The Hour is cycling’s blue riband event, the ultimate test of a riders’s physical ability. It is elegant in its simplicity; how far can you go in 60 minutes of searing effort? No race tactics, no team assistance, no let-up, just an individual pushing themselves to their maximum in the ultimate ‘race of truth’. In recent months the Hour has been claimed by three riders. In September 2014 modern cycling legend, the indefatigable Jens Voigt, set a new record of 51.110 kilometres, closely followed by Matthias Brändle with 51.852 kilometres in October, and Rohan Dennis with 52.941 kilometres in February 2015. All three have benefited from recent changes by professional cycling’s governing body the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) to the rules governing the event that now allow the use of modern track pursuit bicycles while making an attempt. The Hour has always been seen as the epitome of human physical endeavour in cycling and concerns that technological innovations gave riders an undue advantage led in 2000 to the UCI imposing strict rules on the bikes that could be used. In effect, while recognising the achievements of record holders such as Francesco Moser, Chris Boardman, Graeme Obree, Tony Rominger, Miguel Indurain, and Ondřej Sosenka, the UCI turned the clock back to the last ‘pure’ record, that set by the cyclist non-pareil Eddy Merckx in Mexico City in 1972 when he rode 49.431 kilometres. It is the bike he rode to the Hour that is today’s object.
The history of the Hour goes back almost as far as the bicycle itself and for a few brief years it was the British who dominated. The first, albeit contested, record was set in Wolverhampton by James Moore in 1873 when he rode 23.331 kilometres on a 49 inch Ariel bicycle. Moore is also popularly regarded as the winner of the first ever organized bicycle race at St-Cloud, Paris in 1868. Three years after Moore’s Hour, Frank Dodds rode a penny farthing around the grounds of Cambridge University to secure an unofficial record of 26.508 kilometres. In 1877 Shopee covered 26.960 kilometres also at Cambridge only to lose the record a year later to Oxford in the person of Weir with 28.542 kilometres. In 1882 the last of the nineteenth century British record holders, Herbert Lydell Cortis, broke the 30 kilometre barrier when he covered 30.374 kilometres. A record he held for 5 years before Jules Dubois pushed the distance to 32.454 kilometres at Coventry in 1887.
A few years later the stars of the thriving track racing scene in Britain, Continental Europe, and America were setting their own hour records while paced by other riders, as men such as Jimmy Michael, Arthur and Tom Linton, F. W. Stocks, Frank Starbuck, and Dubois vied for the prestige of being the fastest man over 60 minutes. Sitting in the slipstream of others gives a rider a considerable advantage allowing far greater speeds and distances to be achieved. The difference could be considerable as shown by Tom Linton who in 1897 held records for the unpaced and paced hour of 38.523 kilometres and 50.424 kilometres respectively. When F. W. Stocks extended this in September of the same year to 52.492 kilometres while paced by a motorcycle America’s cycling governing body, the League of American Wheelmen, dismissed the record, arguing that attempts should be achieved solely through the efforts of the rider.
Quite why the League drew the line at motor pacing when it recognized records achieved with the help of teams of pacemen on bicycles is something only they can answer. Their attitude does however draw attention to the important question that has vexed classification of the Hour to this very day. If the Hour is meant to represent supreme human physical effort, to what extent should mechanical or other advantage be allowed to play a part? The UCI recognises neither Linton’s or Stocks’ records, or indeed those of any professional rider of the time. Its forebear, the International Cycling Association (ICA), founded in 1892 by Henry Sturmey who later went on to found Sturmey-Archer, was a product of the spirit of amateurism that was prevalent at the time. Professionals were beyond the pale, the true sportsman being “One who has never engaged in, nor assisted in, nor taught any athletic exercise for money, nor knowingly competed with or against a professional for a prize of any description.” The likes of Linton and his peers fell far wide of this ideal at a time when professional racing was organized in a manner more akin to prize fighting.
