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Billie Dovey: endurance cyclist extraordinaire

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Billie Dovey Fleming cycling
Billie Dovey. Photo: Cycling/Fleming family archives.

Since the year began we’ve been keenly following the progress of cyclist Kajsa Tylen, a ‘Swedish-born pseudo-Brit’ whose taken on a big challenge: the women’s cycling year record. Kajsa is riding her bike around Britain in an attempt to ride the highest number of miles officially cycled by a woman in a single year. At the time of writing, Kajsa’s total mileage is just shy of 10,000 miles.

The women’s record is currently held by British rider Billie Dovey. In 1938 Billie rode a staggering 29,603.7 miles, driven by her independent spirit and a passion to bring women’s cycling to the fore (and fuelled by the offerings of her official sponsor, Cadbury). Not only was Billie in the saddle every day for a year, she also used her ride as a chance to tirelessly promote the benefits of cycling, often ending a day by giving a talk in whatever town she had rolled up in.

In this extract from The Year – a fascinating account of the year mileage record written by cycling expert Dave Barter – we get a glimpse of one of the most inspiring female cyclists in the history of the sport.

Billie Dovey Flemming cyclingPrior to 1938, endurance-riding headlines had been dominated by men. This was at a time when the mainstream cycling press was still undecided on the place of women within cycle racing and competition. But women were beginning to have their say. Some truly great female riders were emerging and beginning to attack records that had been seen as the domain of the men. Sixteen new women’s place-to-place records had been set in 1937, along with the creation of a series of female-only time trials. Momentum was beginning to gather around female cyclists. It was time for women to redress the balance and put female cycling properly on the year map.

Lilian Irene Bartram was born on 13 April 1914 to a Camden-based toolmaker and his wife Julie. She was to be the first of three children conceived by the couple, all of them girls. Her name proved to be a bit of a mouthful for those around her and so Lilian soon became Lillie, which morphed further into ‘Billie’ as those around her confused the first and last letters of her name. An apparently studious child, she worked hard at Lyulph Stanley Central School in Camden before leaving at the age of sixteen to become a secretary.

Billie discovered cycling at the age of eighteen after a chance meeting at a youth club with a young lad who taught her to ride a bike. In her own words: ‘I couldn’t ride a bike at the time, he used to take me out on the Barnet bypass in Mill Hill London in the evening and teach me how to ride this bike. He used to ride about a metre from the kerb and I had to stay in this gap.’

While the relationship with this lad did not last, the relationship with the bicycle did and Billie became besotted with cycling. She began to use her bicycle to commute to work and its benefits in terms of health and adventure had become clear. Billie’s passion was bolstered by her involvement in the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, an organisation founded by Mary Bagot Stack in the 1930s. Mary believed that women held the key to the improvement of the world around them and preached a vision of ‘a league of women who will renew their energy in themselves and for themselves day by day.’ She trained a network of female fitness instructors to spread the message of the ‘Women’s League’ and the membership grew rapidly to over 166,000 by 1937. Billie was inspired and felt that she could do something to spread the word about cycling.

She made it her mission to tell others, especially women, about cycling and as a result wrote to a large number of companies with her idea for cycling promotion. The rides of Bennett, Nicholson and Menzies had started a thought process in Dovey’s mind and she wanted to set herself up as a showcase rider, riding her bike every day for a year. Each month she would ride at least 2,000 miles and aim to complete the year with 25,000 miles upon the clock. Billie had no particular ambition to set a women’s record (although, as one had never previously been officially recorded, she would do just that). This was to be an altruistic mission to spread the word rather than a personal ambition to become the best.

In late 1935 Lilian Bartram became Lilian Dovey after meeting and marrying her husband Fredrick in Hendon. Fredrick, a keen cyclist who worked as a chartered accountant, clearly supported Billie’s cycling ambitions and went on to manage her diary and engagements throughout her record year.

At the time Billie was a member of the North-Western Road Club and mixing in some esteemed female cycling company, including E. Rolph – a rider who’d spent the previous year fighting it out on various place-to-place records under the auspices of the recently formed Women’s Road Record Association. Using her cycling knowledge, contacts and secretarial skills to good effect, Billie wrote to all of the major cycling companies and explained her mission. Eventually her tenacity paid off and, at the age of twenty-three, Billie received sponsorship from Rudge Whitworth, the sponsor of René Menzies, who agreed to provide her with a new bike and the requisite support to begin her ride. In return Billie was required to travel the country stopping at the Rudge Whitworth dealerships and giving talks along her way. Word then got out and Cadbury was brought on as an additional sponsor, with Billie appearing in an early set of adverts promoting its chocolate as an ‘ideal emergency meal for cyclists off the beaten track’. The company provided Billie with unlimited supplies of chocolate for her ride, a benefit that would be the envy of many a modern-day sweet-tooth.

