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Amateur Hour: Cyclist staffer attempts the Hour Record

Stu Bowers
4 Jun 2015

Cyclist's Stu Bowers takes on the Hour Record to see how hard it actually is.

‘Don’t do it, Stu.’ That was the advice Jack Bobridge offered when I spoke to him in the lead up to Cyclist’s attempt at the Hour record, ringing in my ears as I try to disguise my fear for the benefit of the few onlookers who are here to see me suffer. I clip into my pedals and, with the help of my coach, Rob, nudge my front tyre precisely up to the starting line. This is it. This is really happening. I gaze along the black datum line stretching out in front of me endlessly around the Lee Valley Velopark Olympic velodrome. I feel privileged to be here – this is where Britain’s track riders beat the world’s best at the 2012 Olympics, and where just 10 days previously Dame Sarah Storey made her bid for the women’s Hour record. My view of that black line is not going to alter much for the next 60 minutes. It’s just a small chunk of time, but one that promises to be excruciatingly painful. And then the countdown begins. The few seconds I have left before the start are just enough for me to ask myself how I ended up here. 

Rules are rules

The first recorded distance for the Hour was 26.508km, set by American Frank Dodds in 1876 on a Penny Farthing (I hope to at least be capable of surpassing that). By 1898 the 40km barrier had been broken, and in 1972 Eddy Merckx managed 49.431km, a record distance that stood for 12 years. These days, it seems, you’ll be lucky if your record stands for 12 days, since the UCI recently changed the rules that govern the Hour. Despite the simplicity of the concept – ride as far as you can in one hour – attempts at the Hour record have been controlled, and occasionally hampered, by the UCI. Cycling’s governing body decided intervention was necessary after the extreme positions and aero technology employed by Graham Obree and Chris Boardman during their duel in the 1990s helped the record soar to a massive 56.375km (Boardman, 1996). It provoked the UCI to enforce its Lugano Charter, a comprehensive set of rules that it said would prevent cycling from becoming an F1-style arms race. This effectively cast out modern aero equipment and insisted riders stuck to the traditional style of bike and kit as used by Merckx. In addition the record was reset back to Merckx’s 49.431km marker.

Amateur Hour Velodrome -Rob Milton

Although the intention was to bring the focus back to human endeavour (hence after this time records were referred to as the ‘Athlete’s Hour’ or the ‘Merckx Hour’, while Boardman’s 56.375km became known as the ‘Best Human Effort’) the actual outcome was to diminish interest in the record such that in the 14 years between 2000 (when the rule changes came into effect) and Brian Cookson’s appointment as UCI president last year, the record fell only twice, once again to Chris Boardman (49.441km) in 2000, and then to Czech rider Ondrej Sosenka, who achieved 49.7km in 2005. Barely had Cookson’s backside warmed his new chair before he said he wanted to see the Hour record unified, removing the confusion of multiple records. And so it was under his new rules (that came into effect in May 2014), records would be governed by the same equipment rules in force for endurance track events. This meant carbon aero frames could be used, along with handlebar extensions, disc wheels and time-trial helmets, providing they fell within the correct parameters of the ruling, including conforming to the 3:1 tubing ratio rule and the UCI minimum bike weight of 6.8kg. Since then, no fewer than seven attempts have been made. The men’s record currently stands at 52.491km, held by Australia’s Rohan Dennis (subsequently bettered by Alex Dowsett, 52.937 - Ed), and the female record at 46.065km, held by The Netherlands’ Leontien Ziljaard-Van Moorsel. (One record often overlooked but worthy of mention is the record for the 100+ age category, held by Robert Marchand who, aged 102, set a distance of 26.927km in Paris in 2014.) There’s no denying the Hour is the new hot topic, and there’s a growing list of big hitters who have hinted that they’d like a piece of the action, not least Sir Brad.

Four weeks and counting

All the fevered interest in the Hour sparked a lot of discussion in the Cyclist office, as we mused on how we might compare to the big boys and girls. Eventually we decided we should give it a crack. And then – this being Cyclist – we decided that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it properly – the right kit, the right preparation and the right venue. Only then would we know what an attempt at the Hour truly feels like, and how we mere mortals might stack up against the pros. I volunteered immediately, and set about contacting the people who could offer advice and give me an insight into what to expect. Soon after, I began to regret my enthusiasm when Bobridge told me, ‘You’ll find out how painful it is. But it’s a great thing to do and it will be interesting to see how you get on. Good luck and strap yourself in, mate.’

