Some time ago I wrote a post about my cycling hero G.P.Mills. I called him the ‘ultimate cycling hero’. Recent events lead me to think about another extraordinary cycling hero – Tommy Godwin, who even surpasses the great achievements of Mills. Let’s not get confused here… There is another famous cycling hero called Tommy Godwin, who won two bronze medals at the 1948 Olympics. Here I am talking about the ‘other’ Tommy Godwin…
Born in Fenton, Stoke on Trent in 1912 to a working class family, Tommy was working as a delivery boy by the age of twelve, and took part in his first time trial at the age of fourteen. He soon showed great talent as a time trialist, and won many events at all distances. Before the outbreak of War and now in his mid twenties, he set out to tackle the toughest challenge in cycling history… the year record. This consists of quite simply riding as far as possible over the course of 365 days. 1911 saw the French rider Marcel Planes set the first record of 34,666 miles. Various future attempts raised the bar, including 45,383 miles by Englishman Walter Greaves in 1936. This record was notable as Greaves had one arm! Despite this disability he set a seemingly huge total, yet within a year Ossie Nicholson of Australia raised the bar to 65,657 miles. It was this record that Godwin resolved to beat.
Setting out on New Year’s day 1939, he knew he had to average at least 200 miles a day, come rain or shine, headwinds or snow. That’s more than the average Tour de France stage…EVERY DAY for a year! Incredibly there was another challenger for the record, Bernard Bennett, who set out at the same time and whose progress helped to push him even harder. He used various routes, but a quite regular one was between his bases in Hemel Hempstead and Stoke on Trent. On 21st June he recorded his highest mileage in one day, a staggering 361 miles in 18 hours! On Christmas day he did an easy 59 miles, his lowest mileage.
Tommy rode a Ley TG Special bicycle made by his employers at the time, for the first 27,000 miles, before switching to a new sponsor. Raleigh bicycles furnished him with a Record Ace, a popular high end bicycle of the period. The bike had a Reynolds 531 frame, Sturmey Archer 4 speed gear and a Brooks B17 leather saddle, and it would have weighed about 30 lbs.
Being a vegetarian, common to a number of famous cycling record breakers, his diet was a little limited, particularly as rationing was introduced due to the outbreak of War. He was largely sustained by bread, eggs, cheese and milk.
By October 26th the existing record was beaten with 66 days in hand, and his challenger was lagging well behind. He went on to smash the record by over 12,000 miles. Astoundingly, not being content with this record alone, Godwin continued to ride on until May 1940, when he broke the record for 100,000 miles, completing this in 500 days!!!
It’s difficult to imagine the physical and mental effort required in achieving such a record. Physically he was in great shape before he started, and riding every day, he clearly became super-fit. But the mental effort involved in riding high mileages every day, in every condition imaginable, is simply staggering. Perhaps this is why the record has never been beaten? There is no doubt in my mind that this was the greatest single achievement in cycling history, yet despite this he seems to be little known. This very great man died in 1975, on the way back from a bike ride… of course!
This article came to mind because I heard that on 1st January 2015, British cyclist Steve Abraham, of North Bucks RC, will set out to attempt the record. The Guinness Book of Records will no longer sanction attempts as they decided it is too dangerous, so it will be validated by the Ultra Marathon Record Association, who organizes the Race Across America. Despite riding a state of the art bicycle almost half the weight of Godwin’s, coupled with modern nutrition and psychological coaching, I somehow doubt whether the record will be broken. Nonetheless, I wish Abraham the best of luck and safe rides on this Herculean task!
Update: Abraham was well on schedule to beat the record when he was hit by a moped, breaking his leg. As of March 4th 2017, he is again attempting the record which is now held by American Amanda Coker at 86,573 miles!
Vintage Bicycle Blog gratefully acknowledges the permission of Phil Hambley and Barbara Ford (Tommy’s daughter) for the reproduction of photographic images. Phil’s website about Godwin is undoubtedly one of the best websites I have ever seen on a cycling subject. It is packed with information about the man and his machine, and detailed information about the record, and is also beautifully designed. I strongly recommend investigating it and learning more about this extraordinary man.