Cycling magazine was approached and asked to verify Billie’s ride using the process that had been tried and tested since 1911. This would require the submission of mileage cards and a regular visit to the offices of the magazine for a mileometer check. The magazine labelled her the ‘keep fit girl’ and somewhat offhandedly labelled her task a ‘year’s cycling propaganda ride’.

Not long after midnight on 1 January 1938 Billie left Claud Butler’s party at the New Horticultural Hall in London, where Bennett and Menzies were still celebrating the end of their attempts, and began her ride. Giving up her job as a typist and leaving her husband at home to act as her manager and co-ordinator, she set out to tour Great Britain. Her mission: ‘to demonstrate that cycling is a simple and easy method to keep fit’.

Billie had no ambition at all to set a cycling record: ‘It was just an idea I had, I didn’t set out to attempt a year record. At the time there was a lot of publicity about the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, an organisation concerned with women’s health and fitness. I was so besotted with cycling that I thought “well you could keep fit by riding a bicycle”. I had this idea that I could do just that.’ Billie maintained this modesty throughout her year, clearly set on a mission in the service of cycling, rather than attempting to benefit from it.

Billie’s first week got off to a reasonable start, totalling 459 miles. This was slightly down on the average required to hit 25,000 but remember she, like all of the other British riders, began in winter, and the reduced daylight hours and inclement weather would have been a factor. She started riding locally and her routes and mileages were recorded as follows: 

Three weeks into her ride, Billie was still going strong. She’d managed to maintain a daily average of 71 miles and was still riding around an area centred upon her home in Mill Hill. Then came a big day. On 6 February 1938 she rode her first century of the year. Setting off from Cobham she rode via Guildford, Elstead, Odiham, Bagshot and Windsor before finishing in Mill Hill with a grand total of 107 miles for the day. Clearly gaining a taste for the hundred-milers she knocked off another two weeks later, this time heading east from Mill Hill and riding 108 miles. It appeared that cycling agreed with the young rider, who reported that rather than wasting away, she was actually gaining weight. On 23 February she was 3 pounds heavier than when she started her ride (muscle we must assume, although it could also have been down to Cadbury’s sponsorship of unlimited supplies of chocolate).

Billie’s agreement with Rudge Whitworth was demanding from the off, with her sponsor requiring that she represent them at many engagements during her ride, often on a daily basis. The first documented occasion was when she was presented as a guest to the annual dinner of the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club – the same club to which Walter Greaves had belonged. Other presentations were lower key, sometimes simply a meeting of local cyclists at a Rudge Whitworth dealership. Rudge Whitworth relished the early attention that Billie was receiving in the press and contacted its entire dealer network, urging them to get in touch and book an appointment with Billie for the purposes of ‘local publicity’.

Billie Dovey Fleming cyclingMarch 1938 saw Billie’s campaigning really hit her stride when she wrote a full-page article in Cycling magazine extolling the virtues of cycling and imploring more women to join her on the road. The article underpinned Billie’s no-nonsense approach to life that clearly remained with her throughout her life. Her headline ran: ‘Wanted – 1,000,000 more women cyclists’, and the article debunked the myth that women would find riding a bike difficult and made it clear that there were many female-specific bikes to be had from a variety of bicycle manufacturers. She went on to detail her straightforward logistics for cycling to work, such as storing clothing to change into, and highlighted the London bus strike as a clear example of female emancipation, with many women taking to their bikes to get to work. However, my favourite quote outlines the fact that in 1938 women were still very much seen as the fairer sex and little else:

Others still consider it ‘not becoming’ or perhaps ‘unladylike’ although generally these Victorian ideas are just about as dead as the proverbial door nail. The appearance of we wheel-women matters more than we sometimes imagine. The ever critical public notice us as we pass through village, town and hamlet, so during 1938 we must do our best to look as clean and healthy as possible when riding, in order that we may attract more and more of our sex to pedal their way to fitness and social enjoyment.

