Imprecise Precision: L’Heure

Imprecise Precision: L’Heure

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Why would any sane person choose to suffer? The answer to this question is a primal one and of particular relevance to society in the current age: control. With chaos and uncertainty creeping from every corner of life, cycling provides us with control over physical suffering; to suffer at our own will provides us the control we viscerally crave. This control then provides us the courage to face uncertainty in life with the confidence that we can handle anything it can throw at us.

There is no challenge within Cycling which more comprehensively embodies this notion than The Hour Record, which represents the only event that pits the rider not against a course, but against Time itself; how far can the rider propel themselves in the span of sixty minutes while also suppressing their nausea as they turn left endlessly?

The cruelty is hard to grasp. As cyclists we suffer, but our suffering is normally proportional to it’s intensity – certainly it hurts to ride harder, but the harder we ride, the sooner the pain will subside. In the Hour, the duration of the suffering is uniform: the effort will last 60 minutes and no amount of increased suffering will shorten it, unless, of course, you believe Al Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which states that for a body moving at speed, time moves relatively slower than it does for a body at rest. According to Al, then, the rider will experience a marginally reduced Hour measured not by a clock moving with the rider, but by a clock sitting at rest at the side of the track. (While this amount of time is mathematically negligible, it does explain why intervals on the trainer feel comparatively more interminable than intervals on the road.)

Eddy Merckx himself made the following observation after setting the benchmark effort of 49,431 meters in 1972:

The pain was very, very, very significant. There is no comparison with a time trial. There you can change gear, change your cadence, relax even if it is only for a few instants’ respite. The Hour is a permanent, total, intense effort, which can’t be compared to anything else.1

Knowing that the Prophet‘s bunkmate was The Man With the Hammer, the triple use of the word “very” is somewhat panic-inducing.

In recent years, the Hour Record has sadly seen a decline in interest, with the last attempt by world-class rider having been made by Chris Boardman in 2000. Boardman was at the center of the Hour’s Golden Era in the early Nineties which saw Graeme Obree kick off a frenzy of attempts to raise it ever higher by first breaking the record in his innovative tuck position as an amateur in 1993. Boardman broke it a few months later, before Obree reclaimed it in his even-more radical Super-Man position. This was a period where Boardman, Obree, Miguel Indurain, and Tony Rominger all traded the record for the better part of a decade, each going ever-farther in evermore innovative riding positions.

The UCI put a halt to the interest in this record by establishing two records, the (Athlete’s) Hour Record and The Best Human Effort. The Hour restricts the equipment to that of a standard double-triangle frame with drop bars, while the Best Human Effort has no such restriction. While the intent was to establish a more equal judgement of the athlete instead of the focus on equipment, it misses the point that advancement, evolution, and innovation are all basic elements of what it means to be Human, and by eliminating these elements from The Hour, they eliminated the appeal in what is our sport’s most primal effort. After all, there were few riders willing to go head to head with Merckx in his time, and so there are few who are willing to do so today.

Chris Boardman stands apart in this regard and indeed went after the new record, which he broke by a whopping 10 meters3. Over the course of his career, he set the record three times, which makes him possibly both the toughest and slowest-learning human currently living; even Merckx declared he would never attempt the Hour a second time, despite having fallen short of his personal goal of 50,000 meters. Boardman describes the Hour in simple, physiological terms: with every push of the pedals, you break down the fibers in your muscles such that for each subsequent revolution, you have a little less functional muscle mass available to sustain your current speed and power through to the end. In a word, devastation. It is not the sort of thing one attempts more than one needs to.

To gauge an effort of this type is perhaps the most pure description of The V; you ride not as hard as you know you can, but as hard as you hope you might. Boardman, on the Hour Record:

You have three questions going through your mind:

How far to go?

How hard am I trying?

Is the pace sustainable for that distance?

If the answer is “yes”, that means you’re not trying hard enough. If it’s no, it’s too late to do anything about it. You’re looking for the answer “maybe”.2

Despite all the training, preparation, and technical advancement that goes into any attempt on l’Heure, it remains a matter of the Human element, one of imprecise precision.

