By Léo Woodland, Illustration by Rich Kelly.
It’s been held by General De Gaulle’s chauffeur, by a professional, by several amateurs… yet never, so far as I know, by an American. It’s the record for the greatest distance covered in a year. And 75 years ago this winter the record was broken by the oddest man of all, and certainly the most disagreeable.
Walter Greaves had reason to think little of the world. For a start, he had only one arm. But he developed his grievance into such an unpleasant personality that one member of his old club told me he didn’t dare reflect on the old record-breaker “for fear of what I may say about him.”
The idea for a one-year distance record was born in the days when bike companies advertised the reliability of what they made. Working men bought bicycles and they wanted them as indestructible as themselves. What better proof than a bike that had gone further in a year than any before?
And so in 1911 the Frenchman Marcel Planes rode 34,366 miles. Why and how, nobody knows. The details have all vanished. But the record stood for 20 years and then it fell eight times in the 1930s as bike companies lined up to outbid each other. The first non-European to hold it was the Australian Ossie Nicholson, who added 9,000 miles to the previous record to log 43,966 miles in 1933. Nicholson, unlike those before him, was a professional. He had a back-up driver, the best equipment that could be found, a masseur and a manager. He also had the good Australian weather.
It was all this that Walter Greaves and his one arm promised to beat.
Politics and pleasure
The contrast couldn’t have been more vivid. Greaves’ communist politics and his troublemaking personality had ensured he could no longer find work as an engineer.
Word had it that there was a blacklist of lefties in the English industrial city of Bradford and that Greaves’ name was prominent on it. Maybe it troubled his socialist leanings to offer himself for commercial sponsorship but he needn’t have worried: only a local bike shop obliged and even then failed to provide the promised bike by January 1, 1936, when the attempt was obliged to start. A week passed before Greaves had it and the adapted handlebar to suit the arm he had lost in an accident as a teenager. The daily distance he faced was therefore increased to overcome the delay.
Worse than that, Nicholson had had fair weather and flat roads. He was also rumored to have one arm longer than the other from hanging on to his help cars. Greaves though had potholed, cobbled roads that were crisscrossed by tram tracks and, outside the city, bleak, snow-covered roads used by farmers and their sheep or by the heavy industrial traffic grumbling between factories.
He had just three gears – 59, 71 and 79 inches – and riders today who know the climbs he tackled are amazed that anyone could do them, let alone someone with one arm. Later on he even increased the gears. But there was worse. This was the worst winter for decades and snow and ice lay everywhere. In the first five days, he covered 500 miles and fell off 19 times. On a day spent coping with snow drifts, he came tumbling down eight times. Going through Leeds, Bradford’s neighboring city, a steam-powered cart caused such a cloud that he lost sight of where he was going, skidded on a tram rail and fell heavily.
Yet when enthusiasts asked him how he was, he said: “The going’s not bad at all. I’m feeling A-One.” An article in his club magazine understandably started: “W. W. Greaves, the one-armed Bradford cyclist, is a hero.”
Easting mileage for breakfast
That winter, Greaves averaged 15mph and 120 miles a day. When a car knocked him off his bike and put him into hospital for two weeks, he had to raise his average even higher.
The cycle dealer Ron Kitching said: “I asked him how he was managing with all the ice and snow. Apparently he just kept riding round and round the streets until they were cleared in order to get the miles in. I remember he used to ride with a feeding bottle with milk in it, and eat apples. He was a true vegetarian, and tough. He even needed treatment in hospital for frostbite to his ears.”
On that, he pushed his riding schedule to 160 miles a day. From September 20 to October 8, he rode 180 a day. One day he rode 275 miles and on another occasion 374 without sleep. And then on December 13, with three weeks still in hand, he cycled into London’s Hyde Park, did a few laps of the Serpentine lake and matched Nicholson’s record.
By now he was attracting more attention and there was a reception for him at a hotel near the park. Reporters, out for a bit of mischief, offered him some champagne with a promise not to tell. Greaves wasn’t amused. “When I want to poison myself, I’ll take arsenic,” he snapped.
