Tommy Godwin covered an unbelievable number of miles on his bike in 1939. A record that will likely stand for the rest of time. Read his incredible story below.

How many sportives are you planning to ride this year? How about all of them, six times? A glance through the 2012 sportive calendar shows around 160 events covering over 13,000 miles of British riding.

It would take a seriously committed cyclist to ride all of these events in a single year. Riding them all nearly six times would be inconceivable, but that is exactly what Tommy Godwin did on his bike in 1939.

The cycling year record was conceived in 1911, born out of a competition run by this magazine, which challenged amateur cyclists to ride the highest number of centuries in a single year. The competition was aimed at amateurs, and the first winner was Marcel Planes, who rode 332 100-mile-plus rides, notching up a highly impressive 34,666 miles in a single year.

Controversy struck, though, when Planes was found to be a sponsored rider, calling his amateur status into question.

The mileage record stood until 1932, when Arthur Humbles set out to reclaim it as a display of the capabilities of the amateur cyclist. He added an additional 1,341 miles to Planes’s total, ending up with 36,007 miles.

The cycle trade began to take notice. These record attempts were getting a reasonable amount of publicity, and what better way to show the reliability and longevity of a bike than have it break the year mileage record? Up stepped a new calibre of rider, and from 1933 onwards the record was pushed increasingly higher, culminating in 1937, with a staggering 62,657 miles by the Australian pro Ossie Nicholson.

Brief mention must be given to Walter Greaves, the one-armed communist amateur from Yorkshire, who rode a customised gripshift bicycle to a staggering 45,383 miles in 1936. Greaves rode on through harsh weather, numerous crashes and a brief period in hospital finishing on new year’s eve, having ridden an average of over 130 miles per day.

In 1938 there was no attempt upon the record. The British riders sat quietly seething at Nicholson’s 1937 performance. Riding as a professional, he had beaten two British contenders to push the record to a seemingly insurmountable mileage. It was time to reclaim it for Britain, and on January 1 three British riders set out to do just that.

Godwin v Bennett
Edward Swann was the least known of the three, and retired with 939 miles in the bag after a particularly bad crash. This left Tommy Godwin and Bernard Bennett to slug it out for the rest of the year between them.

Bennett had attempted the record before, riding a credible 45,801 miles in 1937 but seriously eclipsed by Nicholson’s massive total. Tommy Godwin was a newcomer to the year record, sponsored by Ley Cycles to bring the record back home.

Coincidentally, cycling has two Tommy Godwins. This one is not the Olympic medal-winning Tommy Godwin still alive today. Our Tommy was born in the Stoke-on-Trent area and turned from a grocer’s delivery boy furiously pedalling his heavy bike around the Potteries into one of the best British time triallists of his generation, winning many prestigious events.

Big chill
The two riders could not have picked a worse year to begin their attempt. The winter of 1939 was truly dreadful with sustained snow and ice blanketing a large portion of the country. The wily Godwin chose to ride in the few remaining areas that were clear of frost. Bennett slipped behind, hindered by the inclement weather conditions.

Godwin battled on despite numerous crashes, awful weather and short days. In January and February 1939, he forged ahead of Nicholson’s previous rides by averaging nearly 160 miles a day. Bennett lagged over 2,000 miles behind. Remember, these riders were tapping out their mileages on steel-framed bikes with heavy hub gears, encumbered by dynamo lighting. Their bikes and equipment exceeded 35lb in weight and were ridden on roads devoid of the smooth tarmac we are accustomed to today.

The daily mileages required riding in the dark. In some winter months, only eight hours of daylight are available; Godwin regularly pushed distances over 200 miles, which would have required at least four to five hours of riding in the dark. The dynamo-powered lighting of the 1930s does not compare with modern, bright LEDs. To compound matters further, war was on the horizon, and later in the year blackout restrictions forced the riders to tape their lights after dark.

However, the two men refused to be deterred by these hardships. Egged on by each other and their sponsors, their monthly figures quickly began to dwarf those set by Nicholson. Bennett took the honours between March and June, consistently riding further than Godwin each month and clawing back Godwin’s advantage.