1,2 These quotes are taken from William Fotheringham‘s biography of Eddy Merckx, Merckx, Half Man, Half Bike.
3 It has been broken since by other, lower-profile riders since.

// Folklore // Nostalgia // Technology // The Hardmen // Tradition

  1. @frank

    RESET RESET.

    Boardman just has a beautiful position on a bike – any bike. Amazing.

    For the Record (hurhur) i have actually ridden the Lotus bike Boardman is on in the top photo. My god it is low, unstable and fast and my back nearly died after about 2 minutes. Mental. But then i have not the souplesse that fella had. Or talent.

    Alongside meeting Bartoli, that is the sum total of my cycling fanboy-dom. Not bad i guess, but i have not ridden with the Lion of Flanders so i remain humbly in your velominashadows.

  2. @Zoncolan
    I love how in the top Boardman photo, it looks like smoke coming off the back wheel…

  3. @mouse

    @Zoncolan
    I love how in the top Boardman photo, it looks like smoke coming off the back wheel…

    It was probably snagging the frame after my Too Fat To Climb physique had stress tested the “vertical compliance”…

  4. @scaler911
    That was my point about it being more like Formula 1 in that only the teams with the budgets to either develop or pay for the most cutting edge tech would rule the roost. I too agree that it would ruin the sport if that were to happen – not to mention how aesthetically displeasing it would be.

  5. @frank

    Oh, shit.

    Aside from looking like a ‘shop job, I’d love to see this in motion.

  6. @Chris

    @frank
    Shame you missed this, I know you’d promised the VMH no new bikes for your hour attempt for the Festum Prophetae but it’s not really new is it?

    That’s it, isn’t it? Beautiful. Cozy enough price.

  7. @Marcus

    Maybe it could be Luke Durbridge who takes the Hour? You didn’t think I would let his prologue win go by without some overly-patriotic insanity?

    And Cadel won the stage today. Three…two…one…Marcus’s’s’s’s’ brain melts.

  8. @Zoncolan

    For the Record (hurhur) i have actually ridden the Lotus bike Boardman is on in the top photo. My god it is low, unstable and fast and my back nearly died after about 2 minutes. Mental. But then i have not the souplesse that fella had. Or talent.

    Alongside meeting Bartoli, that is the sum total of my cycling fanboy-dom. Not bad i guess, but i have not ridden with the Lion of Flanders so i remain humbly in your velominashadows.

    I reckon a bike like that needs to be moving at a good gallop before it stabilizes. That front wheel won’t have much stabilizing effect until you’re haulin.

    You can meet Museeuw on next year’s Keeper’s Tour. Schedule is shaking up to have more than one ride with him. Apparently he didn’t hate us enough to black list us.

  9. @VeloVita

    @scaler911
    That was my point about it being more like Formula 1 in that only the teams with the budgets to either develop or pay for the most cutting edge tech would rule the roost. I too agree that it would ruin the sport if that were to happen – not to mention how aesthetically displeasing it would be.

    The teams with the biggest budgets already rule the roost. Get the best gear, the best drugs, the best doctors, the best alien DNA…

  10. @Xyverz
    And it’s a gravel bike. Awesome. I hate to think of the chain slap though.

  11. Frank – yeah, where the hell did May go?! I blame the Giro. I’m way behind schedule on a lot of things…and 6/17 is getting closer by the minute!

    Biggest budgets, big teams, eh? Word of Leeky and Saxo merging. Eck.

  12. @Ron

    Frank – yeah, where the hell did May go?! I blame the Giro. I’m way behind schedule on a lot of things…and 6/17 is getting closer by the minute!

    Biggest budgets, big teams, eh? Word of Leeky and Saxo merging. Eck.