With the driving force behind the ICA being the desire for an international body to provide a common definition of amateurism to be adopted by national cycling bodies and to organize world championships, professionals were not in the running. As a result the first official Hour record recognized today by the UCI is that of one of cycling’s most famous names, Henri Desgrange. Today he is remembered as the founder of cycling’s greatest race, the Tour de France, but he was also a talented amateur endurance cyclist. In 1893 he rode 35.325 kilometres at the Buffalo velodrome in Paris. With the ICA now in existence Desgrange’ effort was ratified as the first internationally recognized Hour record, presumably to the chagrin of all those who had gone before.
Between 1893 and 1907 the Hour changed hands another five times with Jules Dubois (1894, 38.220 kilometres), Marcel Van Den Eynde (1897, 39.240 kilometres), Willie Hamilton (1898, 40.781 kilometres), Lucien Petit-Breton (1905, 41.110 kilometres), and Marcel Berthet (1907, 41.520 kilometres) taking the crown. Oscar Egg took the Hour in 1912 for the first of his three triumphs in a back-and-forth battle with Berthet that saw the record change hands five times between 1912 and 1914 when Egg extended the record to 44.247 kilometres.
Egg’s record was to stand for nineteen years when in 1933 Jan Van Hout covered 44.588 kilometres at Roermond in the Netherlands, swiftly followed by the last record to be made at the Buffalo velodrome by Maurice Richard with 44.777 kilometres. Two years later Guiseppe Olmo became the first man to go beyond 45 kilometres, by just 90 metres, at the Vigorelli in Milan. In 1936 Maurice Richard gained the second of his Hour records with 45.325 kilometres, followed the next year by Frans Slaats (45.485 kilometres) and Maurice Archambaud (45.767 kilometres).
The next holder of the Hour was one of cycling’s greats, Il Campionissimo, Champion of Champions, Angelo Fausto Coppi, who in 1940 had won the Giro d’Italia at the age of 20 on his first appearance. By 1942 he had joined the 38th Infantry when Italy entered the Second World War. During the national pursuit championship final at the Vigorelli Coppi had crashed, breaking his collarbone. His opponent in the race, Cino Cinelli, later founder of the famous handlebar company, sportingly offered to postpone the final until Coppi had recovered. It was during his recovery that Coppi decided to attempt the Hour, perhaps in part to delay the inevitable call up to serve on the front lines. With the Vigorelli being used by the Army as a clearing station Coppi was forced to train on a straight, flat stretch of road between Novi and Tortona.
It was hardly ideal preparation. On 7 November in a bomb damaged Vigorelli, Coppi set off shortly after 2 p.m., his departure timed to coincide with expected lulls in the Allied bombing campaign against Italian industry and military and transport infrastructure in Italy. By the 30 minute mark he was behind Archambaud. The next ten minutes saw him slowly claw back the deficit until he was on par. Twenty minutes later Coppi had gained the hour, by just 31 metres. The UCI in Switzerland never received the documentation for the attempt and it was not until 1947 that his record was ratified. By April 1943 Coppi was a prisoner of war, captured by the British at Cap Bon during the final phases of the Battle of Tunisia.
It was 14 years before the next attempt on the Hour was to be made, this time by another cycling great, the first five time winner of the Tour de France, Jacques Anquetil. In 1955 Anquetil was carrying out his national service as a gunner with the 406th Artillery Regiment. Already a record four times straight winner of the Grand Prix des Nations, a race he was to win nine times in his career, Anquetil was allowed to continue his racing career, the Army enjoying the resultant publicity. In June 1955 Anquetil received permission from his Commanding Officer to make an attempt on the Hour. On 22 October in front of 10,000 partisan fans at the Vigorelli he made his first attempt. Anquteil was way off the pace. At 45.175 kilometres not only had he failed to beat Coppi he was also behind the previous three record holders.
