximising mileage.

One report in April 1939 states that Tommy rode from Hemel Hempstead to Devizes, onto Chippenham and then back again, covering 205 miles that day. A day later he is reported to have ridden Birmingham->Shrewsbury->Newcastle covering another double century.

Another report in the Staffordshire Weekly Sentinel states:-

“One day for a bit of company he started out at Land’s End with another cyclist who was attempting to break the record to John O’Groats and followed him all the way!”

A single day of Tommy’s 100,000 mie record ride is documented. On May 8th 1940 Tommy rode the Pilgrim’s Way as an exhibition ride to showcase his fitness as he strove towards the 100,000 mile record. Tommy’s timings are shown in the table below, a very impressive performance even by modern standards as he averaged over 20mph for the 120 miles.

Location Mileage Time
Winchester Cathedral 0 0
New Alversford 8.5 0:26
Alton 18.5 0:57
Farnham 27.5 1:23
Chilworth 39.5 2:01
Dorking 50 2:31
Reigate 56 2:48
Redhill 58 2:54
Nutfield 60 3:01
Godstone 63 3:10
Westerham 69.5 3:32
Riverhead 74 3:47
Wrotham Heath 83 4:13
Aylesford 90 4:30
Charing 105 5:22
Canterbury Cathedral 120 6:08:43 

What bike(s) did he ride during the record?

Tommy began the record year on a bicycle provided by Mr A. T Ley of Ley Cycles Ltd.

However, Tommy’s demands for a sponsor were high. He  wore out a large number of spare parts and tubular tyres during the early part of the ride as the poor road surfaces and inclement weather took their toll. The cost of these spares proved too much of a financial demand for Ley Cycles, a small company and on May 27th 1939 the sponsorship mantle passed to Raleigh. Raleigh equipped Tommy with their latest lightweight model, a Raleigh Record Ace complete with the latest Sturmey Archer 4 speed hub. He rode a 21” frame equipped with 27” wheels, dunlop tyres, Brooks B17 Flyer saddle and used Dynohub lighting. His four speed hub gave him gears of 48/62/72/81 inches.

What did he eat?

Tommy was a life long vegetarian. As a youth he worked for a Burslem pie maker and was horrified by what he saw, this turned him away from meat for life. Vegetarianism was not unusal in this era. A club specifically for Vegetarian cyclists and athletes was formed in  1888 and was very active during this period. Walter Greaves, a previous year record holder, was also a committed and vocal vegetarian.

However, 1939 saw the start of World War II and Tommy would not have had a huge amount of choice concerning his food. Even as a professional rider, his income would only have stretched to the basics such as cheese, milk, bread and eggs. An interview with Tommy carried out in January 1940 sheds light on his feeding habits during the record. With his typical feeding schedule as follows:-

4am: no breakfast, Tommy appeared to favour chewing gum to start his day

7.30am: Eggs, tomatoes, rolls and butter, marmalade, tea lots of water

11.30am: Brown bread and butter, cheese, tomatoes, fruit

1pm: Tea

3pm: Brown bread and butter, bananas, cheese, cakes

6pm: Eggs, toast, bread, fruit and cream, jam, tea

Mid-evening: oranges and water

Supper: Eggs, cheese, bread and butter, fruit

Tommy reported that he had actually gained eight pounds in weight during his ride rather than lost it. His friends reported him as looking “as if made from iron” with skin “hewn from mahogany”.

Why was he not called up during the war?

War broke out in  September 1939 nine months into Tommy’s record attempt. It is believed that the army gave him special dispensation to continue his ride until the 100,000 mile record was gained. Tommy was attempting to take the year record from an Australian so national pride would count towards this decision. Additionally, Tommy was 27 years old at the time of the record attempt and would not have been in the first wave of conscription which initially started with males aged 20-23.

What races did he win before the record?

