‘I’ve always cycled. It’s been my freedom for as long as I can recall,’ says Anne Hunt, the lady behind ‘Tribute to Billie’ – the year-long initiative celebrating Billie Fleming – who astonishingly, cycled over 29,000 miles in 1938, and lived to be 100.
Anne, from Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, works on the Intensive Care Unit in Watford General Hospital. Last year, when she wasn’t tending to the sick and injured, she was organising and encouraging hundreds of women to sit on saddles and ride as part of a year-long tribute to Billie Fleming who died one month after her 100th birthday in 2014 – still with the World Record for most miles cycled in a year by a woman.
On 2015’s Tribute to Billie, at least one woman had to ride every single day of the year. The aim was to retrace the route that Billie took across the UK.
Anne read Billie’s story when she made the news on her 100th birthday, 76 years after she rode 29,604 miles in one year to spread the word to women about the wonders of cycling.
“I was inspired,” Anne says. “She was an ordinary woman doing something extraordinary, and I wanted to tell her story.
I wanted to find out where she went on her record-setting journey with the intention of the riding the route myself. But I knew I couldn’t go off and do the whole lot with a husband and kids and a dog at home, so I came up with the idea to get women involved all over the UK,” Anne says.
Billie rode in every county in the UK and Scotland, so Anne had her work cut out. “I called and wrote to cycle clubs all over the UK but so many of them said ‘sorry but we don’t have any women.’ Some clubs were amazing such as Otley CC, Warwickshire Ladies CC and the Chester Fabulous Ladies. The British Cycling Breeze Network helped me so much.” Anne says. “Behind any mad idea of mine there is a legion of friends new and old supporting me to make it happen! I couldn’t have done this without them,” she says.
400 women rode in the tribute, covering 107,000 miles, visiting every county in the UK – just as Billie did.
Billie Fleming rode over 29,000 miles in one year to promote the health benefits of cycling.
In 1930, around 35 years after club cycling was ‘invented’ there was a movement called the Women’s League of Health and Beauty. The idea was that women could ‘renew’ their energy by taking gentle exercise every day. Women in the league wore leotards and moved in uniformity – lined up like an all-female military posing in this way and that.
The membership rose to 60,000, and a 24-year old Bille Dovey (as she was then) was inspired to exercise, but on her bike. She knew she could achieve this idea of health purely by cycling – so she set out to prove it. ‘Come and see the Rudge-Whitworth keep fit girl!’ the press said. Billie road a heavy steel bike with three gears and was sponsored by Cadbury.
On January 1st 1938, Billie got on her bike and rode every single day for a year. “I just got on my bike in the morning and kept cycling all day. I rode all over the country,” Billie said. “I was young and fit and ready to take on anything.”
On January 1st 2015, the year after Billie’s 100th birthday, Anne’s tribute year to Billie began. “There had to be at least one woman riding every day,” Anne says.
Billie wanted to get more women cycling, in fact her vision was to recruit one million more female cyclists – exactly the same goal that British Cycling has in 2016.
“She wanted to show that women can go out and ride in any weather and over long distances,” Anne says. In the Tribute to Billie, women were pushing themselves further and on roads they wouldn’t have ridden otherwise,” she said.
“I think women need a purpose as to why they are doing it – it really resonated with so many people and was wonderful,” Anne says. “It has opened doors for me. It’s lovely to think that Billie is still getting women into cycling after all of this time.”
Anne is planning a ‘Ride Like Billie’ on the anniversary of her birthday on April 13th 2016. Tribute to Billie Website