Billie Fleming
Billie Fleming rode a world record 29,603.7 miles in 1938

Tribute Ride success is a Billie bonus

More women look sure to be cycling this year – thanks to a legend who set a world record way back in 1938. CTC members were among the hundreds of women who took to their bikes throughout 2015 in memory of Billie Fleming, who rode the greatest distance ever cycled by a female 78 years ago.

Billie, who died in May 2014 aged 100, pedalled every single day in 1938 to cover a total of 29,603.7 miles, a record which still stands to this day.

Anne Hunt was so inspired by this achievement, and by Billie as a person, that she decided to celebrate the long-distance cyclist’s remarkable life by organising a fitting tribute. The Tribute To Billie Ride was born.

Anne, a CTC member who lives in Hemel Hempstead, said: “Throughout 2015 we had at least one woman riding every day, whatever the weather, following Billie’s routes for the whole year.

“We had more than 400 riders taking part all over the UK as well as people cycling to remember Billie in the USA, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

I’m in awe of Billie’s achievement all those years ago. She was an amazing woman.”

Anne Hunt, CTC member and Tribute To Billie Ride organiser

“Many women started or rekindled their interest in cycling to keep fit and hopefully the legacy will be that they continue cycling throughout 2016 and way beyond. That’s certainly what Billie would have wanted.”

Together, those who took part in the Tribute To Billie Ride covered more than 107,000 miles during 2015 – suffering a total of 34 punctures in the process! Eighty women took part in the Grand Finale on 31 December, riding nearly 1,400 miles in total at events in London’s Regent’s Park, Sheffield, Suffolk, Norfolk, Manchester, Cheshire, Warwickshire, Yorkshire, Buckinghamshire, Isle of Wight, Northants, Hampshire, Northumberland and even Florida, USA.

Anne (below right) said: “I’m in awe of Billie’s achievement, getting up every morning and cycling an average of over 80 miles a day for a year. That takes huge strength of character as the exhaustion must have been unbelievable. She was an amazing woman.

“It was important to me to capture the enormity of what Billie did by having someone ride every day and to ride all over the UK, unsupported. We sought participants to ride Billie’s route close to where they live.

“As roads and traffic flows have completely changed since 1938, riders worked out their own routes using local knowledge, based on the towns we knew Billie had cycled through each day. We contacted cycling clubs and I tapped into CTC, Belles on Bikes and the Breeze network, inviting champions to lead rides.

“But it was sad that some of the cycling clubs came back to us saying: Sorry, we haven’t got any women. We invited lots of women and girls to join in shorter ‘Ride Like Billie’ days to achieve one of her aims to get one million more women cycling. She really was a woman ahead of her time, her messages as relevant today as they were then. I felt compelled to tell her story!”

Gill Harker covered Billie's longest stage, riding 196 miles from York to London alone in a day last July. Jacqui Godfery covered the highest overall distance during 2015 with 10,000 miles – even after breaking an ankle!

To help plan for the year-long event Anne contacted Dave Barter, who had been researching Billie's ride for a section of his book: ‘The Year – Reawakening the Legend of Cycling’s Hardest Endurance Record.’

Anne added: “We will continue Billie’s legacy in 2016 with a Ride Like Billie day on or near her birthday on 13 April. I am also keen to ride York-London in a day myself.”

Sue Booth, secretary of Chester CTC – which celebrates its 85th birthday this year – was among the many who got involved. Sue, who started Chester Fabulous Ladies in 2008, said: “We did two bike rides that were relevant to our area, based on the logbook that Billie kept – from Wellington to Chester on 28 September (right), and then from Chester to Liverpool the following day.

“What she did was very bold and it was fascinating putting it into a historical perspective, imagining what the country must have looked like back in 1938.

“Much of what was rural back then is now built up. We know Billie visited a bike shop called Harstons (Chester) Ltd, which was at 31, Bridge Street, Chester. This is now Patisserie Valerie, so we had to plan to finish our first day’s riding there. A cake shop…what a shame!

“The Tribute To Billie Ride seems to have got a lot of women cycling over the course of the year, which can only be a positive thing.”

Billie was born in Camden, London, four months before the outbreak of World War I. She was Billie Dovey at the time of her epic 1938 journey. Rudge Whitworth agreed to provide her with a cycle – a heavy steel machine fitted with a three-speed derailleur gear – and to arrange sponsorship, in return for her agreeing to ride the bike every day of the year and to help promote the company.

Her long-held record of 29,603.7 miles may not survive beyond this year, however. On 1 January, Nottingham’s Kajsa Tylen set off with the aim of riding 36,000 miles in 2016.

Business analyst Kajsa, 39, began planning her attempt following Billie’s death in 2014 and hopes her exploits will motivate people to exercise and adopt a healthy lifestyle – perfectly echoing the philosophy of Billie, ‘The Keep Fit Girl’. Originally from Sweden, Kajsa had already covered nearly 1,100 miles by the end of yesterday (Tuesday 12 January).

Billie Fleming also inspired another – successful – world record attempt during 2015. CTC member Janet Davison read about Billie and the Tribute Ride and, while she wanted to attempt the one-year record, she couldn’t commit the time.

So she contacted Guinness World Records to ask about the furthest distance ever ridden by a woman in a month and discovered no such record existed.

Janet, from Wilmslow in Cheshire, discussed with them how far she would need to cycle in 30 days to set the benchmark and they agreed on 4,000 miles. Janet duly pedalled an average of 134 miles a day between July 24 and August 22 last year and is now the proud owner of the one-month world record after covering a total of 4,010 miles.

Feel inspired? CTC has hundreds of member and affiliated groups around the UK which welcome riders of all abilities and will help you find your inner Billie, Kajsa or Janet!

Tony Upfold