On December 31, 1939, Tommy Godwin rode his 4-speed steel Raleigh Record Ace a modest 60 miles through cold rain and snow, bringing his 365-day total to 75,065 miles. That shattered cycling’s “year record” by nearly 13,000 miles. The next morning the 27-year-old Englishman climbed back on his bike and kept riding, en route to 100,000 miles, which he completed in May 1940 in an even 500 days.
Think about that. Godwin averaged a double-century for 500 consecutive days, on equipment that’s almost laughably primitive by our modern standards, with only modest support, through the cold and dark and damp of two British winters and the outbreak of the Second World War, wearing wool tights and silk knickers, finding his own routes and often his own meals—a seemingly endless train of eggs, cheese, fruit and bread, washed down with copious amounts of tea and water. Godwin had also become a vegetarian as a teen when a job in a meat-pie factory put him off meat for good.
He initially relied on lotions to ease the backside pain, until a female rider suggested he try silk draws under his cycling shorts—something the straightlaced Edwardian boy had not yet considered.
Godwin was born in 1912 in Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent in central England. To help pull his weight in a working-class family of 12, he took work as a delivery boy for a local greengrocer, which came with the wonderful perk of a heavy iron bicycle equipped with an enormous basket, in which Godwin would carry all manner of goods around town. Godwin loved to charge through his rounds, and quickly recognized he had a talent for riding fast and far. When he was 14, he removed the basket, bolted on a borrowed set of wheels and entered a 25-mile time trial, then as now the gold standard of the discipline. Young Godwin covered the distance in 65 minutes, an impressive ride for anyone, let alone a 14-year-old on a delivery bike.
He enjoyed a successful racing career as an amateur and professional, piling up more than 200 wins. In 1938 he began to think seriously about the year cycling distance record, an unbearably grueling test of man and machine that had been on the books since 1911 when Frenchman Marcel Planes rode 34,366 miles in 12 months. In the 1930s the record gained renewed interest as bicycle companies vied to demonstrate the reliability of their machines and national rivalries took hold. Billie Fleming had just set a new women’s year record, and from 1932 to 1937 a series of challengers packed nearly 30,000 miles on top of Planes’ mark, with Australian Ossie Nicholson setting a new record of 62,657 miles.
Godwin was one of three men who set out on the frozen pre-dawn of January 1, 1939, to bring the record back to Jolly Old. One crashed out after less than 1,000 miles, but Bernard Bennett would prove a gritty competitor to the end.
Godwin’s employer A. T. Ley agreed to sponsor the ride and had a bicycle made to Godwin’s specifications. According to TommyGodwin.com, the “Ley TG Special” was built with Reynolds 531 tubing and fitted with a Baylis-Wiley bottom bracket, Williams chain wheel and cranks, high-pressure 27-inch Dunlop tires, a Brooks saddle, Solite front hub, and a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub. The bicycle included a tamper-proof speedometer/odometer, which was one of several methods Godwin used to track and verify his mileage.
Built for durability, the bike weighed in the neighborhood of 30 pounds, not counting the weight of spare tires—Godwin rode with a bundle of as many as 10 tubulars strapped to his saddle—and a sidewall generator that powered the headlight he used to pick his way through the gloom. He often rode 16 or more hours a day, but an English winter day brings only 8 or 9 hours of sunlight.
You can imagine him rattling down a country lane in a night thick as pitch, legs churning, generator humming, chasing a feeble beam at 20 miles an hour or more. We can only guess what he ran over and through. Eventually, the cost of tires, wheels and replacement parts proved too much for old Mr. Ley’s budget.
In May, some 27,000 miles in, Ley transferred Godwin’s sponsorship to Raleigh Cycles, and Godwin finished out the ride on a top-of-the-line Raleigh Record Ace, similar in weight and performance to the Ley. The odometer and a 4-speed Sturmey-Archer hub Godwin had begun using in March were transferred to the Raleigh, and Godwin rode the new steed hard straight out of the gate.
