Tommy Godwin | Long Distance Legend

Man vs Machine

We’ve had quite a few emails over recent weeks, and the greatest interest and debate seems to be on Tommy’s machine – and how much a disadvantage it would actually have been when compared to bikes available to today’s riders.

Bruce Dance had this to say:

“Whilst I agree Tommy’s bike was rather different from modern ones, I feel that this idea is somewhat overplayed on your website.A 531 frame and fork back then (as today) would weigh around 6lbs. Although I do not know that they were used, light alloy parts including wheel rims, brakes, handlebars etc were certainly available.

The selection of a hub gear (and doubtless other components) would have been taken not with ultimate speed and efficiency in mind necessarily so much as a compromise with reliability as a dominant factor. Politics/sponsorship aside (Raleigh owned SA and in fact refused to market derailleur gears until the 1950s…) had he wanted them, he could have had a 3×4 derailleur setup at least.

Hub gears are often portrayed as heavy and inefficient. They are neither; tests reported in the IHVPA publication unexpectedly demonstrated that a well-worn humble SA 3-speed (included in the tests on a whim) was more mechanically efficient than modern transmissions, especially when the duty cycle in each gear is taken into account (the direct drive gear, as efficient as a fixed gear, would be the most used in a 3s or 4s SA gear). Back then a 4s derailleur would have been little lighter than a 4s hub gear, but far less reliable. Even today the adoption of an IGH incurs a small weight penalty only.

I happen to own a bike (originally built for training on) with a steel five speed SA hub gear (heavier than TG’s four speed I think), a steel SA hub generator, and a 531 frame. The frame isn’t as nice as it could be (it has PG main tubes and non-531 rear stays) and it doesn’t have especially lightweight components fitted to it. It weighs 28lbs, so I would say a fair estimate of TG’s bike weight (in the absence of any further info) might be 28-30lbs. I’ve ridden this bike somewhere in the region of 40000 miles in all conditions; unlike TG it has taken me many years to rack up these miles, but the bike has been fantastically durable and reliable as intended. [BTW The most I’ve managed is 100 miles a day for about 6 weeks; it nearly killed me, since I physically couldn’t eat enough food to maintain my weight]

Arguably the (absolutely brilliant) invention and production of the hub generator was a key facilitator for TG’s record-breaking efforts; without it he would have been unable to have a reliable and efficient light source. (It might be a good idea if you could show a picture of an SA hub generator and not a tyre-driven generator BTW). Modern hub generators can be more powerful, but it seems they are no more efficient; I have carried out some ad-hoc efficiency tests on SA hub generators from the 1950s, and they indicate ~3W drag @ 1 to 1.5W output, and a no-load drag of

I don’t wish to downplay TG’s achievement in the slightest, but an additional 10lbs bike weight wouldn’t have slowed him very greatly. With the parts he was using vs modern ones I estimate he would have scope for maybe 1% improvement in efficiency in transmission/parasitic losses, not without compromise to reliability etc. Rolling resistance losses are unknown, but I’d be surprised if there is very much to be gained there; modern low CRR tyres are starting to look remarkably like 27×1″ HPs in fact. By contrast modern bicycle aerodynamics could have netted TG a useful benefit; having said this his riding position (for an endurance rider) was already very aerodynamic, and the bulk of the drag is on the rider, not the bike.

I am very pleased to see TG’s record commemorated on this website, and I do hope you find my comments of interest.”

Do you agree, disagree – or have anything else to add? Please leave your comments below.

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  • Tommy Godwin record is awesome. In today of strava and garmin and better bike technology, he probably would have gone farther. Just the matter of getting on the bike everyday for 365 days is awesome. Great website and encouragement

    • admin

      Thanks for your comment William. We’re currently updating the site and hope to have new design (including reponsiveness for mobile users) ready within the next few weeks. Please come back soon!

  • Lillian Sullivan

    Could it be that the hub gear was an advantage in the 1930s? To wit: Hubert “Oppy” Opperman set a new LEJoG record in ’35 using a Cyclo four speed derailleur set, and Sid Ferris bested this in ’37 using a Sturmey-Archer three speed hub. Charlie Holland beat all comers in the inaugural massed start Isle of Man International Race in ’36 using a S-A hub. And Ossie Nicholson’s year ride record of 62,657 miles in ’37 was set using Cyclo derailleur gearing – and subsequently surpassed by Tommy Godwin using a hub gear.

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