London, December 1938. A smiling young lady is getting off her bike and heading for a reception that was organized just for her. There’s content in her eyes, and why wouldn’t there be: with 29,064 miles in her legs, the brave cyclist has just established the women’s world record for miles covered in one year. What she’s not aware of at the moment is that it will take 76 years for someone to beat her achievement.
As so many legends, Billie Fleming too crossed paths with cycling by accident. She was born in 1914: as expected from a young lady at that time, Billie graduated from school at the age of 16 and started a career of a typist and secretary. Two years later, a friend introduced her to the benefits of riding a bicycle. Enchanted by the ride, Fleming decided to include pedalling in her daily routine. Back in the day, there was a lot of talk about women’s health and the positive influence movement has on it, so Billie came up with the idea of promoting movement on two wheels.
After contacting dozens of companies with a sponsorship request, Rudge-Whitworth equipped Billie with a new bicycle. Traditional cycling gear wasn’t the only equipment Billie had on her journey. The Cadbury company was sweet enough to sponsor the aspiring cyclist as well. Every month, she received five-pound bars of fine Cadbury chocolate. On January 1st, 1938, Fleming set off on her journey decided to ride every day no matter what. And so she did.
How did they check Billie’s performance back then, you ask? Well, they had quite a system worked out. Each day, Billie had to fill in a checklist, have it signed by a witness, and mail it to the Cycling magazine. Furthermore, a cyclometer was installed on her bicycle. Billie had to regularly visit what was called the “cycling offices”, so that the officers could check if the cyclometer hadn’t been tampered with.
The year 1938 is said to have had a cold and snowy winter, while the summer was sunny and mild. On those nice warm days, Billie covered distances that were double her average. She didn’t carry any bottles of water or food on her: when thirsty or hungry, the young lady simply stopped at a cafe or a restaurant.
The average distance Billie covered in a day was 81 miles, which, in the end, added up to 29,604 miles covered in one year. No water, no support team, just this easy-going young woman who described her adventure as something completely common: a simple matter of the power of youth. Her quest was all about promoting health on two wheels. Later on, she was called the “Rudge-Whitworth Keep Fit Girl”.
After completing her quest, Billie decided to cycle across the USA. However, WWII ruined her plans and she came up with a new idea: racing on a tricycle. Fleming set three new world records, for 25, 50 and 100 miles.
Billie didn’t really dedicate the rest of her life to cycling, but that doesn’t mean she was all done with it. Fleming simply cycled as a hobby instead of racing in an arena. The Keep Fit Girl died in 2014, aged 100 years and still holding the record. It was no sooner than two years after her passing that someone (namely Kajsa Tylen) managed to break it.