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The Unnamed Bicycle Column: Beyond The Tour de France

The little-known story of one of the greatest cyclists in history

The Unnamed Bicycle Column: Beyond The Tour de France

It was bound to happen, I suppose.

Ride a bike for a period of time, and someone is going to call you Lance Armstrong. It’s just going to happen. Twenty-some-odd years ago, I’m sure cyclists were called Greg LeMond, too.

Bicycling, specifically American bicycling, does not have a lot of high-profile stars. Greg LeMond was it a chunk of years ago. Today, it’s Lance Armstrong.

He’s the “it’’ guy of bicycling — the seven-time winner of the Tour de France, arguably competitive cycling’s premier event. He’s the athlete who overcame testicular cancer and went on to greatness. And the mere mention of his name enrages French people, who are nutty about their cycling and none-too-happy about an upstart American nosing in on their sport. There is no denying the significant and lasting contribution of Lance Armstrong.

I also recently saw a poster hanging at my local liquor store of Lance Armstrong hawking Michelob beer, so there’s that too.

* * * * *

The Australian had to be defeated.

So a Brit named Tommy Godwin set out to break the record for the most miles ridden in a single year, setting his sights on Ossie Nicholson’s 62,657-mile record. It was 1939.

By this date in 1939, Godwin would have ridden in the neighborhood of 14,000 miles, on his way to shattering Nicholson’s record by riding an astounding 75,065 miles in 365 days. That’s an average of about 200 miles a day. Every. Single. Day. For a year.

He didn’t stop there. He went on to break the 100,000-mile record in May of 1940 when he accomplished that in 500 days.

Tommy Godwin rode a four-speed bike. Today’s bikes have 30, or more, speeds. Tommy Godwin rode a bike that weighed roughly 30 pounds, a boat anchor by today’s standards.

Tommy Godwin is the greatest long-distance cycler in the world, and his record still stands, some 70 years later.

While it is still open to anyone who wants to try to break it, the Guinness Book of World Records has closed off the competition for official recognition into the record book, saying attempts to break Godwin’s record would be too dangerous.

* * * * *
Down at the oceanfront last week, public works crews and maintenance workers of all stripes were getting a jump on the annual stage production that those of us who live here call Summer. Stage hands were painting the sets, mending backdrops and generally sprucing up the theatre for another award-winning three-month run when I was riding past.

It was my first long ride of the young season, which took me through many of the shore towns and back westward before completing my 27-ish mile trek. I was tired after and a little sore. It was only about an eighth of Godwin’s average daily ride.

While I was huffing and puffing, whining and sweating, Tommy Godwin could’ve knocked out my ride on a heavier bike with fewer speeds and probably in a quarter of the time.

The man effectively circumnavigated the globe several times over. I still have a hard time trying to wrap my head around that.

* * * * *

When Godwin finally dismounted his bike after 500 days, he spent several weeks learning how to walk normally again. After that, he went off to fight in World War II. He did not get a lucrative sponsorship and not a single beer was ever sold at the behest of his likeness.

Godwin died in 1975 returning from a ride with friends. He was 63.

While the bicycle is making a sputtering comeback in this country as a viable mode of transportation, the American perception of cycling is still dominated by those who go the fastest. And that is why you will, should you ride a bicycle for any length of time, be called “Lance Armstrong.”

But maybe, if I keep this up long enough, someone will eventually call me “Tommy Godwin.”

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