The atrocious weather had returned. It didn’t matter what distance Greaves now covered because he already had the record. And yet he rode another 130 miles a day until, on the last day of the year, he came to a halt outside Bradford city hall, where the local paper reported “astonishing scenes reminiscent of those associated with the public appearances of film stars.”
The man who had started the year with just the unreliable offer of a free bike now ended it with a check and a cup presented by his home city and some minor advertising deals for, among others, Elliman Athletic Rub (“I have pleasure in RECORDING ITS WONDERFUL HELP TO ME.”) His more immediate celebrations for covering 45,383 miles were limited to eating a grapefruit. His regret was that he could have managed 50,000 but for an abscess on his leg in the last weeks.
Greaves ought to have become a national hero, a personality. Instead, his difficult nature did him no favors and the temperament that let him ride day after day with neither recognition nor help was ill-suited to winning a warm public. Peter Duncan, the clubmate who declined to give me his opinion of Greaves, fell out with him at a club meeting at which Greaves, as usual, disagreed with everyone and with Duncan in particular. So much so that he threatened to “punch your head in and do it publicly.”
After the record, said Ron Kitching, Greaves took up racing. “I always remember, you’d ease up a bit and mop your brow and look round and there would be Walter, just behind, with his one arm. What a man!”
That bike now is in the Industrial Museum at Bradford, a fairly ordinary heavy machine of the period and little different from anyone else’s but for the truncated handlebar.
Greaves himself—an engineer, remember, and still unable to find an employer—went into business for himself. He bought a forge and began making bike frames. Tim Teale, who knew him, recalled: “He went on to build the King of the Mountain frames to his own design of a short wheelbase. It had a straight down-tube with a bent saddle-pillar over the rear wheel. This made the top tube into the correct length.”
To this story he added a lovely coda: “Walter tried to make you sign up for the Young Communists, but nobody took any notice. He will be remembered for the monkey he always had with him; it was nearly the same size as his wife Rene, who was very small.”
Still more disturbing was that Greaves, for all his attention to personal diet and seeming disregard for that of others, also ran a café outside Bradford. There’s no happy ending, I’m afraid. Peter Duncan told John Naylor: “I stopped my car in the lay-by near the café once, waiting for a friend to catch me up. As I waited, a frail, ragged scarecrow emerged from one of the huts and tottered laboriously up the steps to the house. With a shock I noticed that the left sleeve of his ragged overcoat was empty and realized that this walking skeleton was all that was left of the robust, fanatical Walter that I had known in the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
Poor Walter Greaves, now forgotten and even then rarely loved, developed Parkinson’s disease in 1979 and died in 1987. He was 80. His record lasted only a year. The day after he celebrated with grapefruit on the steps of Bradford city hall, another British rider set off to beat his total “just for fun”. Brian Bennett finished his year with 45,801 miles, barely more than Greaves but a record nevertheless.
In the flurry of record-breaking that typified cycling in the 1930s, the Frenchman René Menzies, who later worked as De Gaulle’s driver and was described by a friend as “smelling as though something had died in his trousers”, beat Bennett with 61,561. Menzies died at 82 when he was knocked off his bike just outside Hyde Park, where Greaves had matched his target.
The decade—and the peace—ended with 75,065 miles by another Briton, Tommy Goodwin, who like Ossie Nicholson but unlike Greaves had the benefits of full professional support. And there things rested until 1972, when Ken Webb of England claimed 80,647 miles. But that record is contested – “there were too many jealous people prepared to claim anything to deny me the record” – and so the Guinness record book has reverted to crediting Goodwin.
Will the record ever fall again? Will it go to a tight-legged and hollow-cheeked American not content, perhaps, with simply riding across America? Nobody knows. Maybe such things don’t inspire people any more. But come what may, nobody is likely to have the sheer guts – and perhaps the sheer unlovability – of Walter Greaves.
This story originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #29, available here or at better book stores around the world.