    Really? Where did you see that? I hope that we’re not going have 3-4 (if that) super teams, and a bunch of low budget stuff.
    But then, some of the smaller teams have been having a good go this year. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

  13. @scaler911
    Here is the rumor from cyclingnews.com

    http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/liquigas-and-saxo-bank-to-merge-in-2013

  14. @scaler911
    I know what you meam but Saxo isn’t much without Clenbutador.

  15. I saw the bike in the main picture earlier in the year on a visit to the Velodrome in Manchester. It’s simplicity is stunning, and a real throw back to an earlier era. It just shouts ‘Steel is Real’!

    To me isolating the man from the machine is what makes the hour record so pure in it’s current form.

    Having said that though I can see the argument for innovation as well, and in other sports find myself arguing against technical restrictions. Maybe I’m just a hypocrit?

  16. 936adl – Did the steed still sport the white tyres? They’d better lock it up or the local fixsters are gonna steal them right off the rims to match their white bike!

    Saw a fully white “track bike” this weekend locked up at a local bar. Nothing says “I ride fuckin’ heaps” like…no bar tape and no plugs.

  17. After my first running track session, I have to say a Runner’s Hour Record would be so much more painful. 10x800m repeats made me question my sanity, wondering what I did wrong to bring this on myself. I can’t imagine suffering an hour of this, alone, without the breaks in tempo.

  18. @tessar

    After my first running track session, I have to say a Runner’s Hour Record would be so much more painful. 10x800m repeats made me question my sanity, wondering what I did wrong to bring this on myself. I can’t imagine suffering an hour of this, alone, without the breaks in tempo.

    did you say…running track?? maybe i mis-read that being the Cognoscenti that I am, there is a synaptic disconnect between my ‘running’ and cycling neurons

    and, there isn’t anything more painful than the Hour Record…period..end of story, when Eddy said in essence, you must be either fu**ing nuts to try it for real and in a real attempt to break the record, or you must have seriously passed a full psychological fitness exam prior, YOU KNOW ITS TOUGH

  19. @936adl

    I saw the bike in the main picture earlier in the year on a visit to the Velodrome in Manchester. It’s simplicity is stunning, and a real throw back to an earlier era. It just shouts ‘Steel is Real’!

    To me isolating the man from the machine is what makes the hour record so pure in it’s current form.

    Having said that though I can see the argument for innovation as well, and in other sports find myself arguing against technical restrictions. Maybe I’m just a hypocrit?

    No, maybe you just understand exactly why Cycling is so cool! Its all very complex. I agree the simplicity and purity is beautiful, but its not worth much if it means no one goes after the record.

    *Shudder* the Red Bull competition seems the most viable way to kick up some interest again!

  20. @Ron
    Yup, it seems it does. Fixters – good one.

    @936adl
    I thought it was hanging in a local cafe? But its in the Manchester track, eh? Very cool. The pic above definitely makes it look like its at the track.

  21. @frank

    I love that they bothered to make the bike match the photo – it looks to be almost popping right out. Very nice.

  22. From the Boston Globe: “100-year-old cyclist Robert Marchand of France gets on his bike to set a world record for cycling non-stop for one hour at the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) velodrome in Aigle, Switzerland on February 17, 2012. Marchand, born November 26, 1911, cycled 24.251 km (15 miles) around the 200 meter indoor track to set the record.”

    Bloody brilliant!

  23. There’s an interesting discussion of the hour record in the recently published “Eddy Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike”. Boardman’s coach for the hour reckons Merckx did it all wrong by going off way too fast (1’09” kilos), which resulted in penultimate 10 mins being too slow. Says he would have pulled him in after 5 mins, got him to calm down and then sent him back out again to aim for a slower, more sustainable pace (1’111″ kilos). Also makes the point that the “athletes record” bit is a bit of bollocks – really just meant technology was stopped arbitrarily in early 1970’s. Why not go back to 1940s or 1900s? Merckx’s bike was high tech for its day.

  24. Today is the 40th anniversary of Merckx’s Mexico City Hour Record.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddy_Merckx#Hour_record.

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