The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in some of the historical world cycling records. The pro riders have been lining up for the hour record, and some distance records are getting attention again, including 24-hour records and the year distance record.
UK-born Australian Miles Smith set out on April 11, 2015 to break Tommy Godwin’s 1939 year record of 75,065 miles (120,805km). Craig Fry caught up with Miles Smith a month into the latter’s record attempt.
Australia has a tradition of long distance cycling records dating back to the late 1800s. The country’s then untamed expanses, a sense of adventure, and advances in bicycle design all combined to make long-distance riding popular in the late 19th and early decades of the 20th Century.
Back then, many of our distance cyclists were well known – people like George Burston, Francis Birtles, Doreen Middleton, Hubert Opperman, Ossie Nicholson, and Ernie Old. Spurred on by coverage of their exploits in the popular newspapers of the day, crowds in the many thousands would turn up to cheer these riders as they attempted and set new distance and speed records rolling across Australia, between capital cities, or around city cycling tracks.
These early cycling record breakers were celebrated pioneers and heroes at a time in Australia when the bicycle’s power to inspire was at a peak.
These days, the cyclists who set out to ride distances most of us would consider incomprehensible are unfamiliar to most. Consider these names:
The truth is, most of you wont know about these people or their achievements without first clicking through to the links provided. Whereas, 80-100 years ago these cyclists would probably all be ‘famous’. The relative lack of recognition for today’s elite long-distance riders seems a shame when you consider all the effort involved – the planning, preparation, training, and then pedaling over many many thousands of kilometres and countless hours.
Even if today’s distance riders care little about fame, glory and trophies, at the very least the stories behind their efforts towards breaking the records should be told.
That’s why I wanted to speak with Miles Smith. I’m interested in the man behind this record attempt in Australia, and I want to understand why someone would decide to take on such a massive challenge – to ride over 300km every single day for an entire year.
The year distance record
The year distance record had its origins in 1911, after the magazine ‘Cycling’ started the Century Competition – a challenge to see how many times riders could go over 100 miles in a year. A French cyclist, Marcel Planes, set the bar high when he rode 34,666 miles (55,790km) during 1911.
This record stood for over two decades, until 1932 when the 22-year-old Brit Arthur Humbles covered 36,007 miles (57,948km). The 1930s would see the year distance record broken another seven times, including with the current benchmark of 75,065 miles (120,805km) set by Tommy Godwin in 1939.
Along the way, Australia’s own Oserick “Ossie” Nicholson first broke the record in 1933 (43,966 miles / 70,756km), and again in 1937 (62,656.6 miles / 100,835km) riding from Melbourne to Portsea return twice each day. Tasmanian born Nicholson was an accomplished professional rider pre-WWII, and one of the four-man Australian group who rode the 1931 Tour de France (with Hubert Opperman).
Fast-forward 76 years and the year distance record is again being challenged. The US-based Ultra Marathon Cycling Association (UMCA) is now officiating on what it has called the Highest Annual Mileage Record (HAMR). Riders currently competing in this year-long race include Steve Abraham (UK), William Pruett (US), Kurt Searvogel (US), and of course Miles Smith (Australia).
It’s a cold and overcast Melbourne autumn morning when I meet up with Miles Smith at a Parkdale café. He’s sitting at an outdoor table as I roll up, alone with his thoughts and one cup of coffee. I had first introduced myself, fittingly, when I came across Miles while riding home from work along Beach Road a few days after he had begun his year-long ‘race’. He was already over 400km for the day, and was out doing more.
That day he greeted me with a big smile and hello, as he does again today after standing up to shake my hand. Not wanting to delay him for long, I sit down, order some more coffee, and we begin the interview. He is animated and full of energy, which I guess is a good thing considering what he is attempting.
CF – Where did it all start?
MS – Stuffing around basically at Xmas 2014. I was looking over the Audax Australia website, and that hadn’t really changed much. So I thought, “What’s happening in the UK?” because that’s where I come from. So I looked at the UK Audax site and all of their rides are recorded in kilometers.
There was a button for ‘Year Long Time Trial’, so I clicked on that and saw the record was ‘220 a day’. At that time I was living in Mount Martha and riding to the city and back every day. I was doing 150km a day, so I’m thinking I could do this and still work.
But then later I looked a bit further into it, and realised they were talking miles! So that 220 a day was really a little over 354km a day. By then I was hooked into the idea, so it was too late.
Miles, the obvious question is ‘Why?’
Well, I’ve only been cycling for two years, and I’m 53 this year. I’m only going to get slower, so if I’m going to do it, I need to do it now.