My last post on bicycle posters created such interest that I decided to continue the theme with some further examples. The Rouxel and Dubois poster above is something of a classic, much reproduced. Although the drawing is a little crude, the concept is wonderful with the tandem flying at speed into outer space, over 60 years before space flight actually took place for the first time, in 1961!
Other images such as the Griffon poster below, from 1910, emphasize the idyllic nature of cycling with a hearty picnic in the great outdoors, beautifully imagined.
In the Terrot poster above, from the late 1890’s, their new chain design is featured. Unlike a conventional roller chain, the Lavigne patent chain features teeth which engage with rollers on the chainring and rear sprocket. It can be seen in more detail on my Terrot here.
De Dion Bouton were one of the leading manufacturers of quality cars, but also made very fine bicycles, beautifully advertised in the classically elegant 1925 poster above, drawn by Félix Fournery.
In 1901, the 1200 Km Paris-Brest-Paris race caused a sensation greater than any race that preceded it. This was largely due to the fact that it was sponsored by two leading newspapers, including Henry Desgrange’s L’Auto-Vélo. For the first time there was a professional rider category in the race, which was won by Maurice Garin, in a time of just over 52 hours. As a result of the success of this race, Desgrange went on to initiate the Tour de France in 1903, the first edition also being won by Garin. Meanwhile, La Francaise Diamant, Garin’s bicycle manufacturer sponsors, took the opportunity to celebrate his success in the race in the patriotic poster featured below.
This Tuesday in Paris, there was an auction of a single collection of over 350 posters dating from the late 19th to the mid 20th century, all of which were on the theme of the bicycle, and mostly of French origin. The anonymous seller ‘Monsieur X’ had been collecting these over a period of about 35 years, amassing an extraordinary range of images, largely in very good condition.
Grouped in themes, they included images of cycles being chased by ‘red indians’, oriental themes, night time images and manufacturers racing exploits. They reflected the various art styles of the times, the Art Nouveau posters being particularly attractive.
Many of the posters were large scale, averaging about 100 x 150 cm, since they were designed to be read from a distance and have ‘impact’. Most were lithographs drawn on to and printed from lithographic stones, and it is only in full scale that you can appreciate the beauty, colour and textures of these pieces. Printed on thin paper, since they were not really designed to last, they are commonly preserved by mounting the fragile sheets on linen.
There was a lot of interest in the sale, and internet bidders competed with those in the swanky sale rooms of auction house Artcurial. Top price was €8,450 for the great ‘Nunc est Bibendum’ advertising poster for Michelin, this one dating from 1898, showing the Bibendum character eating nails and other sharp objects. Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1896 image from the Simpson Chain matches at the Catford Velodrome in London sold for €5,980. The artist travelled to London for three days to make images for the company, featuring the famous Simpson Lever Chain. Lautrec was undoubtedly a great artist, but was not so good at drawing bicycles! The company rejected this image for use as a poster, due to inaccuracies in the drawing of the bicycle, hence the lack of text. Lautrec then had the image printed privately in a signed edition of 200 plus some unsigned versions. A fire destroyed most of these works, so they are rare. Despite the inaccuracies it’s a sparse and strangely captivating image.
Many of the lots sold for modest amounts in the early hundreds of Euro’s, very cheap for what were really quite rare and wonderful images. I missed a number of bargains as I was saving up for an expensive lot towards the end of the sale, on which I was frustratingly outbid! Nevertheless I came away with a few beautiful ones.
Here are some of my other favourites:
Yesterday was a particularly nice one…. sunshine, a fresh wind and unseasonably mild temperatures. So, we loaded the René Herse tandem in the car and headed for deepest Essex. Unfortunately, since our neighborhood is teeming with Range Rovers and heavy traffic, we have to drive away from the outskirts of the metropolis to get to somewhere more civilized for riding. It’s such a shame that we are forced to do this.