Anecdotally Tommy is said to have won approximately 200 races prior to the year record attempt. George Hemmings, a great friend of his, recalls being shown drawers full of medals that Tommy had won at various events. Tommy was a time trialist and competed annually in the Best British All Rounder competition. His best performance was 7th place nationally achieved in 1933 with an average speed was 21.255 mph. His individual performances were :-

  • 50 miles, 2 hours 10 mins 12 secs, (23.077 mph)
  • 100 miles, 4hrs, 40 mins, 6 secs, (21.428 mph)
  • 12 hours – 231 5/8 miles. (19.25 mph)

He is also recorded as the winner of the “Vegetarian Fifty”, second in the “Polytechnic Twelve” and fourth in the “Belle Vue CC”.

 

Did he ride every single day throughout the year or did he take days off?

According to his mileage diaries Tommy rode for 364 of the 365 days of the year record and then did not take a single day off in his quest for the 100,000 mile record. The only day he did not ride was 28th October 1939 when his diary shows that he met the Prince of Wales two days after breaking the year record.

Why was his bike heavy if he was a sponsored rider?

The weight of his bike was heavy when compared to modern cycling machines! Although in its time the Raleigh Record Ace was a state of the art racing machine coming in at a svelte 28 pounds. However, Tommy had to add extra weight to his bicycle in the form of the ten spare tubular tyres he regularly carried in case of punctures and also the relatively heavy dynamo and light system required for his night riding.

Why hasn’t anybody broken the record since?

There are many reasons, beginning with World War II. Tommy took the record in 1939 when war broke out in September. Clearly no further attempts were viable until at least 1945 as war ravaged Europe, Asia and America. Some of the impetus for retaking the record was subsequently lost as riders such as Bennett, Nicholson and Godwin were absorbed into the war effort.

In 1972 an amateur rider, Ken Webb, claimed to have taken Tommy’s record with a mileage of 80,647 miles for the year and 100,000 miles in 448 days. However, Webb rode these miles whilst holding down a full time job at Gatwick airport for a period during the year. His claims of 223 miles per day average attracted doubters, especially from a number of cyclists who rode with him and were skeptical of his ability to maintain such high average speeds. Additionally, he was often very well turned out and clean after the end of long days on the bike. This attracted further suspicion from his peers who were only too well aware of the damage to your appearance that a long day in the saddle inflicts.

Ken’s record was initially added to the Guinness Book of Records but removed at a later date after his claims were called into question.

There have not been any modern attempts due to a number of factors.

Firstly, the Year Record has faded from memory and ceases to be a coveted cycling record. In the 30’s and 40’s bicycle manufacturers were keen to sponsor attempts as it clearly exhibited the durability and longevity of their equipment. These days manufacturers follow other angles such as grand tour riders and one day classics.

Then there is the issue of verification. Modern technology such as GPS tracking provides an aid and a hinderance. It would be all too easy for a rider to attach a GPS unit to their bicycle and then share the riding with a team of others! Additionally, the enhanced transport network of trains, buses, taxis and cars facilitates cheating. Why ride the miles when you can deftly skip up the road in a rented car? Ken Webb’s discredited attempt may have added to this with a huge degree of public cynicism awaiting any rider who claims to have taken the record. In 1939 Cycling magazine oversaw the attempt and went to great measures to verify Tommy’s daily mileage. It is doubtful that any magazine or media channel would offer such detailed scrutiny for a modern attempt.

However, the final reason is probably the most compelling. Tommy’s achievement was absolutely extraordinary. The daily mileages required to beat the record challenge every modern cyclist beyond anything they have ever attempted. Whilst a daily average of 209 miles may seem remotely achievable, the rider has to consider the bad days. Mechanicals, punctures, weather, illness, family issues, accidents and other factors will all intervene and reduce the mileage on certain days. This will push up the riding requirements for the good days. Tommy suffered all of these setbacks which subsequently required him to ride weeks   of seriously extended riding with almost no sleep.

For example, in July 1939 he rode as follows:-

Date Mileage
8th July 1939 253
9th July 1939 243
10th July 1939 301
11th July 1939 239
12th July 1939 314
13th July 1939 307
14th July 1939 305
15th July 1939 236
16th July 1939 230
17th July 1939 313
18th July 1939 316
19th July 1939 333
20th July 1939 308
21st July 1939 348
Total 4046

That is 4046 miles in two weeks. The 2011 Tour de France route was 2131 miles long, Tommy rode nearly twice the distance of those riders in one week less and with no rest days. Take a look at the figures from the 17th-21st July where he rode over 300 miles a day consistently for five days. On the 21st July 1939 he was accompanied by a journalist from Cycling magazine who was there to verify his distance.