Two years ago I was just getting fat, just sitting on the couch watching the TV. Sitting at work just looking at the screen. Screens were just my life. So I picked up a second-hand bike off the hard rubbish of the next-door neighbor, and decided to do something about it.
I spent $9 on it putting a new crankset on to bring it up to a 53, and I started riding, at first five miles away from work, and just slowly increased the distance. I then fell into Audax through Abbotsford Cycles when I went in to get one of the big cranksets I use now.
Tell me a bit more about the bikes and gear you use.
One of my three bikes (Trek Cronus CX) is set up with an 80-73-53 chain-set bought off the shelf from Greenspeed who make recumbents out at Knox. The big rings are easy enough to find, the challenge is in getting them on the bike – getting a rear frame that can actually take the cog, and getting the right derailleur hanger height on the front and jockey wheel drop on the rear.
And the other thing is you need an extra 22 links in the chain, so if it comes off and goes under the rear wheel the bike just stops! You need a good bike builder.
It’s just maths to me, cycling. The bigger the ring the more the links go around, the more the rear wheel goes around. You’ve just got to make sure you can push it. My usual cadence is about 50 and I’m going along at about 33km/h … low cadence just turning the wheels.
I also use a GPS spot tracker so people know where I am, plus a Garmin computer (and a spare) that somebody else on my support team uploads. I don’t have anything to do with that.
All my bars have snipped ends off for easy grip and comfort. I’m also waiting for some flat bars to arrive. And obviously you have to make yourself as visible as possible. I have new Blaze lights run by AA batteries so I can replace them wherever – I use two front lights and three rear flashing lights.
I use a Trek carbon frame bike, and a Trek ION aluminium bike (cyclocross frame) that has wider front forks so you can unclip the brakes and keep going if you break a spoke. I’m also set up with a rack to carry spares, clip on mudguards, and I use a slightly shorter stem to sit more upright [see here for more detail about Miles’ bikes].
My current favorite piece of clothing are the ‘iron-clad’ gloves I got from Bunnings. They’re for road diggers / workers, with extra palm and finger padding, and they go up over the wrist. I just cut the fingers off, sewed up the ends to stop fraying, and they’ve been great.
How did you prepare for this attempt, and how do you keep motivated?
My background is long-distance running, so I’ve got the slow twitch muscle type thing. But to prepare for this I did 30 days of riding 400km consecutively. And then on the last day we did the Audax Oppy 24hr, which for us was 500km going over Mt Hotham and finishing in Rochester. I knew that if I could do all that then I’d be ready.
I’ve had the complete body check with my GP, heart and everything. And I get monthly check-ups for bloods and to make sure kidneys and heart are okay.
Motivation wise, you just have to break the task down. Like eating slices of bread, you take one slice at a time. You work out what you can do in your own mind, and test yourself. It’s not a massive undertaking at all. The hard bit was organising it. What we’re doing now is fun, because that’s what we do it for isn’t it?
So, what’s the ride plan over the year?
The important thing for me is not just breaking the record, but breaking it in the right spirit. Back in the 1930s the record breakers didn’t have the equipment we have now. So you can’t just beat that record, you’ve really got to go way past it because of all the extra advantages in equipment we have today.
We’re aiming to do 440km a day, which would give me six world records. The highest yearly, 100,000 miles, 150,000 miles, 100,000km, 150,000km and 200,000km. Better to get them all out of the way at once!
The plan basically is to ride Portsea and back [the same route as Ossie Nicholson took in 1937]. The route was chosen because it runs beside a main railway line, there’s lots of bike shops on the way, my support team from Audax all live along the route, and its pretty flat and interesting. You’ve got the bay, which keeps it nice and warm in winter, and in summer keeps you cool.
Apart from that, we’re going to run with the wind as much as possible – catching the train and riding back with the wind [so far Miles has ridden to and from Sale, Albury and Warrnambool doing exactly this].
So, I’ve got my plan that I’m working to, and I’m not worrying about the others attempting the record (Steve Abraham and the other guys). Good luck to them though.
How do you approach your nutrition and hydration?
I drink a lot of milk, because it’s a food basically, with protein and all that. I’m also on a range of multi vitamins, so I know what day it is from the colour of my pee!
I haven’t got a sweet tooth really, so I struggle to get the calories in. When I’m going north I carry bread rolls in my jersey so I can eat on the go. But up and down to Portsea there’s so many shops that carrying a lot of food is just a waste of time. It’s easier just to buy it as you go.
How do you cope with the riding impact on family, social life, and work?