Amateur Hour Helmet -Rob Milton

I’ve done some fairly crazy things on a bike over the years, but the Hour promised to be a very different prospect. Even in the toughest race or sportive you can often get away with less than perfect preparation, with opportunities to hide in a group or make up for a lack of form with a bit of cunning. The Hour offers no such shelter. Come in under-prepared at your peril. There’s no respite at all. Not just every lap, but every portion of every lap is vitally important. Every small deviation from the datum line costs you distance that you’ll never get back, and every drop in cadence or nod of the head might only cost you a fraction of a metre in that instant, but multiplied by close to a couple of hundred times around the track (around 210 to beat the record) every single aspect adds up.

Merckx said after his 1972 attempt he dared not even blink, such was his concentration, and went on to declare the Hour as ‘the ultimate test of not only the body but of the mind, that demands a total effort, permanent and intense, one that’s not possible to compare to any other’, before concluding he’d never try it again. More recently, having failed in his attempt to beat Matthias Brändle’s distance of 51.852km, Jack Bobridge said he’d felt the experience was ‘as close to death as you can come without actually dying’. The more I learned about the Hour, the more my anxiety grew.

Perfect preparation

Working for a cycling magazine has its advantages, and with some gentle cajoling on my part, and some generosity of spirit on the part of others in the industry, I soon had access to a world-class velodrome and a bike that wouldn’t look out of place in the Bat Cave. Next I had to consider how I was going to get myself into shape for my Hour attempt with just four weeks to prepare, so my first port of call was to Silverstone and the Porsche Human Performance Lab, where under the guidance of exercise physiologist Jack Wilson I was to undergo lab tests to determine my lactate threshold. This would provide a clear indication as to what my body might achieve, and more importantly assist with pacing, as well as suggesting training intensities for the short time I had left in which to bump up my numbers.

Amateur Hour Set off -Rob Milton

A big part of maximising potential for the Hour is to minimise aerodynamic losses, so my next stop was at clothing manufacturer Sportful, who stitched me a custom skinsuit. This was followed by a visit to Morgan Lloyd of CycleFit in London (who consulted on Jens Voigt’s Hour attempt) to make sure my body wouldn’t let me down. What followed was a rigorous test protocol to assess my power output in a variety of aero tucked positions, which also included helmet analysis for various designs, to ascertain the best options for my riding style. Finally, I headed to podiatrist Mick Habgood, who created orthotic footbeds for my shoes to maximise potential power output. The excitement of watching all these preparations fall into place was tempered by the realisation that if I made a complete mess of this Hour attempt, I wasn’t going to be able to blame my kit.

I assured myself I had everything covered, that nothing had been left to chance, and I was pretty certain I knew exactly how I would fare come the moment of truth. But then I talked to Sarah Storey’s husband, Barney, who told me, ‘You can’t quantify everything. At the speed you go for the Hour you will experience around 1G on every bend. That’s not a lot on its own, but multiply that by the 400 bends [in a 200-lap hour attempt] and you’ve got a lot to contend with. It has a big impact on fatigue but it’s almost impossible to quantify. These are the kind of things you only find out once you’ve actually done it. The other issue that’s hard to put a number on is the cumulative effect of dehydration.’ My anxiety returned with extra intensity.

Cometh the Hour

The Lee Valley velodrome is silent, save for the beep-beep-beep, as the starting clock counts me down. 5-4-3-2-1… heave. I’m off, blood pressure rocketing from the strain of getting my 52x14 gear turning (for the record, Rohan Dennis used a massive 56x14). As I reach the first bend, to my relief I can tick off my first goal: not crashing at the start. ] I can hear the first tune from my specially-selected Hour playlist filling the empty velodrome. Otherwise it’s just the rumble of the carbon Lightweight disc wheels as I settle into my aero position as soon as I hit the back straight, remembering the advice Sarah Storey gave me about getting into a relaxed position as quickly as possible. ‘Now focus, Stu. Focus,’ I tell myself. ‘This is what those hours spent on the turbo staring at the woodgrain on the shed door have been for. Make it count.’