By the following June Anquetil was back in Milan for a second attempt. Starting too fast he tired, clipping the sandbags that marked the edge of the track with his pedals. His rhythm broken Anquetil lost ground and stopped at 54 minutes 36 seconds having covered 41.326 kilometres. The crowd gleefully chanted “Coppi! Coppi! Coppi!” as an exhausted Anquetil was carried to a chair in the corner of the velodrome. Four days later on 29 June he was back for a third tilt at the Hour, this time equipped with a replica of the bike Coppi had used for his record. The markers had been reduced in number and replaced by bags filled with foam. Anquetil, using the experience he had gained from his previous efforts, paced himself better keeping to the schedule established for the ride. With two laps to go he wound himself up for the final effort and with the crowd’s cry of “Forza Jacque!” ringing in his ears he hit the hour with 46.159 kilometres ridden. He had beaten Coppi by 311 metres. Back at the barracks in France Anquetil was received with a guard of honour and promoted to Corporal.
By September 1956 the Hour had returned to Italy when Ercole Baldini rode 46.394 at the Vigorelli followed by two successful attempts in 1957 and 1959 by Roger Rivière, the latter effort extending the record to 47.347 kilometres. Nine years later Ferdinand Bracke became the first to go over 48 kilometres, to be bettered a year later by Ole Ritter who rode 48.653 kilometres at the Olympic Velodrome in Mexico City, the first high-altitude hour record since Willie Hamilton’s in Denver, Colorado, in 1898.
1972 was another successful year for Eddy Merckx which he began as reigning World Champion. Victories in Milan-San Remo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Het Volk, and Flèche-Wallone a third win in the Giro, a fourth successive win in the Tour where he also took the points classification and won six stages, the Baracchi Trophy a two-man team trial he won with Roger Swerts, the Tour of Lombardy, and his fourth successive win in the Super Prestige Pernod competition were highlights among the fifty victories that Merckx achieved from the 127 races he took part in that year. It was during the round of post-Tour criteriums at a race in Rummen, Belgium, that he definitely decided that 1972 would be the year he made his attempt on the Hour.
Unlike many professional riders Merckx was equally as obsessive about the bikes he rode and the components they were equipped with as he was about his training. Suffering permanent back pain from a crash at Blois in 1969 Merckx was an inveterate tinkerer, constantly adjusting the height of his saddle by fractions of a millimetre in a ceaseless quest to find the perfect position. Long before Dave Brailsford championed the principle of marginal gains that led to the successes of the British track cycling team at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Games, Merckx knew the importance of having the right frame geometry, components, wheelsets, and position on the bike to ensure that every turn of the pedals resulted in the maximum possible return.
With his friend and sponsor the bicycle manufacturing legend Ernesto Colnago, Merckx designed the bike on which he would make the attempt. The challenge was to build the lightest possible time-trial bike. The end result was a frame built from Columbus special record tubing equipped with Campagnolo Record, a custom Pino Morroni titanium stem, Cinelli Campione del Mondo handlebars, a Regina Record chain, and a Selle Royal Eddy Merckx saddle. To further decrease weight the handlebars, seat post, chainstays, and chain were drilled. The chainring had cut out webbing, the pedals had cut-down cages, and the hubs were built with hollow axles and downsized nuts with the dust caps removed. The bike was finished in the burnt orange colours of Merckx’s Molteni-Arcore team. With a wheelset built from Fiamme Ergal rims, zinc-plated steel spokes, and Clement Seta Pista tyres the bike weighed in at a fraction under 5.5 kilograms.
Initially Merckx chose to ride the Hour at the Vigorelli at the request of his Italian sponsors. As a location it had the advantage of requiring little travel, and allowed for a direct comparison with all but two previous records since 1935. Inclement weather scotched his plans as incessant rain over a number of days left the track unfit for cycling. Unable to use the Vigorelli Merckx switched to Mexico City, training for altitude by riding on a home trainer while breathing an air mixture equivalent to that at the altitude of the Olympic Velodrome. With his preparations complete Merckx flew to Mexico City where at the Velodrome he decided to increase his gear from 52×15 to 52×14 after riding a few test laps and planned a schedule that would see him separately attempt records at 5, 10, and 20 kilometres in addition to the hour.
Then the weather struck again leaving the track unrideable for two days. Abandoning his plans to set records for the shorter distances Merckx opted to ride on the morning of 25 October with the intent of claiming the 10 and 20 kilometres during the Hour. At 8 a.m. after an early rise, a breakfast of toast, cheese, ham, and coffee, followed by a warm-up session he was ready to go. Watched by 2,000 spectators including the ex-king, Leopold of Belgium, Merckx set off at 8:56 exactly. Sixty minutes of intense effort awaited him.
