Walter Greaves: The most unpopular record breaker of all?

It's been held by General De Gaulle's chauffeur, a professional, and several amateurs. But 70 years...

Tales from the peloton, October 28, 2006

Walter Greaves: The most unpopular record breaker of all?

It's been held by General De Gaulle's chauffeur, a professional, and several amateurs. But 70 years ago the one-year distance record was broken by the oddest of all - and the most disagreeable, writes Les Woodland.

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 club said he didn't dare reflect on the old record-breaker "for fear of what I may say about him". The one-year distance record was born when bike companies advertised reliability. Working men wanted bicycles as indestructible as themselves. What better proof than a bike that had gone further in a year than any before?

In 1911 the Frenchman Marcel Planes rode 34,366 miles. Records were always kept in miles. Nobody knows why Planes did it because the details have vanished. But the record stood 20 years and then fell eight times in the 1930s as bike companies outbid each other.

The first non-European was the Australian Ossie Nicholson, who added 9,000 miles to the previous record to log 43,966 in 1933. Nicholson, unlike those before him, was a professional. He had a back-up driver, the best equipment, a masseur and a manager. He also had good Australian weather. It was all this that Walter Greaves and his one arm promised to beat.

Greaves' communist politics and troublemaking personality ensured he could no longer find work as an engineer. Word had it that there was a blacklist in the English industrial city of Bradford and that Greaves' name was on it. Maybe it troubled his socialist leanings to offer himself for 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 had 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 was therefore increased to overcome the delay.

Greaves faced potholed, cobbled roads criss-crossed by trams and, outside the city, snow-covered roads used by farmers or by heavy industrial traffic grumbling between factories.

He had just three gears - 59, 71 and 79 inches - and riders who know the climbs he tackled are amazed that anyone could do them, let alone with one arm.

But there was worse. This was the worst winter for decades. In the first five days, he covered 500 miles and fell off 19 times. On a day spent coping with snow, he came down eight times. Going through Leeds, Bradford's neighbouring 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 how he was, he said: "The going's not bad at all. I'm feeling A-One." Throughout that winter, Greaves averaged 15mph and 120 miles a day. When a car knocked him off and put him into hospital for two weeks, he raised 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."

The Vegetarian cycle-club historian John Naylor lists Greaves' diet as "based on a pound and a half of wholemeal bread with butter, 2lb apples, one and a half pounds of tomatoes, 7-8 pints milk, up to 10 pints water, orange juice and the occasional ginger beer." (Ginger beer is a soda pop.)

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 and on another occasion 374 without sleep. And then on December 13, with three weeks in hand, he cycled into London's Hyde Park and matched Nicholson's record.

By now he was attracting attention and there was a reception for him at a hotel. Reporters offered him champagne with a promise not to tell. Greaves wasn't amused.

"When I want to poison myself, I'll take arsenic," he snapped.

By now atrocious weather had returned. And yet he rode 130 miles a day until, on the last day of the year, he came to a halt outside Bradford city hall to "astonishing scenes reminiscent of those associated with the public appearances of film stars."

The man who had started the year with the unreliable offer of a free bike ended it with a cheque and cup from his home city and some minor advertising deals. His 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.

Greaves ought to have become a hero. Instead, he was ill-suited to winning a warm public. Peter Duncan, the clubmate who declined his opinion of Greaves, fell out with him at a 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".

Tim Teale, who knew him, recalled: "Walter tried to make you sign up for the Young Communists, but nobody took any notice. He will always be remembered for the monkey he always had with him; it was nearly the same size as his wife Rene, who was very small.

"Walter bought a place at the side of the Leeds-Liverpool canal. He asked the club to call in on our way back from a ride one Sunday and he would put a tea on. This we did, and on going in there were some sandwiches on the table and a large jelly. But when we looked closely at the jelly, we saw in the centre a very large monkey turd, so I'm sorry to say we declined the invitation and rode home."

Still more disturbing was that Greaves, for all his attention to personal diet and seeming disregard for that of others, also ran a café.

Peter Duncan said: "I stopped my car in the lay-by near the café once. 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 realised 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, forgotten and even then rarely loved, developed Parkinson's disease and died in 1987. He was 80. His record lasted only a year. The day after he celebrated with grapefruit, another British rider set off to beat his total "just for fun". Brian Bennett finished with 45,801 miles, barely more than Greaves but a record nevertheless.

In the flurry of record-breaking in the 1930s, the Frenchman René Menzies, who later worked as De Gaulle's driver and was described as "smelling as though something had died in his trousers", beat Bennett with 61,561. The decade - and the peace - ended with 75,065 miles by another Briton, Tommy Goodwin, who like Nicholson but unlike Greaves had professional support. And there things rested until 1972, when Ken Webb of England claimed 80,647. But that record is contested - "too many jealous people prepared to claim anything to deny me the record" - and Guinness has reverted to crediting Goodwin.

Will the record fall again? Maybe such things don't inspire any more. But come what may, nobody is likely to have the guts - and the sheer unlovability - of Walter Greaves.

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