The hour record is the most distinguished, and most difficult record in bicycling. It is different from all other records in that it is measured in meters, and not in minutes and seconds. How long a distance can you ride in exactly an hour? That is a question many famous riders, over the years, have tried to answer precisely. [The Impossible Hour]
The UCI is the keeper of cycling records and it holds that Henri Desgrange, a Frenchman, rode 35.325 km in 1893 as the first official benchmark for the hour record. By 2000 the record has closed in on 50 km. How far can you ride in an hour? If you can do a 25-mile(40.23 km) time trial in under an hour you are a very strong amateur racer. Who do you know who can get their road bike up to 50 km/hr on a flat section of road and hold it for even one minute? Unless you hang out with riders who get paid to put on bib-shorts, I would bet, no one.
There are two hour records: the real one is the straight ahead Merckx-style track bike on the track referred to by the UCI as the Athlete’s Hour Record. The other record changes with each aerodynamic improvement and it is not a true comparable test of a human effort over an hour. This is a terrible record to attempt; one’s complete maximum effort without respite, always in the saddle, hunkered down in a tight aero tuck, dying by the second. It’s the roller ride from hell. I’ve just watched the Worlds women’s 500m pursuit and they are just above 50 km/hr with full disc wheels aero bars, essentially the hour record is this 500 m effort for not 30 seconds but an hour! This is why the record sits unchallenged for years, everyone knows it’s an impossible feat.
The hour record progresses over the years at Paris and Milan tracks, each hardman picking his moment of peak form and incrementally inching up the speed. Notable among others, in 1942, Fausto Coppi clocks 45.798 km at the Vigorelli track in Milan. In 1956 Jacques Anquetil goes to 46.159. 1968 World Pursuit Champion Ferdi Bracke raises the bar to 48.093.
The UCI lists both Ole Ritter(48.653 km) and Eddy Merckx(49.431 km) as the next two record holders but the rides were done in Mexico City at altitude (2240 meters). I contend these do not belong with the others. The less dense air is a clear advantage; that’s why they chose Mexico City, but’s hard not to compare Merckx’s performance to everyone else’s, as he will always be the ideal.
Chris Boardman, another World Champion pursuit rider became the next record holder in 2000 at the Manchester Velodrome with a distance of 49.441, only 10m more than Merckx and in 2005 Ondrej Sosenka(?!) jumped it ahead to 49.700 in Moscow. Resetting the record by 259 meters is shocking, especially by a rider lacking the palmares of a man like Boardman. Though he was not caught doping for this ride he had been caught before and after this in his career and I conclude he is a cheat and his record is invalid so Boardman is still the current record holder. I have decreed.
This effort is on the track, it is a power to aerodynamic drag ratio battle. A pursuit rider should do well as the fluid pursuiter can spin out lap after lap never wavering but the longest pursuit is less than a tenth of the Hour Record. Chris Boardman was a fantastic track rider, time trialist and a respectable road racer, but Boardman was never the crank bending hardman Merckx was yet he beat his record at sea level, meaning he would have really sunk Eddy’s record had they both been done at the same altitude. Boardman admits to not having a huge engine but could get very aero to maximize his power to drag ratio. Dave Zabriskie talked about “feeling the speed” during his 2009 national time trial victory. This must mean feeling the minimizing of one’s drag while riding, getting slicker, sliding through the atmosphere with the least turbulence.
Does lower drag trump power?
Boardman didn’t wear a hairnet helmet, he had shoe covers and his position was lower(160mm stem!) than Merckx’s. Eddy, though no pursuiter, was a track rider too. Boardman’s record was done on an indoor track where the velodrome was heated to lower the air density, gaining a slight advantage. Boardman had perfected his aero position and engine over years of pursuit and non-athlete’s hour record setting. Eddy started off very fast(51.43 1st kilo!) to break Ole Ritter’s shorter distance records then had to hang on like grim death to the finish. Chris started slower, settled in and finished fast to just nose ahead of Eddy’s distance.
I am, above all, a roadman. I shall attack the hour record as a roadman must. I must finish the season at the peak of my road form. For that is how I shall have the best chance at beating the hour record. -Eddy Merckx
All of this leads me to my boy Spartacus, Big Baby or if you will…Fabian Cancellara. The last man you want to be with within 10 km of the finish of a hard race because he IS going to ride you off his wheel and you ARE going to lose. He has mentioned attempting the hour record this year or next and I’m assuming he is talking about UCI athlete’s hour record. His power to aerodynamic drag ratio has to be a monster as he continually kicks everyone’s ass on all kinds of time trial courses. He may not be the professor of track pursuit riding like Chris Boardman but he should be able to crush Boardman’s record on power alone. Given enough fine-tuning time on the track to “feel the speed” he should prevail and it will be fun to see, fun for us, not for him.