Walter William Greaves was never marked for fame or fortune. He came of age in the late 1920s in Bradford, a gritty mill town in the north of England, the oldest of five surviving children of Martha and Albert. His dad was a patent-medicine salesman, part-time blacksmith, and confirmed drunk. At 14, Walter was hitching a ride on the running board of his father’s car when the elder Greaves veered into a lamppost. Young Walter lost his left arm below the elbow, and gained a lifelong aversion to drink.
Bradford was a rough place, and soon after the accident a boy he’d once beaten in a fistfight thrashed the one-armed Walter without mercy. Friends said such experiences fueled his determination not to let his handicap slow him down. He played rugby with some success, ran the 100-yard dash in less than 11 seconds, and became an expert ballroom dancer. He also was an avid cyclist, making do with a machine cobbled together from junk and spare parts.
“While other riders ate their ham or potted meat sandwiches, Walter would pull out half a raw cabbage and munch his way through it saying, ‘Meat is second-hand vegetables.’”
Work in Bradford was hard to come by between the world wars, even for men with two good arms. Greaves’s prospects were further dampened both by his disability and his politics. He made no secret of his socialist views and quickly developed a reputation as a troublemaker, if not a terribly effective one. “Walter tried to make you sign up for the Young Communists, but nobody took much notice,” recalled his friend Tim Teale.
Greaves found work as a Hoover vacuum cleaner salesman and part-time mechanic, but spent most of his 20s unemployed and broke. That was his condition in 1933, when a friend offered Greaves a life-changing tip.
“Does ta want to win some brass, Walter?” the man said and offered the name of a horse. According to his biographer Aled Owen, Greaves borrowed two shillings—ostensibly for food—and played it all on the horse, which won and paid 25-1. Greaves took his 50 shillings straight to a bike shop and made a down payment on a 20-inch Sun Wasp bicycle, Owen writes in his delightful 2020 biography, Walter Greaves: True Yorkshire Grit.
The following Sunday he joined the West Bradford Cycling Club on a 110-mile run to Ribblehead, where he picked up the predictable nickname “one-arm” and an invitation to ride an upcoming 25-mile time trial. He rode the distance in one hour and twelve minutes at his first try, and before the year was out had lowered the mark to 1:07—an impressive time on a single-speed bicycle of the era, especially considering he hadn’t yet come up with the scratch to buy toe clips or proper cycling shoes.
That was remedied when Greaves found work at an auto-parts concern, and though the job left him little time to train, he put up some creditable solo time trials, including 100 miles in 4 hours 43 minutes, and 192 miles in 12 hours. When he was sacked from the auto-parts job he doubled down on training, despite barely having enough money for food.
A strict vegetarian from the age of about 20, Greaves spent half his weekly dole on milk, brown bread, butter, potatoes, and bruised bananas. The rest went to rent and race entries, with a shilling left over for tea at local cycling cafes. “While other riders ate their ham or potted meat sandwiches, Walter would pull out half a raw cabbage and munch his way through it saying, ‘Meat is second-hand vegetables,’” Owen writes.
Greaves became a standout member of the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club, riding the organization’s 24-hour time trial in 1935, riding 327 and 7/8 miles despite spending a good amount of time on the side of the road, incapacitated by soggy tomato sandwiches a well-meaning vegetarian had handed up to him. The feat gained the attention of the club’s press agent, Norrie Ward.
The record for the greatest distance ridden in a single year was 43,966 miles, set in 1933 by Australian professional Ossie Nicholson. Ward asked Greaves how far he thought he could ride in a year.
“With good luck and no unreasonable delays, 47,000 miles,” the one-armed rider replied.
That was all Ward needed to hear. Soon the impresario was sending press photos to local newspapers and sponsorship enquiries to bicycle companies throughout England—including a breakdown of costs. In Owen’s account, based in part on Greaves’s own unpublished memoir, Ward “sat in his swivel chair, stretching his full five-foot three inches frame to rest his feet on the mantelpiece and dictated to his secretary: ‘£10 a week manager’s salary, £3 a week rider’s expenses.’”
When Greaves protested the arrangement, the promoter snapped back. “Any bloody fool can ride a bike—it’s the manager that makes the ride.”
Greaves proposed to start on the first day of January, 1936, but with barely more than a week to go Ward’s letters had garnered nothing but rejections. On December 23, Greaves decided to pay a last-ditch visit to one of the leading prospects, Coventry Bicycles. For some unknown reason he set off on the 130-mile ride at 10 p.m. in a snowstorm. He arrived the following morning in a somewhat bedragged state, seeking an audience with the firm’s owner, a Mr. Downes—who announced on the spot that he’d already decided to sponsor the attempt.
Greaves pedaled back to Bradford through the ice and snow, believing that his epic mission had been unnecessary. Only later did he discover that Downes had not posted his sponsorship letter until after Greaves had left his offices.
