John Woodburn, 1936-2017: A unique, record-breaking rider

Still posting record-breaking rides well into his 70s, John Woodburn was one of Britain's greatest time triallists. He died on Good Friday, aged 80

John Woodburn
(Image credit: Cycling Weekly archive)

John Woodburn, who died on Good Friday aged 80, was a time trial champion, an international roadman and a record breaker who was still the man to beat well into his seventies.

Woodburn, who was born in Handsworth, Birmingham but whose family relocated to the Reading area after the war, shot to both fame and notoriety when he won the National 25 in 1961, becoming the first man to win a National Time Trial Championship on a geared bike. In British time trialling it wasn’t that the derailleur wasn’t allowed — it simply wasn’t done.

George Pearson, the editor of Cycling magazine – the forerunner of Cycling Weekly – described the new champion Woodburn in his race report as “not an easy personality to describe. He can be serious, or drily humorous, and banter that may hint at conceit may even conceal a degree of shyness.”

What was certain was that Woodburn had acquired a taste for riding roughshod over cycling dictum, and his geared victory set the tone for a long career of nonconformism.

The following year he was contracted by Moulton to use the new small-wheeled bikes with suspension — not regarded as serious racing bikes — to attempt place-to-place road records. He broke the Cardiff-London in December 1962, covering 162 miles at an average of 24mph.

In 1963 he rode the Peace Race behind the Iron Curtain with the Great Britain team, finishing 14th out of 121. He explained that since the rest of the British team weren’t up to it, he rode most of it on his own.

As he got older, Woodburn refused to slow down and instead continued to upset the established order. In 1978, aged 42, he became the first veteran to win the British Best All-Rounder time trial competition and in 1981 he beat Les West’s Bath-and-back road record.

Perhaps Woodburn’s most memorable achievement was the famous smashing of the Land’s End-John o’ Groats record in 1982. His 45 hours and three minutes stood for 14 years until 1996, when Andy Wilkinson beat it by just 57 seconds, and the current time of 44 hours, 4 minutes and 20 seconds, set by Gethin Butler in 2001, is barely an hour faster.

In the 1990s and 2000s Woodburn was still winning and breaking records. He rode a 51-minute 25 at the age of 63 and at 73 he rode a 21-minute 10: both age-related records still stand.

Woodburn is survived by his partner, Anne. The funeral takes place on Thursday, May 11, at 1pm at St Mary’s, Twyford, RG10 9NT. No flowers by request.

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