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Rapha - G.P Mills Bordeaux - Paris Cycling History

G.P. MILLS 1867-1945

His first record, on a solid-tyred, 53-inch ‘ordinary’ (a penny-farthing), was made at the tender age of 19. Mills, the winner of the 1891 inaugural Bordeaux-Paris is my ultimate cycling hero.

Bordeaux-Paris is one of cycling’s lost classics. Once regarded as the toughest one-day race in France, the ‘Derby of the Road’ saw the peloton roll out during the night, making the tough, near-600km parcours more gruelling still. Last staged in 1988, the sight of the world’s finest riders heading into the darkness in the early hours was once a highlight of the racing calendar. Among my collection of original cycling photographs is this beautiful image of George Pilkington Mills, winner, in 1891, of the first edition of the race.

Pictured above in 1893, Mills is my ultimate cycling hero, a phenomenal rider who accumulated records as if his life depended on it. During the years 1886 to 1893, for example, the English-born Mills collected no fewer than six records for the ‘End-to-End’, the name given to cycling from one end of Britain to the other; from Land’s End, at the most south-western point of England, to John O’Groats, the most north-westerly point of the Scottish mainland, a distance, on the roads of the time, of approximately 900 miles.

His first record, on a solid-tyred, 53-inch ‘ordinary’ (a penny-farthing), was made at the tender age of 19. Despite poor weather and winds so strong that, at one point, Mills and his pacing companions were blown clean off their bicycles, Mills rode the distance in 5 days 1hr 45mins.

The portrait above shows Mills on the Humber tricycle on which he claimed his End-to-End record of 1893. His other records for the End-to-End were:

  • 1886 Tricycle (solid tyres) 5 days 10hrs 

  • 1891 Bicycle (pneumatic tyres) 4 days 11hrs 17mins
  • 1893 Tricycle (pneumatic tyres) 3 days 16hrs 47mins
  • 1894 Bicycle (pneumatic tyres) 3 days 5hrs 49mins
 

  • 1895 Tandem bicycle (with T.A. Edge) 3 days 4hrs 46mins 


When considering these feats one must bear in mind the road conditions during this period. Road surfaces were loose, often heavily rutted by horse and carriage traffic; dusty when dry and a quagmire when wet. Mills was further encumbered by bicycles that were much heavier than today’s machines. The 1891 record was made on a bicycle weighing about 50lbs – more than twice the weight of the average road bike today – and fitted with low-pressure, balloon-like pneumatic tyres which suffered countless punctures. In many ways, his 1886 tricycle record is the most remarkable of all, achieved on a solid-tyred, Cripper-type machine topping the scales at a whopping 75lbs. Carried out in dreadful weather once again, Mills knocked 29 hours off the record set by T.R. Marriott the previous year.

The record Mills set in 1891, on an early version of a ‘safety’ bicycle, the direct forerunner of the modern bike, was also memorable. ‘Safeties’ earned their named because, unlike the penny farthing, they had two wheels of the same size and thus tended not to catapult riders into the road surface from a great height. Mills covered 256 miles in the first 24 hours; when it started raining heavily, he took his first sleep, of 30 minutes, at Penrith but not until he had clocked 456 miles. With less than 20 miles to go to the finish, Mills collapsed, seemingly with exhaustion. He slept for 7 hours before finishing the final stage, going on to beat the previous record by 14 1/2 hours.

“He took his first sleep, of 30 minutes, at Penrith but not until he had clocked 456 miles.”

Later, it was established that when Mills was flagging on the last day, one of his helpers gave him dose of cocaine large enough to have killed a normal person. His doctor concluded that Mills was saved only by his massive exertions prior to his collapse. The story is often cited as an early example of drug taking in sport but it is important to remember that, at that time, cocaine was considered little more than a stimulant and was also used as an appetite suppressant. As late as 1910, Captain Robert Falcon Scott used widely available cocaine tablets to aid him on his expedition to the South Pole.

As well as his End-to-End efforts, Mills held numerous other records, including a 24-hour time-trial, and 50-mile titles on both bicycle and tricycle. He was a member of the Anfield Bicycle Club and a founder member of the North Road Cycling Club, both of which had a reputation for producing record breakers.

Mills’ victory at the first Bordeaux-Paris, came in a finishing time of 26 hours for the 355-mile distance and while he was the first Briton to win the race he was by no means the last. That honour falls to the legendary Tommy Simpson, who won the race 50 years ago this year, in the rather speedier time of 14 hours.

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