A long line of cyclists rolls gently along the muddy Basingstoke Canal path. The oldest is at the front, his white and blue Holdsworth showing its age, its rider wearing a blue jacket, his ironed trousers tucked into bicycle clips.
Constantly pointing out hazards and giving advice to anyone close enough to hear, there is one like him in every club in every town. But there’s no one quite like Russ Mantle.
As we near a cafe about five miles into the ride from his Aldershot home he stops, and announces he’s just ridden his one millionth mile.
One million. That’s 1,609,344km. Or 14,700 miles a year for 68 years. Cycling UK has organised a reception and applause echoes through the trees as he breaks a ribbon before facing the gathered press. Even France TV have come from their London bureau. For a while 82-year-old Mantle is lost in the throng.
“I was absolutely overwhelmed,” he tells us later. “It’s just another milestone, I’ve just kept going. I never really stopped cycling at all since I first had a bike in 1951 and I’ve gone on from there.
“My lowest ever mileage has been eight and a half thousand miles, but I shall only reach about 8,000 this year, but my best was 22,550 in ’01.”
Our gentle ride was a far cry from Mantle’s early years in the saddle. He began writing down every mile ridden after his father bought him his first bike, and within three years he was racing. He took the Farnham RC 10-mile record in 1956 with a 22.19, breaking his own 25-mile standard in 1961 with 57.11. Both records stood until 1987.
“I’ve beaten 13 club records, though many times it was my own club record,” he tells us, reeling off detail as though reading a list. “When I was 18 I came sixth in the National 25 Championship up in Bedfordshire, with a 58.35 on a 79 inch gear. It was quite a windy day too, I was inside 27 [minutes] going out and it was 31 to 32 going back.”
He would compete nationwide, mostly 25-mile TTs but also 30s, 50s and some 10s, even winning the Army 100km road race in Germany during his national service, but inevitably his racing legs eventually gave up.
“I lost my speed,” he laments. “I raced from 1953 up until 1967 and I decided to give it up for a while, then came back in 1971. My last three races I won, and then I packed it in in 1975. Then my mileage increased; as I got older I did more miles.”
For much of his life Mantle would lead the West Surrey CTC Hard Riders’ weekly outings, ride long solo efforts, and go on regular tours. The bike was also his main transport.
“I had a car for 37 years, it finished up with only 18,500 miles on the clock, and I was doing more than 18,500 in one year on my bicycle,” he says.
“Mind you, I was a professional cyclist then, because the DoE [Department of the Environment] paid me for riding round my patch supervising building work, and of course I would ride the long way round – typical cyclist!
“My longest ride was from Aldershot to Monmouthshire and back via Cirencester, 265 miles. I started off in the dark at 3am, I got back at quarter to 10 just when it was getting dark. I’ve also done Aldershot to Weston-super-Mare and back again; that was 255 miles.
“All my tours to all of the countries I have been to I have gone up the highest roads in that country and I park my bike at the highest passes and go walking for the rest of the day.
“I had a week in Colorado and I did all 10 of the highest passes and a road that goes up to Mount Evans at 14,127 feet [4,305m], that’s the highest I’ve cycled, then it’s just a short walk up to the peak.”
However, crashes have meant it’s not all been plain sailing. “A couple of them have been my fault, but I’ve been knocked over by motorists quite often. Broken ribs, which punctured my lung, which collapsed; a lorry knocked me into a wall which smashed my arm up and I was unconscious in Southampton hospital for three days.”
Despite this he has never been off the bike more than 10 weeks, even returning to the saddle within days of being released from hospital after collapsing on a ride in Wales and being treated “for my heart, arteries, cholesterol and something else”.
The millionth mile
There are two Rotrax bikes in Mantle’s garage, but it was one of three Holdsworths he picked for his millionth mile. With its 1982 frame, the bike bears the scars of many miles.
“My down tube got broken, so I filed down a seatpin, pushed it right down the tube then I clamped some aluminium tube round the outside with epoxy resin glue. That same frame has been up all the highest hills in the whole of Europe, the whole of the British Isles and America,” he says with some pride.
Age though means he’s had to gear down over the years. “All of my bikes have got a bottom gear of 20.5 inches which is still not low enough,” he explains, launching into another of his stories.
“I did all five of the highest hills in the Lake District in one ride of 112 miles. Then I only had a bottom gear of just under 40 [inches], but I managed. As I got to the top of the Hardknott Pass I was zigzagging and a car appeared at the summit and we actually passed each other on the wrong side of the road! It was all very safe. I was only just getting the pedals over!”
With the million-mile celebration cake eaten, Champagne drunk and journalists gone, Mantle got back on his bike and rode home again. Though he later admitted he needed a push up the hill to his house. He adds: “I won’t stop, I will probably ride into my grave.”