At 18, Billie Fleming learned how to ride a bike. By 24 years old, she had set a world record for miles cycled in one year. She set that record in 1938. Seventy-eight years later, it’s still standing.
Lilian “Billie” Irene Bartram was born in North London, on April 13, 1914. She had a happy childhood, finished school at 16 (as was typical for the time), and went on to work as a typist and a secretary – the career that would ultimately see her through the majority of her life.
A local boy taught her how to ride a bike and she fell instantly in love…with the bike, not the boy. Around the same time in the 1930’s, a new movement in Britain emerged, called the Women’s League of Health & Beauty. The league promoted movement and fitness as the cornerstones to health and happiness. Though most women engaged with the league in large, public exercise classes, Fleming figured that cycling was just as effective a way to stay fit, and therefore, happy.
So, Fleming rode and rode. She wasn’t training for endurance or for racing; she rode for the love of pedaling and her quest for health. That’s when she stumbled onto an idea.
Since 1911, Cycling magazine (British) had held a sanctioned contest for men to see who could ride the most miles in a single year. It hadn’t occurred to anyone to hold this same contest for women. Inspired by the idea, Fleming vowed to continue riding her bike every day, as she had been doing for months, and to promote the concept of health and fitness to the masses.
After hitting up dozens of companies with sponsorship requests, Rudge-Whitworth Cycles and Cadbury Chocolate agreed to be her top-tier sponsors. Rudge-Whitworth provided a top of the line, steel-framed three-speed. Cadbury stocked her with five pounds of chocolate per month. There’s no recorded history of how the chocolate fared, but the bike made it through 365 days of riding without a single mechanical, and only one flat tire. Not bad.
Beginning on January 1, 1938, Fleming (whose last name was Dovey at the time) began her quest to ride every day of that year. She documented her miles through the Cycling magazine system of check-in points and signature cards, and backed it up with a cyclometer that was regularly inspected for tampering. She rode during the days, and frequently would give talks on cycling and fitness at night. Her effort was well-documented by media and she became nationally known as the “Rudge-Whitworth Keep Fit Girl.”
Her ride was entirely self-supported. Instead of carrying water bottles, she’d opt for the highly civilized option of stopping in cafes for lunch and hydration. She rode, no matter the weather, and averaged 81 miles per day. When the sun was shining, she’d bump her daily miles up to as high 186 miles in order to offset snowy, lower mileage days down the road.
By the end of the day on December 31, 1938, Billie had logged 29,603.7 miles on the bike in one year. That’s more than 13, back-to-back Tours de France (on average). She owned the women’s record for the most miles ridden on a bicycle in one year.
The years after Billie’s accomplishment continued to be inspired by cycling, much in the same way most of us squeeze in a ride after work. She was just a little faster and more tenacious. Her plans to ride across the United States were squelched by World War II, so she turned her attention to a little-known phenomenon of the 20th century in England: tricycle racing.
These trikes were not childish. Picture a bike with traditional geometry, then plunk two full-sized wheels on the back, side-by-side. Unlike her previous cycling efforts aimed at endurance, this time Fleming was out for speed. In July 1940, she set the speed record for 25 miles on a tricycle, and went on to set the 50-mile and 100-mile records, too. Assuming these accomplishments warranted her entry into the exclusive Tricycle Association, she was mistaken. Apparently, tricycling was only for men.
After World War II, Billie married George Fleming, an accomplished cyclist himself, and together they rode near their home in England, and took one particularly notable ride across the PyrÃ©nÃ©es – hitting all the major, beyond-category climbs and passes.
Billie Fleming passed away in 2014 at the age of 100.
The men’s record for most miles ridden by bike in one year was set in 1939 by Tommy Godwin. He rode 75,065 miles on a three-speed, much like Fletcher’s. Godwin’s record stood until January 5, 2016, when Kurt Searvogel surpassed it by officially logging 76,076 miles in a year.
On January 1, 2016, a woman named Kajsa Tylen, set out with the intention to finally take the 78-year record for most miles ridden by a woman in a single year away from Fleming. We won’t know how she fares until December 31, 2016.
Photos by Peter Samwell