The family has relocated back to Sydney. I’m married into an Italian family, a massive family in Sydney so they are looked after. We keep in constant daily contact, obviously. But to do this, you’ve got to be a narcissist; you’ve got to be totally focused on it.
I’ve got three kids. Each bike is named after the kids (Joe, Emilia, David). We’ve basically put everything on hold for a year. This is my mid-life crisis, but without the red Porsche.
If you try and be a family man and do this for a year, you’re stuffed. And you can’t do this and work, so I did a bit of ‘jiggery pokery’ with the finances and here we are. I’m just taking a year off work [Miles works in IT].
We’re all on “the spectrum” aren’t we if we’re in cycling? Its just how far down you are; how anally retentive you get to be.
I’ve got a terrific support team looking after me too. I’ve got five main people (all Audax members). There’s Phil Bellette who looks after media and sponsorship for tyres and chains etc. It looks like we’ve got a clothing brand on board that will be announced soon.
I’ve got an adjudicator, a former Prime Minister in Cabinet Economist checking everything. And there’s a former ‘big data’ guy dealing with Garmin and the UMC around the figures and records.
Everyone is falling over backwards to help me. They’re cyclists. They understand the OCD thing. They understand when I had to spend four nights out in the past two weeks at the ‘Audax Hotel’…they know I mean a bus shelter, or a garage, or in a 24-hour McDonald’s somewhere.
What challenges have you encountered so far?
The biggest problem in the first two weeks was getting sleep, because we’ve had a few stuff ups. We rented a house here, and when I moved in there was no electricity, no water, and packing cases everywhere. The movers didn’t turn up for three days, so I was living out of cardboard boxes, unpacking stuff on the go.
I got two hours sleep the night before we started, which wasn’t ideal. But I have been catching up on sleep slowly. I spent 20 hours just sleeping the other day.
The official plan, and what I’ve actually been doing so far is totally different mainly because I haven’t been set up properly. Now I am finally set up, so I am reverting back to the plan which is to start early at 2:30am for my first 200 by 10-ish. Then I’ll do a second 200 to get 400, and then just do extras after that.
In the first week the Garmin failed, so we weren’t sure if the data were uploading. It was pretty stressful, wondering if the miles I was doing were even counting. We had technical issues, time zone differences, and the UMC were querying us too. Things have settled down now.
I’ve had two flat tyres so far, and I needed a new bottom bracket already because I spend a lot of time out of the saddle turning those big gears.
I suffer on the road like everyone else does. You’ve just got to be ready for it…and not let your tiredness affect your road craft.
Its early days, but how does the body feel?
At the moment the body is really good. No problems down below, if you know what I mean! [Miles is very particular about his saddle choice]. I’m running at about 75-80% capacity at the moment in terms of the body and mind.
Do you get any time away from the bike?
Absolutely. The bikes go to a lock up with security code entry in and out, and security cameras. Once I’ve locked the bike up, I go home and there is nothing there about bikes at all…it’s just home. The idea is to spend 16 hours on the bike each day, and eight hours off…six hours sleep and two hours doing other ‘stuff’. That’s the plan anyway.
Miles to go
At this point in the interview the sun breaks out and the wind drops a little, so it feels like a good moment to finish up and send Miles on his way.
I have done some long distance riding over the last few years, so I get the idea and appeal of trying to break records. Still, I was expecting Miles to be an odd character. I mean, seriously, deciding to ride an average of +330km on EVERY day for an entire year?
That’s a big thing to get your head around. And only a handful of people the world over will ever attempt it.
But what I actually found with Miles was someone who is surprisingly ‘normal’. He’s friendly and likeable, and can talk. Certainly not the shy reserved oddball I was expecting.
At the time of writing, Miles had covered 5,065 miles (8,151.3km) in 31 days since starting on April 11. This equates to an average of 163.38 miles (262.94km) per day, which puts him slightly behind the required pace for the moment. For a comparison of where Miles is up to against the other three year distance competitors, check out the website here.
To break Tommy Godwin’s 1939 record, Miles needs to be ride over 120,805km (75,065 miles), which is an average of 331km (220 miles) per day for a year. With just over one month done so far it is too early to predict how his year will go for him.
What is certain is the enormity of the challenge in front of him. Will Miles go down in history as one of our greatest ever long distance cyclists? In years to come will his name be remembered alongside of Australia’s other record breakers – Birtles, Old, Nicholson, Opperman?
Only time, and Miles, will tell.
Craig Fry is a Melbourne-based researcher, writer and amateur cyclist. His cycling articles can be seen here at CyclingTips, at The Conversation and The Age. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter (@Pushbikewriter) and on Strava.