Naturally, all these miles were hard on Godwin’s backside. He initially relied on lotions to ease the pain, until a female rider suggested he try silk draws under his cycling shorts—something the straightlaced Edwardian boy had not yet considered. His clothing, like his bicycle, was typical for the time. A lot of wool, cotton cap, leather cleats. The winters were miserable, particularly 1940, which was unseasonably cold. On snowy days he wore wellington boots to keep his feet dry “during the frequent occasions that he would need to put them to the floor to keep himself upright,” writes Dave Barter, who maintains an excellent FAQ on Godwin.
As the days grew warmer and longer, Godwin’s mileage figures soared. He averaged 212 miles a day in May, 255 in June, 277 in July. On the longest day of the year, June 21, 1939, he rode 361 miles. Godwin was closing the gap on Bennett, who had opened a nearly 1,000-mile lead in the first months of the year. As their rivalry heated and it appeared that one or even both were on pace to unseat the Aussie Nicholson, the press began to take note. Godwin, often clad in a heavy wool jersey boldly embroidered with his name and the words “world’s year’s mileage record” was recognized wherever he popped up.
He kept bases at Stoke-on-Trent and Hemel Hempstead near London, where he’d often sleep for a few hours before rising at 4 a.m., chewing a stick of gum and riding 40 miles before breakfast, though he frequently turned up farther afield, in Canterbury, Winchester, Land’s End—just about anywhere in Southern England, and sometimes farther afield.
He liked to vary his routes, seeking favorable winds and weather, or simply to avoid boredom. In addition to the sealed-and-certified odometer bolted to his handlebars, Godwin mailed three “mileage cards” each day from his various stops to the Cycling magazine offices, where every route was vetted and recorded. Each card had to be signed by a witness, usually a postmaster or policeman. Bennett was subject to the same protocol, and Cycling magazine carried out spot checks to ensure both riders were on the up-and-up. There’s no reason to believe Godwin didn’t ride every one of those miles; in fact, he probably rode a few extra looking for constables and letterboxes.
Both Godwin and Bennett rode with pacemakers in the first half of the year, but as both approached the 50,000-mile mark their respective camps reached a gentleman’s agreement: Both would ride alone for the remainder of the year.
Their rivalry, epic as it was, paled next to the news from the continent, where the dark cloud of Nazi menace had finally broken. In March, Hitler’s troops occupied Czechoslovakia, and on the first of September, his armies crossed into Poland. As promised, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. The most destructive war in human history was underway, and Godwin would soon find himself in the middle of it as a member of the RAF. Until then, he kept pedaling.
He surpassed Nicholson’s 1937 record on October 26 and two days later took his only day off the bike. “His diary states ‘Prince of Wales,’” though no royalty had come to congratulate him,” Barter notes. “It appears this was a meeting at a pub where many cyclists used to gather.” Godwin was a teetotaler, but we have to imagine the celebration was a raucous one.
The next day he was back on the bike, padding the record and his lead over Bennett, who would also break Nicholson’s mark, finishing the year with 65,127 miles. Godwin beat that stupendous mark by nearly 10,000 miles, and then just kept going.
His year record of 75,065 miles would stand for 76 years, and the hundred grand for 79. Even now, to say they’ve been surpassed invites an online asterisk-citing marathon with a pack of people whose endurance in that game rivals Godwin’s on the bike. For the record, Kurt Searvogel rode 76,076 miles in 2015, and Amanda Coker logged 86,537 miles in 2017 and kept going to claim Godwin’s fastest-to-100,000-mile record.
Badasses all, but the historic nature of Godwin’s ride—the wool, the silk knickers, the four-speed hub, signing postcards, and that generator light taped to a sliver so he could ride through the Blitz—all of that is of another time. Tommy Godwin’s records have been surpassed, but they will never be equaled.