The Hour Record 2010

A reproduction of Eddy's 5.5 kg Colnago used for the Hour Record

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.

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33 Replies to “The Hour Record 2010”

  1. Chris Boardman was one of my favorites. There is a piece in Rouleur (can I leave a single comment without making mention of my favorite periodical??) that cover’s Boardman’s attempt. He spared no detail in attacking the record; he had special wheels built by the small but famed hub manufacturer Royce in the UK which not only had amazing hubs, but also built special spoke nipples that recessed into the rims for less drag (spoke nipples move really fast compared to the bike).

    The point that rung most strongly for me is that he pointed out what happens physiologically: as you ride, your muscle fibers are breaking down, which means that with every pedal stroke, you are loosing power. Evidently, the unrelenting nature of the effort – as you describe – makes this fact painfully clear during the excruciatingly long hour.

    With every lap of the track, a single truth weighs heavier on your mind: you are losing power, but need to maintain or increase your tempo.

    Demoralizing to say the least.

    Could it be that Merckx was actually onto something by utilizing his power when he was fresher? He has been widely criticized for going for the shorter-distance records en route to his Hour Record, but perhaps this early speed is what helped him set such a stupendous record.

    And, yes: his record counts.

  2. @frank
    Writing or talking about this is one thing, I think seeing it would be a shattering experience as maybe one could understand the speed and the suffering involved. More than a few pros attempt this and after ten or twenty minutes quit as they understand the impossiblility.

    That’s cool about Boardman’s bike, it looks pretty stock but he is such a wise man of course he would make the wheels as fast as legally possible. Merckx’s bike was not as much aero as light as hell, a drilled out swiss cheese machine.

    Regarding Merckx’s record being valid; worthy of a loud argument over many beers in Belgium, and I would be beaten senseless for arguing against it but it’s a moot point as Boardman beat it. Still, the altitude is a big aero benefit most others were not enjoying.

  3. Of all the ways people can torture themselves on a bike, this has to be the worst. The head game alone would do me in.

    I’d have to say I’d be willing to get my head kicked in with John in Belgium over whether Eddy’s record was legit (albeit a moot point). My feeling is, for an effort as pure as this, all things should be equal. The altitude thing is the same reason why there were no WR’s broken in long track speed skating in Vancouver. Those records were all set in venues with higher altitudes. But those athletes were competing for medals, not for records. The hour record is rare in many ways. Perhaps the rarest aspect of it is that it’s never scheduled. Some kook who’s fast just decides he wants to go for it. So go to Milan, Manchester, or somewhere close to sea level and be consistent. I know if I were doing it, I’d want to test myself against the record in equal conditions. Otherwise, why not have a category for dopers, one for concept bikes, and one for downhills.

    BTW, there was a cool article on Keith Ketter breaking the hour record in the Master’s class in Road Bike Action (of all places). Certainly not as geeked out about it as Boardman but still pretty geeked out.

  4. @Marko
    All right Marko! We will both be lying in a pool of blood and beer in Belgium. Misery loves company. Frank will be pissing on us.

    It is very interesting it is not scheduled. It just sits there, waiting to be fucked with. Boardman’s record was set nearly 10 years ago. Lance had a special Trek ready for his attempt but he never went for it. If Spartacus goes for it, one, it will get people all excited about the event and two, it won’t be broken again for years, unless Taylor Phinney goes ape-shiet in the next few years.

  5. @john

    Phinney came to my mind as well. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Spartacus does. Maybe if Boonen and Flecha start with him he can do it.

    Boonen to Flecha: “What’s up pussy, why aren’t you taking your share of pulls?”
    Flecha to Boonen: “You saying I need to Harden the Fuck Up, Coker?”
    Boonen to Flecha: “Shit, there’s goes Spartacus!”
    Flecha to Boonen: “You shouldn’t have been talking so much dude.”

  6. @john


    OK. Lets get this straight. So I’m understanding that we’re sitting in a bar in Flanders, drinking Trippels and you guys are going to argue with me over whether Merckx’s record is valid? At some point during the conversation I’m going to stand up, point at one of you and say, “You want a what? A GIN AND TONIC??”