He started fast, covering the first kilometre in 1 minute 9.97 seconds at 51.456 kilometres per hour. The five kilometre mark came up at 5 minutes 55.7 seconds, an average of 50.604 kilometres per hour. By then he was already 14 seconds ahead of the pace set by Ritter in 1968. By twenty kilometres Merckx was ahead by 35 seconds. Giogi Albani, who had the job of standing at the point Merckx was in relation to Ritter’s progress when each lap bell was rung, urged Merckx to ease up a little. Between the 42nd and 48th minutes Merckx began to slow, his lap and three-quarters advantage dropping to a lap. Grimacing and fidgeting on his saddle Merckx rode on. By now the record was not in doubt. The question was, by how much could he extend it? Digging deep into his reserves of mental and physical strength Merckx powered through his final two kilometres, covering the last in 1 minute 11.76 seconds and riding lap 148, the last complete one, in 24 seconds. As the clock hit 60 minutes Merckx had emphatically taken the record with 49.431 kilometres. He had beaten Ritter by 788 metres, the biggest margin of victory since 1912.
The effort had taken its toll. Photographs and film show the pain and exhaustion he felt. In a post race interview Merckx described the Hour as “the longest of my career”, going on to say:
“The Hour record demands a total effort, permanent and intense, one that’s not possible to compare to any other. I will never try it again. There are those who told me that if I came here to Mexico I wouldn’t feel the pedals. I assure you, I could feel the pedals! Nevertheless, I don’t regret this choice. I don’t think I could ever improve on this record. Yet I am convinced that one day my record will be beaten. That is the law of the sport.”
True to his word Merckx never made another attempt on the Hour. Twelve years later his prediction that his record would be beaten came to pass when Francesco Moser rode 50.808 kilometres in Mexico City in 1984, an incredible increase of 1.377 kilometres over Merckx. Four days later Moser extended the record yet further to 51.151 kilometres. On both occasions he benefited from advances in the aerodynamic design of his frame and the use of disc wheels. Merckx, usually fair in defeat, was less than complimentary. During his career he had beaten Moser in every time-trial the two both appeared in, leading Merckx to comment that, “For the first time in the history of the Hour record a weaker man has beaten a stronger man.” In 1999 Moser admitted that he had used blood doping to prepare for his Hour under the guidance of the now infamous Franceso Conconi, who with his then assistants Michelle Ferrari and Luigi Cecchini, were to go on to be at the centre of the doping scandal that has marred professional road racing for the last two and a half decades.
In 1985 blood doping was not technically illegal. How much this contributed to Moser’s success is open to discussion. What is certain is that advances in the technology of the bicycle gave him an advantage that called the purity of the hour into question. The next few record attempts were to see an even greater role played by aerodynamics and technology. In 1993 the record returned to Britain when Scotsman Graeme Obree set a new record at the Vikingskipet velodrome in Hamar, Norway, on a bike of his own design. ‘Old Faithful’, as Obree named his bike, had no top tube, a single fork blade, straight handlebars, and utilised bearings from a washing machine. With the handlebars tucked under his chest Obree was able to adopt an aerodynamic position impossible on a standard track or road bike. After failing on his first attempt by a kilometre Obree returned to the track the next day to post a distance of 51.596 kilometres.
Six days later Chris Boardman secured the first of his Hour records at the Velodrome de Bordeaux riding 52.270 kilometres on a carbon monocoque frame with carbon wheels and tri-bars. Cannily Boardman and his team had staged their attempt to coincide with the arrival of the Tour in Bordeaux and his success gained him an invitation to stand on the Tour podium next to yellow jersey wearer Miguel Indurain, earning Boardman maximum publicity. In April 1994 Obree regained the Hour, this time at Bordeaux, riding 52.713 kilometres. Had his bike been equipped with two disc wheels instead of tri-spokes he would arguably have added a kilometre to this distance. Obree’s success was again short-lived, as Indurain, four weeks after his fourth victory in the Tour, set a new record of 53.040, again at Bordeaux. In October and November Tony Rominger, under the tutelage of Ferrari, first beat Indurain with 53.832 kilometres, then replaced his own record with a ride of 55.291 kilometres.