These days were acheived with very little time for rest or sleep. Tommy had a unique ability to be able to ride on at high average speeds through the veil of fatigue. A modern rider would have to contend with similar daily figures along with greatly increased road traffic. This would have an even more profound impact when riding through the night.

Additionally, we must not forget that Tommy was a professional rider with sponsorship and support for his record attempt. This meant that some of his logistics were dealt with for part of the record, including food and equipment. He also had huge support from the cycling community and it appears that there was always a willing party able to offer him a meal and a bed after an exhausting day’s riding. A modern rider would find it very difficult to overcome all of these hurdles. They would need support, funding, a foolproof method of verification but most important of all superlative mental and physical strength.

Why is the record not currently in the Guinness Book of Records?

The record was initially struck from the book after the entry added for Ken Webb in 1972 was discredited. Following Tommy’s death in 1975 his family campaigned for his achievement to be re-instated which it was, appearing in the book until at least 1995. Current editions of the book do not show his record though, the reason is unclear.

It has been stated that the Guinness Book of Record deemed any future attempt to be to dangerous. However, this may not actually be the case as the book is littered with records in other sports that are far more hazardous.

What clothes did he wear?

Tommy rode a portion of the record bearing a jersey with “World Mileage Record” written upon it making him instantly recognisable on the road. Other times, his cycling apparell would have been typical of the age; woollen  tights,  cotton garmets, a cap and leather shoes. His only concession to comfort was the use of silk underwear, apparently recommended to him by a female cyclist. When it snowed, he wore wellington boots to keep his feet dry during the frequent occassions that he would need to put them to the floor to keep himself upright.

Understandably he quickly wore out shorts and shirts as the record went on. Luckily he had his sponsorship deal with Raleigh who supplied him with replacements as they were needed.

 

How Was Godwin’s Mileage Verified?

Tommy’s daily mileages were verified using a number of mechanisms. His mileometer was sealed at the start of the record and witnessed by a third party. He then used mileage cards each day that were signed by witnesses who would verify his mileage against his mileometer along with his location. Cards would usually be signed and verified by those in public service and deemed trustworthy, such as postmasters, police officers or wardens. Thee cards were posted daily to Cycling magazine who would then cross check each of the entries and distances to ensure that they were valid.

The RAC along with Cycling magazine also carried out spot checks, following Tommy, to ensure that he was riding the distances and the speeds he claimed. Finally, Tommy’s attempt was very public and he was always under the scrutiny of club cyclists  and the general public.

What Were Tommy’s Record Riding Statistics?

  • Total mileage year record (Jan 1st 1939-December 31st 1939): 75,056 miles
  • Time to 100,000 miles record (Jan 1st 1939-14th May 1940): 500 days
  • Daily Average, year record: 205.6 miles
  • Daily Average, 100,000 mile record: 200 miles
  • Greatest mileage in a day: 361 (June  21st 1939)
  • Least mileage in a day:  59 (December 25th 1939 – Christmas Day)
  • Days not riding at all: 1 (28th October 1939)

Monthly Mileage Figures (1939)

Month Mileage Daily Average (miles)
January 4773 159
February 4433 158
March 5551 179
April 5675 189
May 6564 212
June 7661 255
July 8581 277
August 7658 247
September 6612 220
October 6431 207
November 5998 200
December 5128 171

Hourly Mileages (21st July 1939)

Hour Distance (miles) Cumulative (miles)
5am 16.8 16.8
6am 16.8 33.6
7am 16.7 50.3
8am 10.9 61.2
9am 10 71.2
10am 20 91.2
11am 21.8 113
Noon 13.3 126.3
1pm 19.7 146
2pm 12 158
3pm 23 181
4pm 12 193
5pm 19 212
6pm 24.3 236.3
7pm 13 249.3
8pm 16.3 265.6
9pm 20.5 286.1
10pm 22.1 308.2
11pm 18.8 327
Midnight 21 348