The history of The Hour Record

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Earlier this month Tour Down Under champion Rohan Dennis continued his impressive start to 2015 by breaking the World Hour Record with a distance of 52.49km, quite comfortably ahead of Matthias Brandle’s mark. But recent history suggests he may not hold the record for long. The popularity of the World Hour Record, with its latest rules, is growing and the list of rumoured challengers in the next 12 months is full of strongmen hoping to write their name into the history books.

The world record distance is going through a period of frequent improvement alike to that of a swimming record after the emergence/acceptance of new skin tight swimwear. Last year, Jens Voigt retired from the sport after breaking the record from 2005. In doing so, he helped reawaken an interest in breaking a record essentially for those who enjoy doing 200 laps of a Velodrome and dragging themselves to exhaustion. Required traits? Focus, speed endurance and the ability to pick a lively 60 minute playlist. Voigt relied on his renowned toughness but not many knew he had such good track skills. His ride was remarkably well judged, speeding up at the end rather than tiring, but then again, that’s just typical Voigt. At 43 years of age his career was coming to an end and he would likely have ignored all the pain in his legs as completed his last kilometres. Surely with more specific training and younger legs Voigt could have gone further. He wasn’t even known for his time trailing ability nor was his music choice particularly inspiring- reported to be heavy German rock.

It was the perfect send off for a truly inspiring cyclist and all-round great guy. If the praise for Voigt seems over the top, it’s only due to years of watching him attack the Grand Tours time after time whilst giving the absolute maximum to help his team mates. Just weeks later, however, his distance was relegated to a former record when Matthias Brandle added over half a kilometre. The Austrian’s career has only recently taken off and he looks to be a talented all-rounder. Regarding his hour record calibre, Brandle is a three time National time trial champion, winning the first at just 20 years old. His record was also short lived when Dennis bettered his mark just four months later, confirming his massive potential in the process. The Hour Record may be taking off again right now but some of the greatest stories come from rides of the last century.

A logical point to start a history would be in 1972 and Eddie Merckx but before him other star riders had held the record such as Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Ferdinand Bracke. Records are murky at the turn of the 20th century before Marcel Berthat and Oscar Egg tussled in the first real hour rivalry. Egg triumphed breaking the record for a third time in 1914 going beyond 44km in the process. He frequently rode the one-day classics and also claimed a number of Tour De France stage wins. His record stood for 16 years, but in truth it was not a popular discipline as many of cycling’s Monument races were re-establishing after the First World War. Gisueppe Olmo was the first man to break 45km in 1936, but the superb Coppi was the holder with 45.8km by the time the Second World War broke out. Tour De France champion Anquetil broke 46km in 1956 but his mark was quickly broken. Major steps were taken in 1967 when Bracke broke Roger Riviere’s 10 year record by over a kilometre. When Dane Ritter Ole rode 48.7km a month later, it was obvious riders were beginning to reap the rewards of new developments, better training and fresh ideas. By the time Merckx came around in 1972 it was a record in demand. The Belgian had always fancied adding the hour record to his achievements, wanting to prove he was a polished track rider as well as road star. He has recently discussed the pressure he felt to succeed that day and underline his greatness. Little did he know his record of 49.33km would remain relevant 30 years later.

It’s not that his record was untouchable in that period of time but when clever people tackled the science of aerodynamics bikes began to look a little less like bikes. The line was difficult to draw as even in Egg’s era challengers had sort out lighter bike parts and tweaked seating positions, but they had always looked very much like man-on-bike. By the time Francesco Moser rode 50km in 1984 he began to resemble the product of lab research and tech design. Wheels were filled in discs and not always the same size. Frames were fatter and flatter, with helmets expertly shaped to reduce resistance and let air pass smoothly over. At the time many were absorbed by the advances in physics and nobody questioned that Moser was a brilliant bike rider. Merckx wanted traditions to hold, having been a fan of the pure endurance test, but the Italian had brought the record into the present. One thing Merckx and Moser had in common was a love of the challenge, Moser attacking his own distances a number of times. Both men may be talked about for other feats- Merckx with his Grand Tours, Moser with his Paris-Roubaix victories- but they both wanted ‘The Hour’ as their own.