Significantly both Indurain and Rominger made use of specialised time-trial frames and two disc wheels during their attempts. Increasingly concerned that athletic performance was being overshadowed by technology the UCI introduced changes to the rules governing the bikes that could be ridden during UCI events. Obree’s ‘praying mantis’ position was banned leading him to develop the ‘superman’ position in which the arms are stretched out horizontally at almost full length. Boardman, an equipment and training obsessive to rival Merckx, was to adopt this position himself for his 1996 Hour attempt during which he set an as yet unsurpassed 56.375 kilometres. In 2000 the UCI introduced rule changes that sought to re-establish the Hour as a human rather than technological achievement. Two separate record categories were established: The Athlete’s Hour in which riders would have to participate on equipment similar to that available to Merckx in 1972, with no monocoque frames, disc or tri-spoke wheels, or time-trial bars and helmets; and the Best Human Effort, or Absolute, record which allowed riders to use innovations introduced after 1972. For both categories the equipment and clothing used had to be commercially available. All records set since 1972 were downgraded to the category of Absolute.
Technology had certainly played a significant part in extending Merckx’s record by 6.944 kilometres but it must be recognised that Moser, Obree, Indurain, Rominger, and Boardman had put in their absolute best physical effort in their Hour attempts. The question was whether that effort could truly be compared to that of Merckx. Would they have beaten his record if they had made their attempts on comparable machines? Boardman answered this later in 2000 when he rode the Hour on a bike modelled on Merckx’s machine at the Manchester Velodrome. His Athlete’s Hour record of 49.441 kilometres, 10 metres more than Merckx, confirms his class as a rider, particularly when we consider that the attempt was at sea-level.
The rule changes may have been intended to reintroduce the purely human characteristic of the Hour, but sadly the real effect of cancelling records and stifling innovation was to kill off interest in making an attempt. After Boardman in 2000 only one rider successfully gained the Athlete’s Hour when Ondřej Sosenka rode 49.700 kilometres in Moscow. While officially recognised by the UCI a failed hematocrit test in 2000 and a suspension following a positive for methamphetamine in 2008 casts a long shadow over his attempt. In May 2014 the UCI introduced another set of rule changes designed to reinvigorate the Hour that reflect the advances in bike design that have been introduced in other track endurance events such as the pursuit.
The Athlete’s and Best Human Effort records have now been unified into a single classification and the records achieved between 1973 and 1996 have been officially reinstated. To complicate matters, and add further insult to Boardman, the record as at May 2014 was set as that of Sosenka’s 49.700 kilometres instead of Boardman’s 56.375. Riders may now make the attempt on any bike that meets UCI Cycling Regulations. All bikes must be constructed of commercially available components of a type that is sold for use by anyone practising cycling as a sport, a nod to the egalitarian ideals of the UCI that anyone should be able to participate in competition and that individual’s should not gain an advantage through exclusive access to equipment.
The effect of these changes has seen a dramatic upswing in interest in the Hour with five attempts being made between between September 2014 and February 2015 beginning with Jens Voigt’s 51.110 kilometres, the ultimate swansong before retiring from a long and successful career. Since then the record has changed hands another two times with Matthias Brändle’s 51.852 kilometres in October 2014 and Rohan Dennis’ 52.491 kilometres in February 2015. An earlier February attempt by Jack Bobridge fell short by 582 metres while Alex Dowsett was forced to postpone his attempt as a result of a slowly healing broken collarbone. Thomas Dekker just failed to beat the record in late February when he covered 52.221 kilometres. Three times World Time-Trial Champion, Tony Martin, has announced his intention to take the Hour on, Bradley Wiggins has announced his intention to ride the Hour in June 2015. The most recent attempt on the Hour, saw Britain’s most successful Paralympian, Sarah Storey, set new British and Paralympian C5 Women’s records of 45.502 kilometres falling 563 metres short of Leontien Ziljaard-van Moorsel’s 2003 World Hour record.
