Exactly a century ago, amateur cyclists across Britain were taking part in a competition, organised by the then “Cycling” magazine, now Cycling Weekly, to find the person riding the greatest number of individual one hundred mile rides, or “centuries”, in the calendar year of 1911.
The announcement of the competition in 1910 was greeted with great enthusiasm and considerable caution, one reader observing that the method to be used to check claims – cards supplied to competitors to be signed by the rider and witnessed at various points on the ride – raised the possibility of fraud, another expressing his intention of completing his first century on 1st January. He didn’t, as it turned out…
A gold medal was awarded to the winner, with bronze medals and certificates awarded for smaller scores; 20 centuries were needed to gain a certificate. The rules were simple: every century must be completed within one day, between midnight and midnight; more than one century might be completed in one day, with mileage covered after midnight on any ride to be added to the next day’s total. Odd miles could not be carried over from one day to another, and anyone completing, say, 199 miles in a day could only claim one century.
Given the checking method, there was a fair degree of trust by the staff of Cycling, although they were not naive; “We shall not permit any illegitimate assistance, such as that obtained by holding on to another vehicle of any kind… Something has to be left to the honour of the competitor, and if the trust is abused and we find anyone attempting to obtain an award by false representations, we shall not hesitate to adopt severe measures. Let us say, however, that we do not anticipate anything of this kind.”
The winner was one Marcel Planes, a 21 year old Londoner who wore out three pairs of knickers, four rear and three front tyres, one chain, one fork and one bottom bracket axle and two pairs of shoes, each resoled once, in the process of covering 332 centuries.
Perhaps more astonishing, given that he was the owner of a busy printing firm, was the total of 287 by W R Wells of Salisbury. Aged over 50 and with a business to run, Wells completed most of his centuries by the simple expedient of riding from Salisbury to Ringwood and back, a 50 mile ride, once before work and once afterwards. In recognition of his efforts, Cycling awarded Wells a combined silver and gold medal. The best and only female competitor, Mrs Olive Elliot, completed 60 centuries and received a specially struck silver medal.
The week in which the Easter holidays fell that year saw the record number of century rides, with 450 claimed. By the end of play at midnight on 31st December, 650 riders had sent in checking cards, of whom 162 had completed the 20 rides required for the certificate. One of them was W H Wright “of Exeter”, who completed an impressive 34 century rides over the course of the year. Astonishing, not because 34 was close to the winning total, but because Wright could only undertake his centuries at weekends and, as a devout Methodist, was unlikely to have ridden one on a Sunday.
Even worse, from the tiredness point of view, was that he lodged with my great-grandparents in Yeovil during his working week as an apprentice coppersmith and cycled home to Exeter every Friday night. Commuting on the Monday morning from Exeter to Yeovil, he started work at 8 o’clock in the morning. Given the condition of the roads in 1911 and the heavy, upright roadster he favoured, it was a considerable feat to travel the 45 miles, let alone go on to complete 34 separate centuries in addition.
For many years his certificate hung over the mantelpiece of my dad’s great aunt Bessie, whom Wright married having met her while lodging with her parents. Now on my wall, it’s a fine reminder of the early days of cycling, of the pleasure to be had from completing that famous distance, and of the almost incredible feats even the most utilitarian of cycles makes possible.