    That scene will be followed immediately by a horde of drunk Belgians proceeding to beat anyone who can’t speak Flemish or French.

    You guys make great points about altitude, and I think all future records should be done at sea level. That said, let’s not forget that despite riding a normal bike, the technology in the equipment is hugely different. Merckx rode some flexy steel Colnago wearing a wool jersey and pants. I think it’s a level playing field.

  7. @Marko
    Sorry, dude. I checked the weather forecast, and it’s showing there are going to be tornadoes. Tornado TOM, that is! It’s going to be Spartacus talking to Flecha, with Boonen up the road:

    Boonen: See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya. [attacks, leaves everyone sucking mud]
    Spartacus: If you make me fall, you little Spanish softy, I’m going to strangle you with my little toe.
    Flecha: [falls]
    Spartacus: This is Juan-Antonio. His name’s Juan-Antonio. Harden the Fuck Up, Juan-Antonio! [Yells to Boonen] Spot on, mate. How do you go so fast?
    Boonen (in the distance): You just push harder on those things attached to your feet.

  8. @frank
    We will be beaten for speaking French or arguing that Eddy’s record is invalid. That will be cool.

    So Pippo is illin’, Flecha doesn’t have the horsepower so it’s going to be Tommeke and Spartacus and Fabian can’t sprint so he will have to break Tommeke on one of the bergs. It won’t be pretty, there will be much weeping in Belgium.

  9. @john



    Now, now boys, I won’t have any fighting in bars in Belgium. Do you think they serve Baileys and soy milk?

    As for Flanders, I’m going out on a limb and believe that the Boonen/Cancellara show will wait until Roubaix. There’s a certain Belgian who’s been stung by some criticism this week, with a point to prove.

  10. @brett

    If Stijn Three-petes, I’ll take it. (if that’s who you’re talking about)

    I’m also becoming a Phillipe Gilbert fan.

    And I agree, I think Tommeke is putting his eggs in the Roubaix basket. He’ll help Stijn win this one if he can.

    And I’ll only drink Bailey’s with soy milk if it’s in a double decaf machiatto.

  11. @brett


    Stijn is a classic example of a one-race donkey. He could do it, but I’m not betting on it. I’m going out on a limb and flagging Millar for a top-five, and a possible win; de Panne is a pretty good indicator of Flanders success. But, I think a good Boonen can win Flanders at 90%, and we’ve got a good Boonen. I predict a Boonen double.

    A double-fucking-de-fucking-caf soy fucking machiatto? Jesus. Rule #56.

  12. @Marko

    Should Phinney balance his track and road plans the obvious question is whether he’d tackle the hour record later in his career. He’s not ruling it out.

    “The hour record would take more endurance which would come with more years on the bike, so if I looked at that it would be in a few years. I can hold that power for five minutes right now but mentally holding that power for an hour. I’m too young to torture myself like that.”

    Just saw that in CyclingNews. We are brilliant!

  13. @john


    That kid is a monster-in-the-making. I see a young Tom Boonen with TT skills there. His dad is super cool, too – I’ve met him skiing a number of times – and his mom can teach all of us a thing or two about Rule #5.

    It will be really interesting to see how he develops over the next few years.

  14. First things first. Nice article, good reading.

    Two comments. The first recordholder Henri Desgrange was also responsible for the Tour de France.

    Regarding Merckx’s record being valid; worthy of a loud argument over many beers in Belgium, and I would be beaten senseless for arguing against it but it’s a moot point as Boardman beat it. Still, the altitude is a big aero benefit most others were not enjoying.

    With higher altitude comes less oxygen to scoop up!

  15. Thank fuck he didn’t sign for the shack. Given how close his family is to Armstrong, does this suggest that Team Armstong is well and truly fucked?