The return of a vibrant, highly competitive Hour is welcome but the rule changes also force us to again ask what is the Hour record worth if technology rather than physical effort is the determining factor? Boardman’s 49.441 kilometres are clearly a better comparison to Merckx’s record than the 56.375 he rode in 1996 on the famous Lotus monococque. In 1996 the combined effect of the bike frame, the disc wheels, the time-trial bars, and the ‘Superman’ position were worth almost an extra seven kilometres. Purists would argue from this that it is Boardman’s 2000 record that is the true Hour achievement because by riding on a traditional bike there is a direct comparison between the efforts of both riders. To a certain extent this is true in that both men made their attempts on similar machines, but it ignores the fact that due to developments in frame tubing, alloys, bearings, and other componentry Merckx’s bike was almost as far removed from that of the first official record holder, Desgrange, as Boardman’s Lotus was from Merckx’s hour bike.
According to current rules Merckx’s bike at 5.5 kilograms would fail the UCI criteria that bikes must weigh a minimum of 6.8 kilograms to be considered eligible for any UCI governed event. Unlike Boardman, Merckx enjoyed the comparative advantage of riding at high altitude where the lower resistance resulting from the thinner air required less physical effort to reach and maintain speed. Boardman’s 49.441kilometres were ridden in a carefully climate controlled indoor environment intended to maximise his performance. Though not wearing a full time-trial helmet Boardman’s contemporary helmet was aerodynamically styled compared to Merckx’s hairnet. Unlike Merckx, an out and out road racer and a six-day rider on the track, Boardman’s background lay in the world of British amateur time-trialling. One of its staple distances, twenty-five miles, sees riders regularly riding for the best part of an hour. Unlike Boardman, the same level of technical assistance in training through the use of heart-rate monitors, power-meters, and computer analysis was not available to Merckx. All these differences make a genuinely true comparison difficult as each will have played their part in the final outcome.
In June 1992 Boardman was unknown outside the insular world of British time-trialling. By August he was a household name in the UK after he won the 4 kilometre pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics. It was not just the fact that he had won Great Britain’s first cycling gold in 72 years that captured the public’s imagination. Aged just 23, unemployed and broke, and married with two children, Boardman appealed to the British public’s fondness for the plucky underdog; and he rode to victory on a marvel of technology designed and built by Lotus, the legendary British sports car marque. The technology as much as the performance was the centre of interest and it was this blend of supreme physical effort and human ingenuity, allied with genuine competition between Boardman and Obree, that gave the Hour so much appeal in the 1990’s. The technological race in a era of innovation in bicycle design gave the Hour an edge and an appeal that it had lost since 1972.
In 1996 Merckx was one of the first to congratulate Boardman on his record. Perhaps the passage of time allowed Merckx to be more objective than he was able to be in 1984 when Moser broke the Hour. What seems certain is that Merckx saw in Boardman a worthy winner, an athlete who had earned the Hour through talent and raw, hard work. Technology and a scientific method had played their part but it was Boardman’s physical ability that ultimately made the difference between success and failure.
The recent rule changes have had the desired effect, reinvigorating the Hour by once more making it an attractive proposition to cyclists at the top of their game. In the last five months we have seen the record tumble three times in five attempts. The record now officially stands at 52.491 kilometres. Can anyone take it beyond the 56.375 kilometres set by Boardman or do the restrictions on bike design and the position of the rider on the bike mean that Boardman’s distance will remain unassailable until such time as the UCI change the rules again? Only time will tell. Dennis Rohan’s current record of 52.491 arguably sets a distance for the Hour that will be difficult to beat and any gains from now on are likely to be relatively small. British fans, including myself, will be hoping that Bradley Wiggins will be successful should he go ahead with his plans to ride the Hour later in 2015. As the current World Time Trial Champion and Olympic Time Trial Champion, a Tour de France Winner, and multiple gold medal winning individual and team pursuit champion on the track, Wiggins has the class and experience to do well. Whether he is ultimately successful or not we should be pleased that the Hour has returned to its place as the blue riband event of world class cycling.
by Mike Dash
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