Starting from Leaden Roding, we took the small lanes through High Easter and High Roding, past the medieval remains of Pleshey castle, to Great Waltham. From there a very narrow sweeping lane runs us through to Littley Green where is situated the wonderful Compasses public house. Run by a member of the Ridley’s brewing family, the pub is dedicated to real ale, with a regularly changing list of finely conditioned beers. Ridley’s beer is no more – the brewery being bought out by the Greene King organization and swiftly closed down – typical of the aggressive attitude of this large brewery whose own beers are decidedly mediocre. Food at the Compasses is good too, and the staff first class. The pub is teeming with cyclist’s in the summer months and they even have their own cycling jersey.
We chatted in the warm sunshine with our elderly friend Phil, an expert on Deer, and hearing the arrival of a ‘proper’ sounding motorcycle, found that a beautiful Vincent was lodged in the car park. Suitably sustained by food, beer and chat, we headed back, through the puddles of the previous night’s downfall of rain.
Tomoko, who was sporting pigtails today, is great on the tandem – nice and steady, and she even pedals occasionally. The Herse rides smoothly and everything works beautifully, even the brakes. The front and rear brakes operate from the twinned right lever whilst a Maxi drag brake is operated with the left.
We were contented after such a lovely ride, but driving back one of the above mentioned Range Rover’s coming towards us suddenly veered over onto our side of the road on a dead straight section, prompting a blast on our horn and locked brakes. It was a very near miss. Thus we were jolted back into reality by one of those sad people who have nothing better to do than drive around in ‘status’ cars playing with their mobile phones. If only they knew the joys of cycling…..but of course simple pleasures wouldn’t appeal to them.
The Crypto Bantam is a curious machine. It looks like it should belong to the age of Ordinaries and early attempts at safety bicycles, but was actually introduced in 1893, after the demise of the Ordinary, and other front driven safeties.
Based in Clerkenwell Road in central London, the Crypto Cycle Works Co.Ltd. patented an epicyclic gear for the front hub of their bicycles with the purpose of gearing it up. They had some success in racing and records in the early 90’s particularly when piloted by the great Frank Shorland, but the bicycles used for these records had much bigger front wheels, around 36 inches in diameter (see below), fitted with pneumatic tyres. My machine has a 24 inch front wheel geared to 66 inches.
The marketing of these unique bicycles was aimed at older riders, some of whom still enjoyed the characteristics of a front-driver. It is also believed that they enjoyed some popularity with women riders. Crypto advertisements even featured an elderly gentleman riding one of their machines, as a selling point. The qualities of the bicycle were said to be safety, ease of mounting, speed and lightness, and no chain.
It’s true that these bicycles are very light, and are easy to mount. However, they are not easy to ride! The front forks are vertical, which leads to the front end feeling unstable, particularly going down hill on bumpy surfaces. There is also a feeling of lightness of the back end, and it is not unusual for the rear wheel to lift under braking…very disconcerting! I find it considerably more difficult to ride than an Ordinary, and even taking one hand off the handlebars is difficult at first. The side to side motion of a front driver seems to me more apparent with the Crypto, and leads to greater torque on the handlebars. However, on a smooth, level road you can make fast progress, with the high gearing coupled to the lightness of the machine.
When I bought this bicycle many years ago, it had been ‘restored’ some years previously, but had almost all it’s original parts, including the rarely surviving patent Boothroyd wheel rims. On most Bantams these have been changed for modern rims. The mudguards and stays are also original, as are the pedals.
The whole machine had been over-painted in matt black. To bring it ‘back to life’ a bit I decided to strip the parts originally nickelled. I used an environmentally friendly citrus based paint stripper gel (good stuff!) so that the metal beneath was unaffected. The handlebars, headset, gear, pedals and some other items were stripped and then polished a little with very fine steel wool. This adds ‘highlights’ to the machine, making it more appealing than a drab uniform matt black, and giving it a more original look. The reproduction transfers were distressed a little by rubbing with very fine steel wool. The heavy sprung saddle was replaced with a more suitable lightweight saddle, for which I made a new leather cover in period pattern. Tyres and inner tubes were replaced, not so much of a problem on Crypto’s with 24/20 inch wheel sizes, since they are a common size. As there is no original finish on the machine, it got the ‘oily rag’ treatment. I hope you agree with me that the result is a significant improvement.