In July 1939, Godwin rode a massive 8,583 miles in response, barely pausing for sleep, as both riders were being paced by other riders or their sponsors setting mileage objectives. It had got out of hand, and by mutual consent the pacing ceased, leaving the riders to complete the year riding solo.

In May, Godwin’s sponsor changed to Raleigh, as Ley Cycles had been unable to fund the attempt any further. Godwin was provided with a state-of-the art machine, the Raleigh Record Ace, complete with a Sturmey-Archer four-speed hub.

From battle to war
Even with the absence of pacing, Godwin and Bennett’s miles continued to pile up. Godwin passed Nicholson’s record on the October 26, 1939, with two months and five days to spare. Bennett achieved this distance nearly a month later, then climbed off his bike and answered the call to war. Godwin was allowed to continue, and on December 31, 1939 he’d racked up a massive 75,065 miles.

But Tommy wasn’t content to settle with that – he continued riding until May 14, 1940, setting the record for the time taken to 100,000 miles – within 500 days.

Godwin’s achievement was legendary beyond cycling fans. He met royalty, appeared on television, was interviewed by Richard Dimbleby for radio, and lent his image to advertising posters. The ride had taken its toll, though; Godwin required a period of rehabilitation to learn to walk normally and uncurl his hands. Yet within weeks he was serving his country in the RAF.

Godwin was always a quiet, modest man. Consequently, his achievement slipped from the cycling radar with only a brief discredited claim surfacing in 1972 when Ken Webb claimed to have beaten it. So next time you’re feeling the pain at the end of a long day in the saddle, think back 73 years and imagine Tommy.

He’s probably feeling as tired as you, yet he’s got another 100 miles to ride.

Day in the life of a mile-eater

In the 365 days of the record, Godwin only took a single day off in order to meet the Prince of Wales. He had little time for his diary, which simply contains the mileage numbers, and so a typical day of his record attempt must be pieced together from magazine interviews.

On July 21, 1939, this magazine followed Tommy for a day to verify that he really was riding the distances he claimed. Tracking devices did not exist in 1939, so Tommy’s mileage was verified by a sealed milometer and cards signed by upstanding members of society such as police officers or postmasters. These cards were then posted daily to Cycling for verification.

Cycling sent editor H.H. England to keep an eye; consequently Tommy put on quite a show. He’d rise at 4-5am and get straight on the bike, eschewing breakfast in favour of chewing gum. Fifty miles later, he’d grab something to eat: eggs, tomatoes, rolls and butter, marmalade and tea or lots of water. Tommy was a committed vegetarian after a bad experience in a Burslem pie maker’s where he had worked.

In the first half of the year, he was accompanied by his sponsors and paced. On this particular day, he’d ridden 126 miles before noon, stopping briefly to eat bread and cheese at 11.30am. It appears that he was aiming for Land’s End, which he may well have achieved, as he ended the day with 348 miles on the clock.

At the height of the record Godwin was surviving on 40 hours sleep per week. He slept in fields if necessary, but was often taken in by cycling friends, who said: “Many a time Tommy turned up here completely exhausted and we had to bath him and put him to bed. Sometimes he was so wet we had to take off his clothes and wring them out.” Bear in mind, he rode in woollen clothing.

Delivering the goods

Prior to the record, Tommy Godwin was a highly proficient time triallist, anecdotally credited with hundreds of wins, the first achieved on his grocery delivery bicycle. Records state that he was seventh in the 1933 British Best All-Rounder competition, averaging 21.255mph over 25, 50, 100-mile and 12-hour time trials.

Tommy loved racing, and on the way to his 100,000 mile record, he rode an exhibition 120-mile ride along the well-known Pilgrim’s Way. He managed this at an average speed of over 20mph, finishing in six hours 8mins 43secs.

The switch to Raleigh during the record year caused problems. As a sponsored rider, he was deemed a professional. This immediately excluded him from all amateur racing, and the cycling authorities refused to relent. Godwin turned his attention to mentoring, using his grit and experience to spur riders on in the Stone Wheelers cycling club. They nicknamed him ‘the Whip’, and he was a familiar sight standing by the side of the road grimly telling the riders they were “down” regardless of their actual performance.

