Sixty minutes of pain: What makes the Hour Record so special for cyclists?

The Hour Record is a test as old as time and one of the most prestigious in the sport.

It’s a pretty simple premise – one man or woman against the clock. Sixty minutes – not a second more – to post the furthest distance possible.

This week the Belgian Lotto Soudal rider Victor Campenaerts became the latest record holder, achieving a distance of 55.089km at the Bicentenary Velodrome in Aguascalientes in Mexico.

But what is it that makes the Hour Record a feat which many have strived to beat?

The first universally-recognised record was set in 1876 by the American Frank Dodds who rode 26.508km on a penny farthing while future Tour de France organiser Henri Desgrange posted 35.325km at the Buffalo velodrome in Paris in 1893.

Since then the record has been attempted by dozens of cyclists, from largely unknowns to World Tour legends, although it’s only since 2004 that the record has had any real clarity.

Eddy Merckx’s 1972 attempt in Mexico City – where he recorded 49.431km at an altitude of 2,300m – was seen as the benchmark figure that all others are judged against.

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That record would stand for 12 years until it was broken by Francesco Moser who rode 51.151km. Moser’s record attempt – using a bike with disc wheels and skinsuit – was later moved to a ‘best human effort’ category the UCI introduced in 1997.

The introduction of the amended rules meant that all records since Merckx’s attempt was transferred to the new category and the 49.431km was restored.

Other records moved to the ‘best human effort’ category include the two by Graeme Obree who used a ‘praying mantis’ position in 1993 and 1994 and the two records set by Chris Boardman, who recorded the longest distance first using tri-bars in 1993 and then using Obree’s ‘Superman’ position in 1996.

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Boardman did go on to beat Merckx’s record in 2000 at the Manchester Velodrome, bettering the Belgian master’s distance by just 10m.

The Czech rider Ondřej Sosenka broke Boardman’s record in 2005 with a distance of 49.7km although the fact he twice fell foul of doping checks – in 2001 and 2008 – throw his record attempt into ethical doubt.

In 2014, the UCI ‘unified’ the two record categories – the ‘traditional’ Hour Record, which restricted those attempting the record to roughly the same equipment as Merckx, and the ‘best human effort’ record.

Obree and Boardman’s previously-removed records were restored but Sosenka’s distance was judged to be the new benchmark to beat.

Under the new regulations riders may use any bike allowed by the UCI standards for endurance track events in place at the time of the attempt.

Still with us? Good, things get a whole lot easier from here!

The then-recently-retired Jens Voigt was the first to have a crack in September 2014 and since the popular German set a new benchmark of 51.110km at the Velodrome Suisse in Grenchen, five other men have bettered it.

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Voigt’s distance was more than a kilometre longer than Sosenka’s effort and was seen as the perfect end to a career well-raced.

In his excellent autobiography Shut Up, Legs: My Wild Ride On and Off the Bike, Voigt describes finding himself trying to come to terms with the closure of his career in the immediate aftermath of the his successful record attempt.

He said: “I won a lot of races in my career, but I lost far more. Still, I always knew I was in a lucky position to turn my passion into my profession. And now, at 43, I was closing the largest chapter of my life. Something I’d done passionately for 33 years had come to an end.

“Getting out to the shower, I looked at myself in the mirror for a second and just thought, “Okay, I will never be this fit, strong, skinny, and well trained for the rest of my life, never ever! It’s only downhill now.” I just passed the highest point of my physical strength and fitness. I will never, ever be Tour de France fit again, period! That was hard to swallow.”

His record joy was short-lived and just over a month later it fell.

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On October 30, less than 100 miles from Grenchen at the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Austrian Matthias Brändle added more than 700m to Voigt’s distance.

At the halfway mark, the IAM Cycling rider – some 19 years Voigt’s junior at the time of the attempt – was up on the German’s mark by more than 50 seconds.

He slowed in the second half, admitting he’d hit a ‘rough patch’ just over the midway point, but found the required rhythm to post the new record.

Rohan Dennis was the next to hold the record; the Australian time trial specialist returning the record to the Velodrome Suisse with a distance of 52.491km.

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Dennis’ success came just over a week after compatriot Jack Bobridge had failed in his attempt to better Brändle’s record at Darebin International Sports Centre in Melbourne.

The BMC rider, who had set his own pre-determined pacing strategy rather than merely attempting to match and then better previous holders, had had the perfect preparation for his attempt, winning the Tour Down Under the month previous.

2015 was a big year for attempts and Dennis’ record would fall twice more before it was over.