Frank Shorland with Crypto front driver and the 1892 Cuca Cup
I try to resist buying bicycles which are not in original finish because their treatment poses all sorts of questions and dilemmas. As regular readers will know, I am not keen on ‘restoring’ bicycles. I’ve been looking for a Routens for a few years now, but the top models rarely come up for sale. By ‘top model’ I mean that it should be constructed from lightweight tubing, have the typical Routens fork crown, the Routens cable operated front derailleur, and front and rear racks. It should also be fitted with all the best alloy components of the time.
This tourer from the ‘Golden Age’ fits the bill in all respects except for the lack of original finish. The seller described the bike as being in original paint, but it clearly wasn’t, and I based my bid on that being the case. The builder, Jo Routens, was a Grenoble based constructeur. He was a very fine rider and won a number of competitive randonneur events including the Paris-Brest-Paris. He set up shop with his business partner Hugonnier in 1945. The partnership was dissolved in 1952 after which Routens continued under his own name. The Routens company still exists in Gières, on the outskirts of Grenoble.
The design of his bicycles was clearly influenced by the designs of the Lyonnais builders Reyhand and Charrel. Construction is nearly always lugless, with the top of the seat stays joining the top tube in front of the seat tube. Rear brake cable routing through the seat tube is another Routens speciality.
I tested a few parts of the frame and found that there was no original paint under the nasty respray. I then stripped the frame using a citrus based paint stripper which is very pleasant to use, since you don’t need to use gloves, and the residues can be disposed of without any toxicity. Once the paint was softened, I used steel wool and automotive finishing abrasive pads to remove all remaining traces. The mudguards had also been painted with blocks of colour and here I discovered the original finish beneath the new paint. It was chocolate brown ‘Lyonnais’, with gold lining. The bicycle is almost identical in specification to this one on the Tonton forum, and it looks like the finish was also very similar, including the unusual feature of a painted front derailleur.
The frame (Number HR786 – 60cm) was in excellent condition under the paint, with no rust. The main triangle is in Dur-fort Series C, which was their extra light tubing, with Fobur fork blades, seat and chain stays. All the tubes are clearly stamped with the names. Interestingly the main triangle is fusion welded in the manner of Reyhand, not fillet brazed, except for the characteristic butted seat to top tube joint, which is bronze brazed, as are all the other joints. The frame is very light indeed, comparable with the lightest Herse frames of the period. Very unusually it has the dynamo on the right side – why?
The problem is what to do with it now? Repainting in original colour without transfers will look strange, I think. Trying to reproduce the transfers will be difficult to achieve, and they are unlikely to look much like the originals. The bike on Tonton has beautiful original transfers not only for Hugonnier Routens, but also for the Dur-Fort Series C tubing. I need to think……
Fittings include Maxiplume cottered aluminium cranks with Cyclo Rosa rings, Cyclo 4 speed rear derailleur, Routens cable operated front derailleur, Lewis brakes and levers (note that braze-on’s are very different from Mafac) Maxi hubs laced to Mavic rims, DFV stem with drop bars which are turned around and have had their drops cut off!
I recently purchased a silver button badge with the name ANFIELD on it, between stripes of blue and black enamel, with a knurled bezel. It is hallmarked 1909 and on the reverse is engraved D.R.Fell Anfield BC Liverpool. I recognized the badge as being that of one of the earliest and most famous of all the bicycle clubs, and the name D.R.Fell rang a bell with me. I reached for my copy of The Black Anfielders published in 1956, being the history of the club from 1879, when it was founded. This quickly established that Fell was President from 1913 to 1920. Clearly he was an influential member of the club, but more important to me was his earlier history.
The Anfield Bicycle Club (ABC) was quickly established as having a reputation for hard riding and record breaking, particularly over long distances. They were known as ‘The Black Anfielders’ because in the early days they adopted an all black uniform even down to the braid on their hats. My all time cycling hero G.P.Mills was one of its members and as a youth of 17 in 1884, began establishing his reputation in the club and beyond, culminating in his many Land’s End to John o’Groats records over the period 1886 -1893, and his win in the Bordeaux-Paris road race of 1891. In 1884 a 24 hour ride was established as a club event, and later came regular 12 hour rides as well as 50 and 100 mile events.