Tommy had no time for whining – he was a tough rider who’d carried on with his record attempt even after breaking a collarbone. He’d used a tube to strap up his shoulder and continued to ride one-handed. This affected the healing of the collarbone, which in turn was deemed to be a contributing factor in the heart attack that killed him, aged 63, in 1975.

Fittingly, he was out riding his bike with friends. Sadly, the only memorial to this great man is a plaque commemorating his achievement in the doorway of the Fenton Manor sports complex in Stoke-on-Trent.

Unearthing the record

It was an idle boast in the pub that sparked my interest in Tommy Godwin. I was boring my acquaintances with details of a 90-mile ride that day when my friend Bill leaned forward and informed me that Tommy Godwin had probably ridden three times that distance.

I’d never heard of him or the year record but surely Google would know? There was very little: a few mentions on message boards but no Wikipedia entry and nothing outlining his year. As an endurance cyclist, I needed to know more. Fortunately, a magazine editor put me in touch with his family and the story began to unfold.

Tommy’s generosity was legendary. He’d given away almost every item of cycling memorabilia he’d owned. His family had very little but knew that he’d kept diaries during the record detailing his daily mileage. I needed to track these down. Many phone calls, letters and emails to his old cycling friends proved fruitless, until Paul Swinnerton of Swinnerton Cycles mentioned that Neil Hemmings may be in possession. Neil’s mother and father were Tommy’s greatest friends. Sadly they’d passed away, but Neil had the diaries and kindly leant them to me.

I spent hours painstakingly comparing the mileages with those published in cycling magazines held in the Coventry History Centre. I also read through hundreds of old cycling magazines and newspaper articles to piece together the riders and their rides. I created a Wikipedia page outlining Tommy’s achievement; this stimulated the contribution of others who added profiles of the riders who had gone before, and filled gaps in my knowledge.

The next question was how to tell the current generation of cyclists about the record? So I turned to Twitter and a little bit of programming to create an account in Tommy’s name that tweets his mileage every day along with an equivalent bike ride. You can follow this account, @yearrecord.

My interest and research continues as I strive to unearth the full story of the cycling year record from inception to present day. This involves scurrying through cycling archives held at Warwick University, Coventry History Centre and by various organisations such as the Veteran Cycle Club and the National Cycle Museum. If you have any information that can help my research, please email me at dave@phased.co.uk.

  • dave voller

    I am in awe of such a magnificent ride. A steel bike, sturmey archer gears, dynamos, poor roads.The guy is a legend. what an athlete. And a fellow vegetarian too! outstanding.

  • Nigel Ellerton

    My Mother and Father
    Told me stories about Tommy .He cleared a patch of snow about a hundred yards long through riding up and down just to get his miles in for that day.He was advised to walk the last hundred yards each day later on in his record attempt because of the damage he was causing to his feet. My dad Albert gave Tommy his old track bike so I could have Tommy bike to go on Club Run.If the war had not taken place Tommy would have got more fame.

  • Vera Webb

    Tommy Godwin . He was a lovely. kind man. He never boasted about his achievments. I am very proud of what he did in the cycling world. And I would like to Thank Halfords for Honouring him, by naming the Time Time Trials after him. On what would have been his 100 Birthday. Tommy Godwin was my Uncle xx

  • Sean

    Posting again because I did a two day tribute ride to Tommy Godwin. I hope other cyclists did as well.

    This past monday and tuesday (June 4th and 5th), I did my own tribute to Tommy Godwin by riding 2 ‘Godwin’ type days. Monday I rode a total of 235 miles. The total actual riding time (bike in motion) monday was 14 hours and 10 minutes. Sunrise to sunset here is about 15 hours this time of year, so you can see I was not off the bike much – only about an hour of total rest time. The next day (tuesday), I started at sunrise again to see what I could do the day after I rode all day. Tuesday June 5th, I rode 204 miles total, and the total riding time (bike in motion) was 13 hours and 25 minutes. So monday and tuesday put together was 439 total miles, and the riding time was 27 hours and 35 minutes, which gives an over-all average speed of 16 MPH. Day 3? REST all day, and I did not break 100 miles again until today (June 9). I do not use the fact I am nearly twice the age Tommy was when he did the record ride because I have been at this all my life. Tommy was just plain exeptional – period.