First, Alex Dowsett, then riding for Spanish outfit Movistar, became the first Brit since Boardman to hold the record with a distance of 52.937km at the Manchester Velodrome before Sir Bradley Wiggins added nearly 2kms to the record at the Olympic velodrome in London a month later.

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Dowsett, who suffers from haemophilia, was eight seconds behind Dennis in the opening 25 minutes but moved ahead of the Australian’s pace just after the halfway stage and from then on the record was rarely in doubt.

Afterwards Dowsett even used the word ‘easy’ to describe his attempt, although only in the context of what he was expecting.

“I wish people hadn’t told me it was going to be so hard. Compared to what I had expected, it was easy,” he said. “I was expecting it to be horrific but it was just terrible.

“The coaches gave me a plan which I didn’t like too much, which was to be behind Dennis for three-quarters of an hour.

“This was the first time we had run with the velodrome at a high temperature, so I knew it would be easier earlier on. I got a bit excited around halfway, and the last 10 minutes got a bit grippy.”

By contrast, Wiggins appeared to suffer more. He described the hour as ‘torture’ and said it was the nearest thing he could imagine to childbirth, although he made sure wife Cath was well out of earshot when he said it.

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To be fair to Wiggins, he not only beat Dowsett’s record but smashed it, adding more than 1.5km (over six laps).

Riding in the kit of the Continental team bearing his name, Wiggins had hoped to go even better but unseasonably high air pressure inside the velodrome made it much more difficult for the Tour de France to cut through the air..

“It was probably the worst weekend I could have done it in the last couple of months,” he said. “That was as far as I could have gone but not as far as I dreamed or hoped had the conditions been right. But I’m still satisfied.”

And so onto Campenaerts.

The 27-year-old Belgian had spent months carefully planning his attempt since competing at the World Road Championships in Austria.

Following a trial run at the Vélodrome Suisse, the Lotto Soudal rider spent two months of the winter in Namibia for altitude training before racing
Tirreno-Adriatico last month – a race in which he won the final-stage time trial.

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Campenaerts even went as far as sleeping in an altitude tent in Belgium and Mexico to boost his red blood count and aerobic ability.

And in choosing the Aguascalientes track, he gave himself the best chance of victory; the site at an altitude of 1,800m essentially making it one of the fastest in the world.

Despite all that prep though the attempt still comes down to a race against oneself – the ability to keep riding on when every muscle in the body screams for you to stop.

Campenaerts did just that on Wednesday, admitting that even though he was confident at the 30-minute stage he was on track to beat Wiggins’ record, he rode the final five minutes on ‘sheer will’.

He said: “The goal before the attempt was of course to break the hour record, which was also a realistic goal. I maybe started a bit too optimistic but then I slowed down a bit and searched for a new pace that I could hold. At the end, I still had a difficult moment. I did not ride the perfect lines that I did in the beginning. During the final five minutes – which I rode on sheer will – I covered a lot of useless metres.”

It remains to be seen who the next man to attempt the record will be although the current record of 55.089km may put a few off.

Dowsett spent much of Wednesday live-tweeting his admiration for Campenaerts and afterwards tagged his current team Katusha Alpecin in a tweet jokingly asking if the Manchester Velodrome had any slots available.

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There have been a number of failed attempts in the last five years and honourable mentions for those go to the previously-mentioned Bobridge (January 2015), Dutchman Thomas Dekker (February 2015), Swede Gustav Larsson (March 2015), Swiss pair of Micah Gross (March 2016) and Marc Dubois (February 2017), the American Tom Zirbel (September 2016), Polish rider Wojciech Ziolkowski (July 2017), the Dane Mikeel Bjerg, who twice attempted the record in October 2017 and October 2018, and the Dutch rider Dion Beukeboom (August 2018).

The Dane Martin Toft Madsen has attempted the record three times. His first shot, in January 2017, was voided after he was found to have consumed a contaminated food supplement. He would also fail to register a new record in January and July of 2018.

The current women’s Hour Record is held by the Italian Vittoria Bussi who posted 48.007km in September last year.

She’d failed in an attempt 24 hours earlier, abandoning after 40 minutes.

Bussi’s successful record attempt, at the same Aguascalientes velodrome that Campenaerts this week broke the men’s record at, saw her post a distance 27m further than Evelyn Stevens who set a distance of 47.980km in Colorado in February 2016.

The last women’s Hour Record before the unified rule change was set in October 2003 by Dutch Olympic gold medallist Leontien van Moorsel, with a distance of 46.065 km.

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American Molly Shaffer Van Houweling was the first to break it since the classification changed, riding a distance of 46.273 km in September 2015, again in Aguascalientes.

Her record stood until January of the following year when Australian Bridie O’Donnell posted 46.882km at the Super-Drome in Adelaide.

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