  16. @Jarvis
    Well, reading the follow-up article on cyclingnews it sounds like LA got all “Big Tex” (read Big Baby) on him and cut off communication. But what it really sounds like is Ochy made him an offer he couldn’t refuse which for Phinney means he has a long term contract that’ll allow him to focus on his cycling goals. Behind the scenes, who knows, if a dude with ongoing federal investigation wanted me on his team, i’d look elsewhere too. Phinney and King are the next generation of American riders and I look forward to seeing them exercise their chops.

    Plus, he gets to ride really sweet bikes now.

  17. @Marko
    yeah, saw that on Twitter after I commented on here – been playing catch-up this evening. Fucking hilarious if the Armstrong thing is true and serves the fucker right after he swiped Phinney from Garmin. Still all’s fair. Now to see if Phinney gets to learn the Pave from the master or not.

  18. Oh, and I can’t see any top roadman taking on The Hour record again. They have a lot to loose and little to gain. Besides, perhaps Boardman & Eddy were the best (I’m ignoring the doper who took the record off Boardman). Why should any other athlete be able to beat that record, there has to be a point where it is not physically (legally) possible to go faster.

  19. Whoa! You’re discussing the hour record and don’t mention Graeme Obree? A true Velominatus. I raced against him in the 80s when he developed the upturned bars/ski tuck position. Baggy acrylic jersey, occasionally hairy legs. Beat everyone by minutes – in a 10 mile TT! Boardman had full tech support for his attempt. Obree had his wife, a couple of pals and a homemade bike (the Specialized one they gave him was crap.) Read his bio or, failing that see the film “the Flying Scotsman.” On the start line for his first attempt in Norway, the timekeeper asked sneeringly “Are you ready?’ Riding his Specialized crap he wasn’t. Day two, he got there on his own bike and before the ‘keeper could open his mouth, Obree asked “Are YOU ready?” Result? Broken hour record holder. Also quit pro cycling because he would do the drugs. A true hard man.

  20. @wiscot
    Spot on, mate. Obree is one of my favorites; I’ll do a piece on that era of Hour Record attempts…that was a really exciting time. Funny how that record falls in and out of fashion.

    He also knows a thing or two about riding in the big ring:

    He was shooting for another attempt, but it seems to have fallen away…anyone know if he intends to kick it back up? Last I heard is he suffered from a bout of depression again and backed off from it.

  21. wiscot :Whoa! You’re discussing the hour record and don’t mention Graeme Obree? A true Velominatus… A true hard man.

    Thank you for mentioning Obree. Two attempts at the hour record in 24hrs? The only thing he would have tested positive for is Rule V. I really enjoyed the film as well and knowing how brutal the hour record is I had to double check the facts after watching it, just to make sure I wasn’t just watching Hollywood bullshit.

  22. @Bruce
    Watching “The Flying Scotsman” right now. It’s a good thing I can drink Ale, otherwise there’s no chance I’d be able to understand a word of this movie.

  23. I would love to see Sparticus attempt the hour…when he set’s his mind to something he usually slays it!

  24. y’all catch a load of this?

    A bicycle made entirely of wood, created by a pair of British designers, is aiming for a 31-mph speed record.

    SplinterBike doesn’t have a single piece of metal, rubber or plastic. The axles are made of ekki. The frame, wheels and cogs are birch, and the bearings are ironwood. The pedals and handlebars have been refashioned from a broom handle.

    Fuck steel. Apparently wood is real.


  25. @frank
    There is a documentary aired occasionally on British TV that charts Chris Boardman’s successful record attempt. There are some interesting personal insights about how CB realised that holding the non-athlete’s record on non-UCI compliant machinery meant little to ‘real’ cyclists and it was this that drove him to emulate and ultimately surpass Merckx. And some predictable nonsense as he tried to check the regulations with the UCI (as international sporting bodies go, they are crappest of the crap). And some technical insights as he worked with traditional frame and wheel builders, and turned a spare room in his house into a hypobaric chamber using a roll of industrial polythene, some sticky tape and a vacuum pump. It’s cool. You should see it if you can, as a study in dedication and sheer bloody single-mindedness.

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