    On my two really long days (monday and tuesday June 4 and 5) I was thinking of the record holder (Tommy Godwin) during my 439 miles over those two days who rode a bicycle 75,065 miles in a year, and continued on to do 100,000 miles in 500 days total. It needs to be realized he did this in 1939 when the roads were not as smooth, and bicycles were heavier. After my second day of 200+ miles on a bicycle much heavier than the super-expensive Carbon Fibre competition road bikes the pros use weighing UNDER 15 pounds (my bike is an old-school retro steel frame bike weighing 27 pounds), I was done. Tommy Godwin averaged over 200 miles EVERYDAY (some of his days were under 200 miles, and some were over 300 miles) for 500 days on a 37 pound 4 speed bike – TWO days was enough for me on a 14 speed bike weighing about 10 pounds less. I imagined for those two 200+ mile days I rode doing it for a year – ‘amazing’ does not do justice to the accomplishment. I truly admire and respect what Tommy Godwin’s accomplishment represents.

  • david brookes

    this is truly remarkable story the stats are are just just amazing no electronic groupsets in his era! surely will this record ever be beaten? if it is whoever does it wil have my upmost respect!

  • Sean

    At age 51, I am still an avid cyclist which stretches back to when I was 12 and did my first quarter-century ride. By the time I was 14, I was doing century rides. Later through my teens, I started keeping logs. I was ALWAYS interested in knowing how many miles I rode, and was using speedometers and milege-meters when I was 12 – 13. I have never been a professional rider. Only a member of a few cycling clubs, and enetered some amateur races and done some long rides for charity. Over the last 12 months, I have done what is modest to most pros, but insane to the casual rider – a bit over 12,000 miles. For me, that is fairly easy. 15,000 – 20,000 mile years push me. I was never an elite. Even when I was 27, I never rode much over 20,000 miles in a year. I am glad to still be doing that today. I hope to continue doing century rides plus half the days of the year into my 60s. I admire Tommy because from what I know of him through my research, he would not have boasted one tenth what I just did. I love cycling and speaking of what I do – not to boast – but to (hopefully) encourage others to swing a leg over a bike and ride maybe a small fraction of my miles. This is simply because the bicycle in my mind is one of the greatest inventions man has devised. I credit the bicycle to my top health. I often think of what Tommy Godwin accomplished on my century rides (which I do on a retro steel frame bicycle), and I wonder how any mortal could do such a thing. It’s accurate to say I am in complete admiration of Tommy Godwin, and what he accomplished on a bicycle that outweighs mine by 5 – 10 pounds, with far less gearing, and on roads not nearly the quality of today’s roads. It should be considered the way of life cycling was back then. Many people did not own automobiles yet, and got around on bicycles. Many people were seasoned riders. Tommy Godwin was an obvious exeption that went far beyond a seasoned rider. If Tommy Godwin does not deserve a place in cycling history, and to have his memory kept alive. Then I do not know who does. I speak of WORLD-WIDE recognition, not just England/Great Britan. I am fortunate to have discovered Tommy some time ago, and I take pleasure in spreading around his accomplishments around to those in the cycling community who I am very surprised do not know of him. Those I have told have been so amazed, they in turn have told others. I think this is as it should be.

  • Barbara Ford (nee Godwin)

    Stoke on Trent (Tommys home town) are hosting the final of the Tour Series on 14th June. The race is “The Tommy Godwin Team Time Trial” to honour him and his achievements, and to commemorate his 100th birthday on June 5th.
    My thanks to everyone who made this happen, by bringing Tommy back into the limelight.

    Barbara (Tommys daughter)

  • Aussie Mick, Vietnam cruising

    Thanks Dave for opening up for me the history of UK time trailing by field research on Tommy Godwin. Its a revaluation to know such prodigious endurance was achievable by Tommy Godwin and other club men like him. They lived countless hours mostly alone on their bikes out there on the UK lanes of the day. Buried in the character of whatever drove them to achieve daily quotas was an honesty to report exactly the distances they alone could know they covered. Its a pity we do not know the good or bad story of Ken Webb’s greater claim. Thanks for the photos that attest to the reality of Tommy always being out there. You will know best how to audit his record. I see from your table Tommy had a day off in the first and last month. If he did record 4824 for January as shown on 31st, he mis-added 151 for the 30th, and we should record another 100 or 151 miles for Tommy’s year! I’m still trying to grasp even his speed averages, set with a bent back and riding only on the drops. Prodigious, obsessive, amazing and so very British.

