Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Hour Record

The Hour Record has been in the news a lot this spring, starting with stories that Fabian Cancellara, that dominator of the Spring Classics, was considering making an attempt. Chalk me up as one person who would like to see that happen. Then last week, the UCI announced that it was changing the rules for the Hour Record, eliminating many of the equipment restrictions that have been in place since 2000 -- rules that had been intended to keep the record as a competition of men, not technology. Under the new rules, practically anything goes. Interestingly, now that the UCI has relaxed the equipment rules, Cancellara has put his plans to challenge the record on hold.

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
In the minds of many, the ultimate Hour Record ride was by Eddy Merckx, considered almost indisputably to be the greatest bicycle racer ever. On October 25, 1972, Merckx broke the record on the Olympic Velodrome at Mexico City -- riding 49.431 km. His record stood until 1984, when Francesco Moser exceeded it by more than a kilometer using special full-disc wheels and other aerodynamic modifications. Not to take anything away from Moser's achievement, but it did raise certain questions about the effect of technology on what was primarily seen as a contest of physical achievement. In Owen Mulholland's story "Eddy and the Hour" (originally published in Bicycle Guide magazine, March 1991), Mulholland wrote, "Merckx felt that for the first time the Hour Record had been devalued. For the first time personal fitness had not been the sole criterion for a new record. In defeat Merckx had always been a fair man. But this time he remained unconvinced. After all, he had beaten Moser in every time trial in which they had met. His disgust with the purity of the Hour Record was obvious, when, commenting on Moser, he said, 'For the first time in the history of the Hour Record a weaker man has beaten a stronger man.'"

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.

Graeme Obree, the Flying Scotsman, on a bike he built with some unconventional parts (reportedly, some of the parts came from a washing machine). The most controversial aspect, however, was the "tucked in" riding position, known as "the egg," inspired by watching downhill skiers.
Chris Boardman, breaking the record again in 1996 with an unconventional carbon fiber monocoque frame and the controversial "Superman" position.
In the face of an "arms race" of windcheating technology and unusual riding positions, the UCI first banned the positions used by Obree and Boardman, then changed the rules and definitions for the record. Under the new rules, there would be the "UCI Hour Record" and another category called "Best Human Effort." The rules for the Hour Record would essentially restrict riders to the kind of equipment used by Merckx in 1972 -- traditional diamond frame, no aero bars or disc wheels, and no aerodynamic helmets. The Best Human Effort, on the other hand, would allow the technological and aerodynamic advancements that had become part of the effort since Moser's ride in 1984. That meant that the records set by Moser, Obree, and Boardman were all re-classified as "Best Human Effort," and Merckx's 1972 record of 49.431 km would stand on the books until Chris Boardman rode 49.441 in 2000 with traditional equipment. The current record-holder is Ondřej Sosenka of the Czech Republic who went 49.7 km in 2005. It should be noted that Sosenka failed doping tests twice, which led to his suspension and the end of his career, so make what you will of his results.

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.


  1. By the way it is well known that Moser 1984 record was achieved with blood doping with the help of prof. Conconi and his then assistant prf. Ferrari. Homologous blood doping was not banned in those years so the same Moser revealed that blood bags travelled from italy to mexico, seems to me in diplomatic baggage.

  2. On one hand, I don't have a problem with riders attempting the Hour w/ disc wheels or whatever tech advances come along. It doesn't really seem different than Merckx riding a diamond frame versus the original Penny farthings. Tech marches ever forward, right?
    But... with that said, it sure seems a lot less interesting to me with no standardized equipment rules. I don't really care how light you can make a bike, or how you shape it. It's the human element that makes it interesting, and if you are specifically working to factor that out, then it becomes kind of a lame contest, doesn't it?

    Ideally, in my thoughts, the governing body of this would define a frame style, wheel size, total bike weight, and whatever other pertinent parameters to specifically limit the deciding factor to the rider. That would be interesting. If it takes 50 years to beat a record, then so be it.


  3. It seems to me there is room for multiple records and categories. It is a problem of definition and of changing the rules after the fact. At this point, there can be no single solution that will meet universal approval.

    Clearly having a traditional record makes sense, as it is the only way to draw comparisons to different eras, though it is hard to compare "traditional bikes". Merckx's bike was significantly lighter and more advanced than Oscar Egg's or Giuseppe Olmo's, though all had a similar look.

    However, should the UCI disallow bikes that are good for other timed track events? It doesn't make sense to me that what is legal on one front should be forbidden in another.

    At this point in cycling we all understand asteriks all too well, so we might as well embrace them.

    I tend to think the Cancellara decision is more one of his sponsors and management than anything else. While he'd like to take on Eddy, this doesn't exactly best further the cause of Trek, and I am sure all need to figure out how to market the attempt and results.

    1. Regarding Cancellara's decision -- the article suggests much the same thing you do -- that it was more about the sponsors, etc. But I liked Cancellara's comments about it.

  4. Cancellara, go to Mexico City and borrow Eddy's bike if you can. If you beat his record, that's an achievement in itself. If you beat the current Hour record, then you will be the ONE.

  5. I'd love to see Cancellara riding Eddy's old bike for an hour attempt. Or even a close copy of Eddy's bike. I think Eddy's was the last "pure" hour record. If you can't beat him on similar equipment, it shouldn't count. But I'm an old retro-grouch!

    1. I'd like to see that attempt -- particularly on a "traditional" track bike. Would somebody come along on a disc-wheeled aerodynamic wunderbike and beat his time? Probably. But it would still live on as "pure" record, just like Merckx's