“Greaves’ ride had clearly sealed the deal,” Dave Barter wrote in The Year: Reawakening the legend of cycling’s hardest endurance record. “The pluck of the wily Yorkshireman in dealing with the distance and inclement weather had convinced Downes that in Greaves he had a real contender. And Greaves had the sponsor he needed.”
Though the sponsorship provided what Greaves needed, it was lacking in many ways. Coventry didn’t make a lightweight racing bicycle, and the model Downes offered was not even the top of the line. The machine had just three gears, in the knee-busting ratios of 59, 71 and 79 inches (a 59-inch gear is equivalent to 42×19 on a modern road bike). Riders familiar with the hilly route he planned were amazed that anyone could ride it on such a machine, let alone with only one arm.
Worse, the bike wasn’t ready for Greave’s planned start on Jan. 1. He waited nearly a week for the bicycle to arrive, during which a rival record-seeker, Bob Walsh of Manchester, spun off more than 610 miles.
When the bicycle finally arrived Greaves spent a day making modifications, notably adding a twist-grip gear shifter of his own design, routing both brakes to a single lever, and chopping the left side of the handlebar clean off. He also attempted to soften the hard leather saddle, which he hadn’t had time to break in properly. Greaves and a friend rubbed the seat with butter and pounded it with the shaft of a hammer. It did little good; at the end of his first day Greaves recalled that his “sit-upon part . . . was terribly bruised, being swollen to over an inch thick.”
The next day he learned that his rival Walsh had been hit by a truck and was out of the competition. The contest was now with himself and Nicholson’s record of 43,996-3/4 miles—which after accounting for the late start worked out to just over 122 miles a day. What’s more, the Australian had ridden in good weather conditions, often on smooth racing tracks. Greaves was setting off in the middle of a Yorkshire winter, on poor roads and a heavy touring bike. While Nicholson had a masseur, a mechanic, a spare bike and a chase car, Greaves “had to live and ride on his wits alone, watching the pennies of his meagre sponsorship to buy his food, find his lodgings and maintain his machine,” Owen writes. “He also braved the British weather.”
He got a full measure of weather on his fourth day, when a gale raked the Yorkshire countryside with winds touching 60 mph. Greaves pedaled into the teeth of it for hours, determined to meet his daily quota of 130 miles. By nightfall he’d traveled only just 81, so he continued by moonlight, bulling his way through the headwind toward home until sensibly deciding to give up the prospect of his own bed and turning downwind. That created a new set of hazards, as the one-armed cyclist skittered along at high speeds, falling repeatedly on patches of icy road, narrowly dodging a truck and debris from a building that had been blown down in the storm.
Greaves made his miles, bringing his four-day total to 500 miles and 19 falls. The next morning he had his ears treated for frostbite, and rode all the way to London for a V.C & A.C. dinner. On the icy roads he found it better to trust the gyroscopic effect of his wheels at speed rather than caution to keep him upright. “The choice was between a slow ride with many minor falls or a faster ride with the threat of a severe spill,” Owen writes . “He chose the latter.”
Later that month Greaves paid a visit to Walsh in the hospital, and carried on, increasing his daily mileage as the days grew warmer. With the longer days he notched as many as 275 miles in a single day, and 374 miles without pausing to sleep. Greaves collided with a car in July, and developed an abscess that required surgery and 13 days off the bike. When he returned to the roads he upped his average to 160 miles a day in August, then 180 miles a day in late September and early October.
He fueled himself with a gallon of whole milk, 1-1/2 pounds of whole meal bread thickly spread with butter, and up to two pounds of apples each day. He later found dates and figs to be a rapid cure for hunger knock, and added up to two pounds of them to his daily menu. He drank water and occasionally ginger beer, but never a drop of alcohol.
He passed Nicholson’s total on December 13 in London’s Hyde Park, riding laps of the Serpentine with thousands of other cyclists until the record was his. At a reception that evening, journalists offered champagne to celebrate, but the vegetarian teetotaler was having none of it.
“When I want to poison myself, I’ll do it with arsenic,” he said.
The next day he was back on the bike, padding his lead. He finished the year at midnight on New Year’s Eve on the steps of Bradford’s town hall. He’d ridden 45,383 miles in the year 1936, despite his late start and hospitalization.
The very next day, three men set out to break the new record, including Briton Bernard Bennett, French WWI veteran René Menzies, and Nicholson himself. All three would beat Greaves’s mark—Menzies and Nicholson surpassed it on the same day—with Nicholson claiming the new record of 62,657 miles in 1937.
Two years later Englishman Tommy Godwin raised the bar to 75,065 miles and kept going, ultimately setting a new record for cycling 100,000 miles in an even 500 days—records that stood until 2015 and 2017 respectively.
After his record-setting year, Greaves became a leader in the Yorkshire cycling community. He founded the Airedale Olympic cycling club, and opened a cycle shop and later a café. He built bicycle frames noted for their innovative style and clean bronze welds. He died in 1987, aged 80.
Words by Jeff Moag