  • Godfrey Barlow

    The new book: Unsurpassed, the story of Tommy Godwin, the world’s greatest distance cyclist, is also available from its sponsors- http://www.stone-wheelers.co.uk/teg-book. All profits are to go to RoadPeace, the national charity for road-crash victims.

  • Jockey

    There is a new book detailing Tommy Godwins efforts available from Cordee called Unsurpassed. Picked it up and didnt put it down till I had finished reading it. Cycling the day after having teeth out – good old British grit at its best.

  • Danny Chew

    50,000 mile-a-year Freddie Hoffman is a modern day version of Tommy. At age 49, I am about to ride my 700,000th lifetime mile well on my goal of riding over a million miles. Freddie (a few years older than me) has ridden twice this far, and will probably ride over 2 million miles. Twice I have won the 3,000 mile non-stop bicycle Race Across AMerica (RAAM) in 8 days, 7 hours.

    http://www.DannyChew.com

  • John Zenter

    Atta Boy Tommy

  • Simon E

    Well done Dave, what a great slice of British cycling history.

    Great to think that this huge achievement hasn’t been forgotten, and that other riders attempting the same feat get a mention.

  • Aaron

    It is truly amazing that the human body can take that kind of strain, I feel pretty wimpy comparing any of my riding days this. Wow

  • P Kohler

    And remember, too, this was accomplished on 100 per cent British equipment, too: Raleigh Record Ace (which was used also by Sid Ferris, Bert James and Charles Holland on all of their long distance records 1937-39 with Sturmey-Archer three-speed racing hubs) with Brooks saddle, S/A hubs, Dunlop sew ups, Conloy alloy rims. I recently completed restoration of a 1939 RRA similar to Tommy’s:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/9157103@N05/sets/72157629068692065/

    Don’t think this was some heavy clunky bike.. mine, in a larger frame size than Tommy rode, weighs in at 26 lbs or only three pounds more than a typical 1970s racing bike, and his weighed more only because he used the S/A dynohub as well in additon to the then brand new four-speed S/A AF hub. All very “state of the art” for its day.

    A great achievement for British cycle and cyclist!

  • dai bananas brother

    I seem to recall a long article about early ‘mileaters’ in the VC-C magazine from this time last year, mostly around 1900 data. Dai’s missus says the record might be beaten over the next 12 months. If her dog gets near that commentary bloke, he’ll have to set off at such a rate of knots he’ll be round the world in no time to stay away from its jaws. Take our advice, he’ll move over to another sport, badminton or gymnastics maybe, long before Paris-Nice gets underway

  • Jasper

    I think all these guys were nuts, but what a great story!

  • Philip Livingstone

    Thank you to Dave Barter and CW for shining the spotlight onTommy Godwin, a true hero unlike far too many professional racing cyclists where hindsight has shown most of the big names to have used underhand devices for their ill gotten gains.
    I’ve been going through old copies of CW and it’s galling to read some race reports where some riders were being praised to the high heavens and history has shown their results to have been gained through doping or other underhand methods.
    By contrast, Tommy’s incredible achievement has been done without anything other than a dogged determination to persevere in all weathers, i’m so glad he has got the recognition he so richly deserved – it’s just a pity it didn’t come during his lifetime. I hope this isn’t the end of this amazing story and Tommy’s achievement gets even more recognition – i’ve shown the printed article as it apeared in CW last week to many work colleagues and friends at my circuit training class – such an inspiration, you can forget Lance, Eddy, Alberto,Jacques, and all of those guys – Tommy outdone the lot of them combined with no “enhancements”…..

  • Dave Barter

    Geoff Waters – I one hundred percent echo your sentiments. I am personally worried that these achievements will fade into the mists of time especially the place to place records. As part of my Year Record project I am looking into these as well to tell the story as to how the Year Record riders progressed in their careers. Tommy himself had a go at a few and Walter Greaves took part in the Brighton-Glasgow race (a stage race but tough stages nevertheless).