Amateur Hour Lap -Rob Milton

Motivational speech to self over, I’m quickly transfixed by the black line and I’m already approaching the end of my second lap, to be greeted by cheering from my small band of supporters and coach, Rob Mortlock, holding out an iPad showing my previous lap time: 19.2 seconds. Rob’s gesturing for me to go easy. Over-excitement at this stage is the top schoolboy error. I’d spoken to current record holder, Rohan Dennis, during my build-up and he’d categorically stressed, ‘Don’t go out too hard. If you don’t pace it properly it’s going to suck. That’s as simple as it gets. Go out too hard and you’re in the red zone quicker than you need to be. It’s all about that first 15 to 20 minutes. If you get it right you won’t feel the hurt until about 15 minutes to go. It’s still going to bite but it shouldn’t reach that point where you need to slow. In a sick way it should feel comfortable to manage the pain you’re in.’

I’m trying hard to remember that. Laps tick past, each one monitored by Rob, who’s keeping me on my agreed schedule, based around achieving a negative split – faster in the second half than the first – as Jens Voigt did. The clock ticks past 20 minutes, and so far so good, except for my nether regions. Dennis had also recommended I should ‘get some numbing cream’, and I’m starting to wish I hadn’t taken that in jest. Things have been feeling pretty uncomfortable down there since about 15 minutes in. Staring intently at the black line is slightly mesmerising, and I find the focus draining from my mind. I fight to stay alert, not least because I’m fearful of striking one of the foam bumpers on the track’s duck boards, there to stop a rider cheating by cutting corners and shortening the lap distance. Dennis had told me of an incident he’d experienced where a lapse in his concentration saw him clip one in training, catapulting him halfway up the track and giving him a huge heart rate spike as a result.

I pass halfway – 30 minutes – which is a big psychological marker. I find myself thinking that each minute more I ride widens the gap by two minutes between what I’ve already done and what I’ve still got to do – 31 down, 29 to go; 32 down, 28 to go; 33 down, 27 to go. At this point, these tiny positives help keep me going. As Storey and Dennis predicted, I’ve had bad patches followed by recovery in almost equal measure, although my lap times don’t seem to be showing this. At 40 minutes in I’m still holding a metronomic pace and I’m bang on target. During times when I am suffering I find resolve in focusing on my body position, keeping my chin up, staying smooth and riding the line well. Storey had told me, ‘Control the controllables,’ and I’m clinging to her advice.

Amateur Hour Exhausted -Rob Milton

I’m into the last 20 minutes, the time when almost all accounts of the Hour have suggested my world will start crumbling around me, but I’m not feeling as bad as I’d anticipated. I’m expecting some kind of explosion in my legs. ‘Focus! Focus!’ shouts Rob, urging me to try and increase the pace now. I glance up at the board and see just seven minutes to go. My diligent band of supporters is now spread around the track, so I have cheering and encouragement all the way home, interspersed with pre-recorded crowd noise that the velodrome staff kindly play at high volume through the PA system to give me a boost. It works. I get a spike of adrenaline, helped by the start of Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ (what else?). I know this means just five minutes to go.

I grit my teeth and try to empty the tanks. I give it everything in those final few minutes, and then there’s the bell. Getting a bell lap in the Hour may seem odd, but as Rob explains to me afterwards, it’s to encourage me not to ease up as the final seconds tick down but to keep going all the way to the end of the lap. I’m spent. There’s no final flourish, and certainly no sprint. I’m just glad it’s over. As I roll to a halt, caked in sweat and spittle, I look up at the screen and see I’ve come up 250m – one lap – short of my target of 45km. I knew I was never going to break any records, though, and 44.750km will do me fine. In that moment I have no desire come back to improve on that figure.

Many athletes have described it as the longest hour of their lives, but I’m almost disappointed it’s all over. Within minutes of getting my breath back I can’t help wondering about ways in which I could improve – my position, my conditioning, my tactics, maybe a different gear ratio. Perhaps I’ll be back some day after all.

Stu Bowers is now the official record holder of the ‘Bowers Hour’