At twelve minutes past midnight on Good Friday the 12th April 1885, D.R.Fell set off from Edge Lane, Liverpool in the company of G.B.Mercer, Lawrence Fletcher and a number of other notable riders, with the intention of achieving the gold star standard of the club, set at 200 miles in 24 hours. Fell was riding a Hillman, Herbert and Cooper Ordinary with solid tyres and ball bearing hubs. Most of the group decided on a different route for their attempts and headed toward Bettws-y-coed. Fell and Mercer headed towards Coventry, where they parted company, leaving Fell to press on towards London. The book provides Fell’s diary of the ride and details his progress and various stops for refreshments and rest. At 03.45 he got off to ‘trim lamp and eat some sandwiches (15 mins)’. Arriving at Stone at 06.40 he went in search of breakfast: ‘Tried to get something to eat at hotel, but servants not up so would not wait. (10 mins.) Three miles past Stone had some fresh eggs and milk at a farm (20 mins.)’ By 12.55 he had covered 114 1/4 miles and arrived at Coventry, where he had a dinner of soup and a chop and a short rest totalling 60 minutes. Tea and four raw eggs were consumed near Towcester, and at Stoney Stratford he stopped to light his oil lamp just before seven in the evening. At Dunstable he had covered 172 miles and had ‘Supper (three raw eggs, coffee and a little bread) (25 mins.)’ Passing through St.Albans and Barnet he arrived at Highgate Archway at 12.10.
He had covered 210 miles in 24 hours, whilst the actual riding time was 20 hours 10 minutes. The weather was recorded as being into a strong headwind, and we should remember the fact that he was on solid tyres, riding on primitive roads, and unable to escape the headwind being perched high up on an Ordinary. The ride could not be considered an official record because Liverpool to London had not yet been recognized by the Road Records Association, but it was always considered as such and of being one of the classic rides of the period, and indeed it helped establish the route as a record in 1890. In 1913, when Fell was elected President of the ABC, Cycling magazine published an article about this historic ride, with a wonderful drawing by George Moore, of Fell arriving at Archway. The text emphasized his ‘indomitable pluck’.
In the ABC archive is a photograph of an Ordinary which purports to be that ridden by Fell on the Liverpool-London ride. I’m a little doubtful that this was the bike used since it appears to a machine already a few years old at the time of the ride, with straight handlebars, and solid forks front and rear. It is more likely that the machine was similar to the one being ridden by him in the photograph from 1927 captioned ‘D.R.Fell in old age’, and also seen in the George Moore drawing above.
Prior to 1891 club members wore an Anfield cap badge (visible in the club photo above) which had the letters ABC intertwined in a monogram. The club has a gold example, which some modern copies were made from, but does anyone out there have an original silver one?
In 1891 the ABC adopted the small button badge seen above. It was very understated, and the subtle knurled edge signifies the wearer as a record holder. Apparently Fell didn’t think he should wear one as the record had not been endorsed by the R.R.A., but the club insisted he should do so. The 1909 hallmark on the badge suggests that it is a replacement, or duplicate. Perhaps Fell lost the original one, or had a spare. In any event, in later photographs of the man such as this one taken in 1913, we can see him wearing this badge in his lapel buttonhole.
It is very rare to find an object such as this badge, whose history can be traced with some certainty, and which can recount such an extraordinary story.
The Anfield Bicycle Club is quite unique in having a most extensive archive dating back to the very early days. This consists of numerous photographs, circulars and other ephemera. Following the award of Lottery funding, the club is in the process of scanning the archive to make it available online. Already there are some wonderful archive images available, a number of which are reproduced here. The project is titled ‘Amazing Anfielders’ and the story of just one of these remarkable club members above serves to emphasize the importance and significant place in history of this great club, which is still very active today, 135 years after being founded.
Vintage Bicycle Blog gratefully acknowledges the help of David Birchall and the archive of the Anfield Bicycle Club in the preparation of this article. Photographic images of Fell and the club are copyright of the Anfield Bicycle Club and reproduced with permission. Further ABC archive images can be found here.
Click on photo’s for large scale images