    How many of us know about Gethin Butler’s 44hour LEJOG? And how many riders realise the huge mileages put in by Audax fanatics in their quest to qualify for PBP?

    Sadly many of the place to place records cease to be challenged, in some cases due to the roads and the feasibility of riding them, but in the main due to a total lack of awareness that they even exist!! Please rest assured though that it is firmly on my list to uncover and bring these back to the fore. Just need a few more hours in the day and a little bit more cooperation from certain people to share rather than covet ;-)

    Dave

  • Barbara Ford

    Not only was Tommy Godwin a truly amazing cyclist, he was the most humble, unassuming, gentle man. He never boasted of his incredible achievemnents. He was always ready to help young cyclists, to mentor encourage and praise. Dave Barter has bought Tommy back into the public eye, a fabulous peice of journalism. I knew Tommy very well, I’m very proud to say he was my father. My families thanks to Cycling Weekly for publishing Daves article.
    Barbara Ford (nee Godwin)

  • Crydda

    I truly astonishing achievement, especially with the equipment and conditions at that time.
    It would be a great achievement today, but seventy years ago – almost superhuman.

    And thank you for researching and bringing up this story, because Tommy Godwin deserves a very big place in cycling’s hall of fame.

  • Rob Connolly

    Chapeau!

  • Geoff Waters (Durban, South Africa)

    Congratulations Dave for researching and CW for publishing a piece on British cycle sport’s ‘hidden history’. It’s high time the obsession with Continental road racing history was put on hold by English-speaking cycling writers. What of British place-to-place records by men & women (often declared ‘pros’ by the cycling establishment) in the interwar period, Leon Meredith (multi-world champ), the 320 Km road TT at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics…? Now there are some untold stories!

  • GraemeW

    I`d heard of Tommy Godwin and his record many years ago,but new nothing of the man,or the lengths he went to to achieve such an incredible feat!
    I used to be in a local cycling club and was often told by older members how young lads of today were too soft and didn`t punish themselves enough on the bike,like they had done in their youth. Tales like (for example)of riding from Blackpool to Oxford in a day, with just a bottle of milk in the back of their cycling jerseys I treated with a pinch of salt….but now I`m not so sure! Those older guys when I was a teenager in the layte 1970`s-early 80`s were hard taskmaster on club runs and really used to put the ‘hammer’ down at periods in the day.
    I went along and watched a good mate of mine in the National ’24′ in Shropshire in the 1990`s and he covered nearly 500 miles in that and I thought HE was nuts!!
    The incredible willpower of these pre-war cyclists though is astounding. Steel bikes and true IRON MEN!
    Respect…

  • Nigel Collins

    This is almost impossible to imagine.
    No sports gels! No support teams ! No nothing!
    Only a driving force to be the best.
    A lesson for us all.
    Well done Tommy Goodwin.
    Are there any books about this guy?

  • Robert Penn

    Tremendous story. Thanks very much for unearthing and sharing this.

  • Ken Evans

    Modern professionals don’t get anywhere near this.
    Maybe not even a quarter of the mileage.

    Don’t forget the original six-day races were 6days X 24 hours !!
    That why there were teams of 2 riders, one could sleep while the other raced.

    Some of the original Tour De France stages were mad,
    with riders riding for 12 hours.
    It was to try to get newspaper headlines.

    Don’t forget the old Bordeaux-Paris,
    or British races like London-Holyhead.

    Modern pro road racing is all about the last hour finale,
    with teams making sprint trains.
    A hundred years ago races were won by minutes,
    not by fractions of a second.

    Merckx was the last rider to win races by a large margin.

  • Simon Richardson

    This is a truly incredible story, one that surprised a lot of us here in the office. The more you read, the more you realise just what an amazing achievement this was.
    Simon Richardson
    CW Dep ed.

  • Richie P

    It is a great inspiration to hear of riders racking up seriously impressive mileage, using such basic equipment over 100 years ago. I think I will stick to the North Cornwall Tor once a year, though!

    Well done Tommy!

  • JDunn

    Riding 100,000 miles in 500 days on a heavy bike, across poor roads, with little support and 1930′s nutrition? The guy deserves to be a legend.

    And I thought Merckx’s 1972 mile record was impressive.

  • jack arnold

    Bikes of steel .Men of steel!