Tuesday, June 9, 2015

New Hour Record

I'm sure it's no secret by now that there's a new Hour Record in cycling. Bradley Wiggins rode 54.526 km in an hour on Sunday, breaking the previous record set by Alex Dowsett at 52.937 km. The last time I wrote about the Hour Record, last September, it was Jens Voigt who had set a new record under newly revised UCI rules. Voigt's record lasted barely longer than a month, and it has changed hands a few times from then to now.

Bradley Wiggins on his way to 54.526 km.
I had some history on the Hour Record back in May, 2014, at the time when the UCI had just revised the rules for the event. Previously, in the face of what appeared to be almost an "arms race" of new aerodynamic bicycles, equipment, and unusual riding positions, the UCI had restricted Hour Record attempts to equipment not much different than what was available to Eddy Merckx in his 1972 record. But last year, in the interest of opening the sport of cycling to more innovation, the UCI relaxed the equipment regulations. "This kind of evolution is positive for cycling generally and for the Hour Record in particular," said president Brian Cookson. "This record will regain its attraction for both the athletes and cycling fans." Although I argued that relaxing the rules has once again made the record a contest of machines more than men, it seems Cookson was right when he said it would attract more attention. In the year since the rule change, there have been numerous attempts at breaking it.

Many are saying that it will be hard to beat Wiggins' distance, though I know a lot of people are saying they'd like to see Fabian Cancellara give it a try. Cancellara was one of the first to draw attention to the Hour Record last year when he expressed interest in an attempt. Interestingly, he put his plans on hold when the UCI relaxed the equipment regulations. He was apparently looking forward to a record attempt on a traditional track bike. I know us retrogrouches would love to see that.

Wiggins used a Pinarello Bolide time-trial bike, modified for
the track. It was designed with input from Jaguar.
Even Eddy Merckx has said that the Wiggins record will last for some time, though he still hedged his bets by suggesting that someone like Cancellara could have what it takes. "You must be more than gifted to ride further," said Merckx. "Few of the current peloton can go faster."

There's probably something to that assessment. I watched Wiggins time trial in his 2012 Tour de France victory, and later that year in his gold-medal-winning time trial performance, and his technique is hard to fault. He is incredibly efficient. That same flawless efficiency could be seen in his Hour Record ride. As CyclingWeekly described it, "Throughout the attempt, Wiggins barely shifted his position in the saddle . . . with a perfectly level back. Even in the excruciating final 10 minutes Wiggins only dipped his head slightly, the only sign that he was pushing himself to the limit."

No Lack of Controversy

Oddly enough, the recent regulation relaxation hasn't put an end to disputes about equipment. Steve Collins, who coached Alex Dowsett in his record ride, has claimed that Wiggins' bike violated the rules because the handlebars were custom-made for him. "For attempts like that it should all be production available so you can buy it off the shelf. You can't get 3D-printed handlebars moulded to your own arms to make it easier for your own attempt." It will be interesting to see where that discussion goes, but I don't foresee the UCI nullifying the new record.

A Retrogrouch Record

Though it's a long-shot, I for one would still like to see Fabian Cancellara buck the current trend and take on the record with a traditional bike, as he originally had planned. Round tubed frame. Spoked wheels. Traditional track bike drop bars. But there'd be no way to break the current record with its reliance on special handlebars, disc wheels, and other aerodynamic tricks. And for that reason, other than personal satisfaction and appealing to a certain "purist" sentiment, there really wouldn't be much reason for anyone to make such an attempt. And it would be unlikely that the sponsors would back the effort. If he didn't break the new record, all that would get reported is that he tried and failed. Only us retrogrouches and purists would applaud it. It wouldn't help sell exotic new bikes, though.

But the thing about keeping a tight control on equipment is that it remains a competition of men, not machines. Moreso, it allows an easier comparison between riders and record holders from different eras. As Cancellara had said last year, "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." Eddy Merckx rode 49.431 km in 1972. In a manner of speaking, Merckx's "traditional equipment" or "pure" record stood until Chris Boardman (who previously rode 56.375 on an aero monocoque bike and his "Superman" position) rode 49.441 in 2000. Who was the real Superman?

 The last record set on traditional equipment was 49.7 km. I think that's a good target for a "Retrogrouch Hour Record." Too bad it's unlikely anyone will try to break it.


  1. Wiggo or Cancellara on a steel track bike doing hour record? I'd probably smile the whole 60 minutes.

  2. It would be neat if the UCI had vintage racing classifications like they do in motorsports. Athletes riding the tour de france on vintage bikes.

  3. It's interesting to note that Merckx's record stood for nearly a dozen years: a geologic age in the world of such records. Now the record is falling every month, it seems.

    I also can't help but to notice that everyone who has broken, or tried to break, the record still looks to Merckx as the "gold standard", if you will. The real question is not whether there ever was, or ever will be, a greater cyclist. Instead, with the proliferation of technology (and, it must be said, more scientific training techniques), the real question is whether we can ever know whether any rider was, or ever will be, better than Merckx.