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In praise of the Hour Record

Trevor Ward
9 Jan 2020

The idea is simple – ride as far as you can in an hour – but success requires inconceivable levels of science and suffering

Long before you could stream Game Of Thrones to your mobile on the train home from work, entertainment choices for the masses were few and far between. If bear-baiting, public hangings or music hall didn’t tickle your fancy, your options were limited.

In 1884 you could have paid a shilling – or sixpence if you went after 6pm – to view the embalmed carcass of the Tay Whale that was being taken on a national tour by showman John Woods, who had paid £226 for the 12m-long mammal after it washed ashore near Aberdeen. Or if that was too expensive, you could have opted for a night at the six-day cycling.

It’s a rarely acknowledged fact that organised bike racing predates every football competition in the world. In 1878, William Cann won Britain’s first six-day race, covering 1,060 miles at the Agricultural Hall in Islington, London, on a high-wheeler – or Penny Farthing – 10 years before the English Football League was formed.

Across the Channel, famous road races such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège (1892) and Paris-Roubaix (1896) were attracting prestigious sponsors, massive crowds and international superstars long before the domestic football leagues of Spain, Italy and France.

Yes, for a short, glorious period, visiting dead whales or watching strapping young men riding bicycles were more popular spectator sports than even football. Thousands flocked to roadsides and velodromes to see these tweed and wool-clad gladiators suffer for their sport.

But races that lasted six days or covered distances as vast as Paris-Brest-Paris (1891) demanded a big commitment from fans, so ‘pocket-sized’ challenges also became popular.

Cometh the Hour…

In 1893, the first officially recorded Hour ride took place at the Buffalo velodrome in Paris. Henri Desgrange – yes, that Henri Desgrange – recorded a distance of 35.325km.

As athletic endeavours go, it’s remarkably simple yet relentlessly cruel. No matter how fast you go nor how much pain you endure, you won’t finish any sooner. The clue’s in the name.

Yet for all its simplicity – a person riding in circles for 60 minutes – its purity has been diluted by technological advances in recent years. Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman stretched the boundaries of what actually constituted a bicycle in their greed for speed during the 1990s. Each pushed frame design to its limits and adopted riding positions that resembled circus contortionist acts.

The rivalry between the two was bitter, especially after Obree effectively ‘gazumped’ Boardman’s 1993 attempt to better Francesco Moser’s 1984 record by announcing his own attempt one week ahead of the Olympic champion’s. Boardman returned the gesture in 1996 by ‘nicking’ Obree’s ‘Superman’ position and setting a never-since-equalled distance of 56.375 km.

It was at this point the UCI stepped in and tried to restore some order. Out went tri-bars, disc wheels and unnatural riding positions. Eddy Merckx’s record from 1972 – when he rode 49.431km around the Mexico City velodrome on a drop-bar bike with round tubes and spoked wheels – was restored by the UCI as the ‘Athlete’s Record’.

Boardman rose to the challenge, ending his career in 2000 by adding 10m to Merckx’s total. A further 259m was added by Czech rider Ondrej Sosenka in 2005, but many fans still regarded Merckx’s as the purest record. After all, he’d been wearing a hairnet helmet and a woollen jersey, while Boardman and Sosenka had worn aero helmets and skinsuits.

In 2014, the UCI – no doubt under pressure from tri-bar and disc wheel manufacturers – changed the goalposts again so that commercially available technology was allowed (but not the washing machine parts Obree had famously used in his machine, Old Faithful, 20 years earlier).

This prompted a mini golden era, which saw the record change hands five times in two years, culminating in Sir Bradley Wiggins’s 2015 record of 54.546km in London.

High and mighty fast

Earlier this year the event moved to Mexico and a track 1,800m above sea level (where the air density is thinner) as Belgian rider Victor Campenaerts attempted to raise the bar even further.

The TT specialist – who had previously made headlines by writing a request for a date on his chest during a TT in the 2017 Giro d'Italia, for which he was subsequently fined by the UCI – spent three weeks acclimatising before climbing aboard his Ridley Arena TT bike in the largely empty Aguascalientes velodrome and beating Sir Brad’s record with a distance of 55.089km.

To achieve the fine line between comfort and aerodynamic gains, he eschewed a visor on his helmet, rode without gloves and wore a short-sleeved skinsuit. This came after a period of training in Namibia, chosen for having a similar altitude and climate to Aguascalientes and for being in the same time zone as Belgium.

This appliance of science is the stuff William Cann and Henri Desgrange could only have dreamed of as they entertained those early audiences more than a century ago. But is there a place for the Hour Record in a world driven by commercial results?

Campanaerts’s record was only made possible by his team funding the weeks of preparation involved. It’s an open secret that Alex Dowsett – who rode 52.937km a month before Wiggins – would love his team to show him the same indulgence for a second attempt at the record.

Would other WorldTour teams consider the Hour to be a legitimate or profitable goal in its business plan? As Sir Bradley Wiggins says, ‘There’s no real reward for the Hour. You don’t get a pay rise – you get nothing. It’s like getting a knighthood. You get sod all.’

For fans, though, it remains a unique spectacle whose simplicity belies the suffering and science behind it.

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