Next came the 90s, the ‘Praying Mantis’ and the ‘Superman Position’. After many quiet years with Moser as undisputed king, 1993 saw two Brits eye the record. Chris Boardman, who went on to win multiple Tour De France prologues and pursuit World titles, was a Liverpudlian who had grown up winning British championships. In his early career he was a track specialist, winning Commonwealth bronze in 1990. A year before his hour attempt he had also won Olympic pursuit gold. His rival Graham Obree had a different story. The Scot ran a bike shop and set about building his own fully personalised bike. He had always enjoyed time trialling and wanted to break Moser’s record. Years later he mentioned to a journalist that his bike contained a part from his washing machine, unfairly pegging him as ‘the washing machine guy’. In truth, Obree was an innovator and a cyclist every bit as talented as Boardman. He was the first to attack the record in Norway in July 1993. His home built bike had short handlebars set back towards the seat. This meant Obree could tuck his arms under his body in a revolutionary way now nicknamed the ‘Praying Mantis’. He rode 51.67km and succeeded in taking Moser’s record but six days later Boardman, who had long set his date as July 23rd, rode 52.27km to take the record to new highs. Nearly a year later Obree was the holder once again when he added nearly half a kilometre using the same ‘Old Faithful’ bike. With relatively little changed this was a sign of Obree’s improvement as a bike rider. Incredibly, Moser had returned months before and, at 45, rode further than 51km to set a new Vets record.

Graham Obree

Then four time Tour De France champion, Miguel Indurain took to the track to end the Brits’ supremacy. He had shown his individual ability against the clock in previous Tours, but still impressed with his 53.56km. He was riding an odd looking bike, with a flat wide frame around the disc-like back wheel. Boardman was still on the scene but the back end of 1994 was marked by the efforts of Swiss rider Tony Rominger. A month after winning his third Vuelta a Espana, Rominger rode 53.83km and then, incredibly, in November 1994, he bettered it by skipping the 54km mark and riding 55.29km. He was riding a bike with front and back disc wheels. Two years later Boardman broke the record for a second time. He adopted the ‘Superman’ position (previously used by Obree) with long handle bars out front and his arms out stretched. On a special bike featuring Eddie Merckx’s name, the Brit broke the 56km mark but four years later the UCI changed the rules on bike specifications. The record was backtracked to 1972 and Merckx was the holder once again.

It is easy to feel sorry for the men whose records were shafted to the, less recognised, ‘Best Human Effort’ category. It seems unfair that Moser is no longer recognised as an Hour record holder, so too Obree. This is particularly the case when you consider a 32 year old Boardman broke Merckx’s record on a ‘legal’ two-wheeler in the year 2000. Surely his worthy rivals Obree and Rominger could have rode beyond 50km on approved machines had it not been for the timing of the changes? Still, something had to be done and the UCI acted appropriately. This argument is made clear when you consider the Best Human Effort record was broken recently by a Swiss rider lying down, fully engulfed in bullet-shaped capsule- he managed 91km. Other efforts have been made in constructions that wouldn’t look out of place in aerospace labs (although the UCI no longer acknowledges these attempts). Whilst an interesting battle against aerodynamics rages there needed to be a record for the cycling purists. The likes of Oscar Egg would surely approve.

Chris Boardman

Disappointingly, the rule change, and Boardman’s subsequent record, saw the end of the exciting era of record attempts. The Brit’s record was broken in 2005 by a Czech named Ondrej Sosenka but you would be forgiven for not knowing that. In 2014 UCI tinkered with the rules again confusing the record books somewhat. They stated modern pursuit bikes were now legal, with some disc wheels and variations of tri-bars allowed. This move worked out brilliantly as it turned the head of many stars of Pro Cycling- the first of which was Voigt. Recent champion Dennis should be delighted with his ride and his distance of 52.49km may yet prove tough to beat. But as he lifted his bike above his head, the now standard record breaking celebration, he must have known that some quality riders were waiting in the wings.

One man who will attack the record this year is Bradley Wiggins. He has an archive that suggests he will take apart the record. Time trialling world champion, Tour de France winner, seven time Olympic gold medallist, and track wins galore. However, his form is unknown and his attempt will be second focus behind winning Paris-Roubaix. Tony Martin has similar calibre and could even exchange the record with Wiggins more than once. Throw Fabian Cancellara, and maybe even Thomas Dumoulin, into the mix and the competition could push the record back out towards 55km.

This is not to say all attempts will be record breaking. At the time of writing, Dutchman Thomas Dekker has just missed the record by a narrow margin in Mexico having tired in the second half. Jack Bobridge took on Brandle’s record days before fellow countryman Dennis and just missed out. The Commonwealth gold medallist had a strong start to the season and will be disappointed with his effort. Graphics show he went off faster than any of the last two holders but tired and his lap times fell drastically. History has shown that the next record breaker could be somebody nobody expects. A bit of magic, or a new strategy, could breach ground that sheer power cannot. The record is back to what it should be- the furthest distance a human on a bike can travel in 3600 seconds. For now, Dennis is the one to beat.

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