Tommy Godwin | Long Distance Legend

The Machine(s)

Tommy rode two bikes during the course of his record-breaking 1939 ride. The first, a ‘Ley TG Special’ was custom built at the request of Tommy’s employer and sponsor, Mr A. T. Ley. The frame was built with Reynolds 531 tubing and the bike fitted with a Baylis-Wiley bottom bracket, Williams chain wheel and cranks, high pressure 27″ Dunlop tyres, a Brooks saddle, Solite front hub and (initially) a ‘Sturmey-Archer’ 3 speed hub gear.

The bike rode well and had been put together with durability in mind. However, huge mileages and poor road conditions would lead to excessive wear on the bike, and the costs of spare parts and bike maintenance ultimately became too much of a burden for ‘Ley Cycles’ to bear.

Tommy Godwin used a hub dynamo to light his way during the wartime blackouts

Dynamic drive

Tommy often needed to ride in the dark; particularly in the winter months. Ultra-light, ultra-bright modern LED’s were obviously not available. He had to make do with a hub dynamo to light his way through the inky darkness of wartime blackouts.

By May, Tommy had chalked up nearly 27,000 miles on the ‘Ley TG Special’; financial issues aside, reliability had not been a problem. Nevertheless, arrangements had been made for a new sponsor to step in to support Tommy’s record-attempt, and it was the ‘Raleigh Cycle Company’ that were most keen to be involved.

Tommy’s new bike would be a ‘Raleigh Record Ace’. A four-speed medium-ratio ‘Sturmey-Archer’ hub gear, which had been fitted to the ‘Ley TG Special’ in March, was brought over to the new bike for continued use.

Both the ‘Ley TG Special’ and ‘Raleigh Record Ace’ were, at that time, at the cutting edge of cycling technology and amongst the best bikes available to Tommy to undertake his challenge. However, they would both pale in comparison with even an entry level road-bike available to today’s cyclist.

Compared with the best road bikes now available to professional riders, Tommy’s record-breaking steed seems not so much of a different age, but of a different world:

Head to Head: Raleigh Record Ace Specialized S-Works + McLaren Venge
Raleigh Record Ace 1939 Specialized S-Works + McLaren Venge
Year: 1939 2012
Manufacturer: Raleigh Specialized / McLaren
RRP: Unknown $18,000 USD
Frame Material: Steel Carbon Fibre
Weight: 30-35 lb (est.) 4.6 lb (frameset)
Gearing: 4 Speed ‘Sturmey-Archer’ hub-gear 2 x 10 Shimano Dura-Ace
Saddle: Brooks B17 Flyer S-Works Toupé Carbon + carbon base and rails
Wheels: Unknown Zipp Zedtech 404 carbon tubular, titanium QR
Tyres: Dunlop Sprite S-Works Turbo tubular, aramid bead, 700x23c

Not about the bike?

Questions that might never be answered, but entice us all the same, are these:

• If Tommy could ride 75,065 miles on a steel framed, 4-gear bike, how far could he ride on one of today’s top machines?

• Could a professional rider of today, given a year free from other race commitments, beat Tommy’s record on a) a contemporary machine, or b) on Tommy’s old bike?

Indeed, short of warping the space-time continuum, we certainly will never know just how good Tommy actually was – when compared with today’s professional riders.

Did the relatively traffic-free roads aid his vast mileage totals? What was the margin of error in the accuracy of the posted mileage? Was he quite simply the most naturally gifted and athletic sportsman of the 20th Century, and possibly the greatest of all time?

Answers on a ‘Cycling’ daily checking card to…

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On this day in 1939: