Imagine cycling three times around the world in a single year. Imagine getting up at 3am and spending every day in the saddle for eighteen hours covering over two hundred miles. Imagine riding from Lands End to John O’Groats and back every week, whatever the weather for nearly a year and a half without a break. Imagine riding this upon a heavy steel bike with only four gears, having to pick yourself up after injury, crashes or mechanical failures and then ride even further the next day.
In 1939, Tommy Godwin turned this into reality and entered the golden book of cycling as the greatest long distance rider in the world. He rode 75,065 miles in a single year to set an endurance riding record that will never be beaten.
Tommy Godwin, was born in 1912. To help support his family, he took the position of delivery boy for a greengrocer’s shop. With the job came a heavy iron bike, complete with metal basket. Tommy loved that bike and rode it like a demon on his daily round. The basket was hacked off and at the tender age of fourteen Tommy entered his first twenty-five mile time trial. He flew round and went on to develop his time trialling skills (62 minute 25 miles) that would define the rest of his cycling career.
Tommy grew quickly as a cyclist and was soon spotted. He left his amateur status at Potteries CC to join Rickmansworth Cycling Club as a professional rider. After more than two hundred road and time trial wins Tommy sought a new challenge and the year mileage record beckoned.
In 1937 the Australian Ossie Nicholson had regained his year record from Briton Walter Greaves by covering a verified annual mileage of 62,657.6 miles. At 5am on January 1st 1939 Tommy set out to bring the record back home. He wasn’t alone in his attempt; two other British riders started that day, Edward Swann and Bernard Bennett. Swann crashed out after 939.6 miles, but Bennett fought it out with Tommy for the rest of the year.
The details that surround Tommy Godwin’s record belittle the modern cyclist. His bike only had four gears and weighed a lot more than a modern carbon framed steed. As war came he rode through blackouts, his lights taped to the merest of glows. He had none of the modern cycling comforts. Silk knickers were substituted for chamois inserts and Tommy maintained his strict vegetarian diet throughout. For the first two months Tommy’s mileage lagged 922 miles behind Nicholson’s record-breaking schedule. Fighting back Tommy increased his daily average beyond 200 miles per day, and on Wednesday June 21st 1939 he completed a staggering 361 miles in eighteen hours, his longest ride of the record.
On October 26th 1939, Tommy rode into Trafalgar Square, having completed 62,658 miles, gaining the record with two months to spare. That wasn’t enough. He rode on through the winter to complete an astounding 75,065 miles in the year. Still that was not enough; in May 1940 after five hundred days of riding he secured the 100,000 mile record as well. Tommy dismounted his bike and spent weeks learning how to walk again before going off to war.
Tommy returned in 1945, keen to race again as an amateur. However, despite a huge petition signed by hundreds of fellow cyclists, the cycling governing bodies ruled that having ridden as a professional he was forever barred from amateur status, Undeterred, Tommy focused his efforts on others. He became team trainer and mentor to the Stone Wheelers, instilling his own steely brand of enthusiasm and determination to riders old and young alike.
(C) Dave Barter- This article was written by Dave Barter for the June 2005 issue of “Cycle”