Winter was clearly kind to Billie as 23 March 1938 found her ahead of her 25,000 mile schedule with a daily average of almost 73 miles. She was still riding locally, with most of her days reported as ending in Mill Hill and the same familiar towns frequently recorded upon her mileage cards – Wendover, Hornchurch and St Albans. Billie did not always ride circular routes and occasionally used public transport to return home. On 8 March she rode from Mill Hill to Wantage via Reading, recording her third century at a distance of 110.8 miles.

By the end of the month Billie’s ride was starting to attract attention beyond the coasts of Great Britain. An invitation was received from Ireland inviting her over to spend time in the Dublin area, although the trip never happened and it is likely that Rudge Whitworth saw little benefit in her making the trip as the majority of its dealerships were located in Great Britain. The company was very much focused upon developing direct sales, particularly to the growing contingent of female cyclists. Its preference was for Billie to make appearances at venues where its bikes could be purchased there and then.

At the end of March Billie left the North-Western Road Club and announced her affiliation with the Southern Ladies’ Road Club instead. This club had been recently formed by Florence ‘Flossie’ Wren, a racing cyclist and wife of the well-known frame builder Cyril. Billie now represented female cyclists both in actions and affiliations.

April saw Billie spread her wings further and really ramp up her daily average. She started touring the West Country, visiting locations such as Swindon, Marlborough and Glastonbury, and as far afield as Taunton. On 15 and 16 April she rode her first back-to-back centuries, with a ride of 106.2 miles followed by one of 100.5. Her daily average was now up to 80 miles and she was starting to very definitely prove her point that women can easily adapt to regular cycling and gain fitness as a result in performance alone.

On 4 May 1938 Cycling magazine announced Billie’s first national tour schedule. She was to give talks throughout early May in locations ranging from Guildford to Portsmouth. Each location would have been at a Rudge Whitworth dealer where Billie would present herself at 7 p.m. and give a talk concerning her ride. This clearly benefitted her sponsors as the question of ‘which bike?’ would ultimately come up during the evening. But Billie wanted to do much more than advertise bikes and, through a letter to Cycling magazine, asked that cycling club folk could attend so that she could spread her healthy living message further.

Around this time a Miss Evelyn Hamilton set out to ride 10,000 miles in 100 days and, from 7 to 13 May, had clocked up an impressive 763.5 miles. Billie’s enthusiasm for female mile-munching was clearly contagious. Hamilton was still going strong after twenty-one days with 2,259.9 miles in the bag. After forty-nine days the total was 5,218.1 and, after ninety-one days, 9,737.9. Hamilton reported her quest to be completed on 24 August when her letter saying thank you for all of the support she had received from the cycling community appeared in Cycling magazine. Hamilton had apparently far exceeded her original 10,000-mile target.

Billie had also hit 10,000 miles, on 12 May as Hamilton was starting her ride. In doing so she also moved 1,000 miles ahead of her initial schedule. Billie’s ride gathered further press attention in June 1938 as, in a forthright interview in Bicycling magazine, she described her motivations for riding 75 miles each day. The interview gave an insight into the kind of determination and zest for life that Billie possessed:

I am now engaged in the most enjoyable occupation I have ever had, for instead of tapping a typewriter under a glass roof, I am now healthfully pedalling a bicycle around every day.

Clearly Billie was no shrinking violet content to bear the drudgery of an office job day in, day out. She also detailed her diet, which was almost vegetarian with the staples of fruit, eggs, milk and brown bread responsible for powering her ride.

Billie’s interview further underpinned her determination to spread the word about cycling. The fact that she was going to set a record was secondary; she saw great importance in engaging with non-cyclists to extol the benefits of moving to two wheels:

Every day I come into contact with all types and classes of people, and it is to these, in the course of conversation, that I advocate cycling, if necessary defend cyclists, and generally do my best to get the game appreciated a little more.

Billie reached her half-year target with three weeks to spare, hitting 12,500 miles on 9 June 1938.Billie Fleming
Billie in 2014. Photo: Dave Barter. Billie passed away in 2014 aged 100.

Text adapted from The Year: Reawakening the legend of cycling’s hardest endurance record by Dave Barter; copyright of Vertebrate Publishing. Special offer: enter code MILEMUNCHER at checkout for 25% off RRP, plus free UK delivery.

Want a print-friendly version of this extract? Help yourself by downloading the PDF shown below.

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