Billie and Kajsa
On 1st January 1938, a young lady named Billie Fleming set off from London to complete a challenge that no one had ever attempted before: to set the women’s record for the most miles cycled in a year. The challenge had been launched in 1911 by Cycling magazine and was initially a competition for the highest number of centuries (100 miles) ridden in a year, but soon morphed into a more general target of overall mileage. The first winner was Frenchman Marcel Plains who rode a distance of 34,366 miles, and repeated attempts throughout the early part of the century saw this mileage more than double. Billie was inspired to undertake the challenge by a simple love of cycling and an interest in keeping fit – those were the days when women were taking more notice of their physical health, rather than being chained to the hearth. Sponsored by Cadbury’s and the bicycle dealer Rudge-Whitworth, Billie cycled each day over the course of the year, averaging 81 miles per day, often ending with a fitness talk at a local community hall. She wrote articles for Cycling magazine calling for ‘A million more women cyclists.’ By the end of the year she had accrued over 29,000 miles to set the first women’s record, a distance that remained unbeaten for 78 years.
It was a remarkable feat to undertake, to commit to something so utterly consuming without really knowing what it would involve. But Billie loved her bicycle, she loved exploring, and she was determined to show what was possible, especially for females who had always been considered the weaker sex. ‘I was young and fit and ready to take on anything,’ she said. Billie attracted a fair amount of attention during her ride and was billed as the ‘Rudge-Whitworth Keep Fit Girl’ in the press. The legacy of her ride lasted throughout her life, with others riding in tribute to her, though there were few attempts to better her record, and none successful in her lifetime.
On 1st January, 2016, Swedish-born Brit Kajsa Tylén set off in pursuit of Billie’s record. Her motivations were largely the same: a love of cycling and a desire to get more people out there and exercising. Instead of sponsorship she collected ‘sweat pledges’ from people who promised to undertake some form of activity. Throughout the year she rode from the UK into Europe, wisely sticking to the largely flat sections that France, Belgium and The Netherlands have to offer. Riding into Scandinavia she pedalled beneath a midnight sun. It was an incredible adventure, taking her through the emotional and physical trials of riding for upwards of 100 miles per day for an entire year, persevering through illness and poor weather, testing her resolve and strength, but giving her experiences that she would never forget. By November she’d equalled Billie Fleming’s 29,000 miles and continued until the end of the year to set a new record of 32,326 miles.
The story of Billie and Kajsa is explored in my new book, Pedal Power, along with around 100 other stories of people who have done remarkable or inspirational things on bicycles. It has been a pleasure researching these stories, tales that range from interesting, unusual and challenging to astonishing and heart-warming. It will be published by Summersdale in April 2017. Copies can be pre-ordered here.
For these are the stories we love to hear, tales that make us gasp, smile, or stir us to get out and explore for ourselves. Bravo to both Kajsa and Billie – what a wonderful thing to have done, to have set a challenge and completed it, to have lived on the road, to have tasted all the excitement and freedom that cycling brings, and to have battled through hardship and emerged triumphant. As Billie said, ‘You have to really want to do it. Whatever the weather is that morning, you have to put your clothes on and get on and ride the bike. You will have bad days, but the good days make up for all of the bad ones.’