How about a little history? The Hour Record has long been seen as the most "pure" racing event -- even more-so than a time trial, which is often called "the race of truth." The premise is simple: to ride flat-out as fast and far as a person can for a full hour. Simple premise, but to actually conquer it is the stuff of legend. Some of the great names to hold the record over the generations have included Henri Desgrange (first organizer of the Tour de France), Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, and of course, Eddy Merckx.
The first holder of the record was Frank Dodds, who rode a penny farthing around the grounds of Cambridge University -- 25.508 km in 1876 (ESPN). But the first "official" record was Desgrange in 1893 -- 35.325 km. The record distance grew incrementally over the next decades, typically being held by no one individual for more than a few years at a stretch, with a couple of notable exceptions: Oscar Egg, 44.247 km, from 1914 - 1933; and Fausto Coppi, 45.798 km, from 1942 to 1956, when the record was beaten (and held briefly) by Anquetil.
|Merckx in Mexico City, 1972|
|With a frame built by Ernesto Colnago, Merckx's Hour Record bike had some modifications to make it as light as possible. The stem was made of titanium by Pino Morroni. The handlebars had large holes drilled through them to reduce weight. The Campagnolo crank was milled out, and the chainrings cut away and lightened. The complete bike reportedly weighed 12 pounds. There must have been several bicycles made for Merckx's Hour Record effort, as well as a few replicas made after-the-fact. I have read from reputable sources that there were two bikes made, but I've seen at least three different bikes claiming to be THE bike -- all three with subtle differences between them -- and none looks to me like it exactly matches the one Eddy can be seen riding in photos taken during the historic ride. The one shown above was displayed at the Giro d'Italia Hall of Fame.|
|Francesco Moser, breaking Merckx's record in 1984. In a later record attempt, he would use a bike with an enormous (almost comically large) disc rear wheel.|
Other notable records were set by Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman between 1993 and 1996 with increasing reliance on aerodynamics and unconventional rider positioning. Note Obree's "tucked in" squat and Boardman's "Superman" position. Obree and Boardman passed the record back and forth several times during those years, as well as briefly sharing it with the likes of Miguel Indurain and Tony Rominger.
|Chris Boardman, breaking the record again in 1996 with an unconventional carbon fiber monocoque frame and the controversial "Superman" position.|
So, as already mentioned, the UCI, in the interest of opening up the sport of cycling to more innovation, last week relaxed the rules, re-opening the door to all kinds of technological trickery to coax more distance out of the hour. UCI President, Brian Cookson said of the rule change, "This new rule is part of the modernization of the UCI Equipment Regulation. Today there is a consensus that equipment used in competition must be allowed to benefit from technological evolution where pertinent. This kind of evolution is positive for cycling generally and for the hour record in particular. This record will regain its attraction for both the athletes and cycling fans." (BikeRadar)
Clearly, this represents a complete "about face" from the UCI's thinking back in 2000 -- meaning that the Hour Record is again a race of machines, not just men. Sure, bicycle technology keeps evolving -- and critics of the equipment restrictions bemoan the idea of "turning back the clock" on innovation. But I look back on what Merckx said in 1984 regarding the "purity" of the Hour Record. From Desgrange in 1893 through Merckx in 1972, one could measure results and compare the achievements of the men. Breaking the record before was about better training and better fitness. Now, it's about who has better engineers and wind tunnels. Am I off base? Look at the numbers: Chris Boardman in 1996 with his monocoque frame and "Superman" position rode 56.375 km -- nearly 7 km more than Merckx in '72 -- a tremendous achievement! But was it the rider, or the bike? Was Boardman really a better, faster rider than Merckx? A much better comparison is to look at Boardman's ride in 2000: 49.441 km. Still faster, but more in the realms of a normal man, not a superman.
Cookson said that relaxing the equipment restrictions would lead to more "attraction for both the athletes and the cycling fans," but I think it depends on whom one talks to and what their priorities are. Ironically, the latest rule change actually led Fabian Cancellara to shelve his record attempt. (Road.CC) "The whole appeal of the Hour Record for me is that you are competing against riders from the past. I would have loved to race Eddy (Merckx) in the Classics, or in a time trial, but it's not possible," Cancellara said. "The Hour Record has this charming side to it that I like a lot. Now it's going to be different." Cancellara is no Retrogrouch, one can be sure. "I'm not against technological innovation," he said. "Everyone knows that." But if his reason for reconsidering the record attempt really is about the purity of this unique competition, I say it's something that should resonate for more than just us Retrogrouches.