Breaking landmark records is going through quite a trend. There was the Ineos project in October 2019 where Eliud Kipchoge ran the impossible, a sub-two hour marathon. And on the triathlon front, it was recently announced that in 2022, there will be sub-seven and eight hour Ironman attempts for men and women respectively.
Cycling’s eye-catching equivalent is the Hour. For decades it has been seen as the cherry on top of a great rider’s career: simple yet complex, beautiful yet agonising. It is the closest we can get to measuring the sport’s legends across generations. Eddy Merckx, Miguel Induráin and Bradley Wiggins, to name a few, have broken the record at some point over the last century. The current holder is Victor Campenaerts, setting the mark of 55.089km in April 2019.
The physical demands of the Hour are like no other. The fixed gear bike ensures that you are riding at your full capacity; there is no freewheeling into a corner or taking a micro-rest coming out of the banking. If you take a lap slightly easy for recovery then you’ve got to get it back by the end.
Victor Campenaerts on his way to the 55.089km Hour Record in Mexico (Photo: Ulises Ruiz/ Getty Images)
Being locked into the TT position brings added stress, while riding at full gas, you’re also manipulating your shoulders and head into an unnatural position to be as aerodynamic as possible. A saddle is no armchair either and a rider has to stay as still as possible to limit energy loss. With the Hour record, there’s one guarantee – it will hurt. If not immediate, it creeps up over time. The fear of the unknown in those final ten minutes is arguably the most difficult factor to overcome. There are numerous horror stories; Merckx called it the hardest ride he’d ever done and Sir Bradley Wiggins compared it to torture. Poking fun at the mythology of suffering around the record, Alex Dowsett said: “It’s only an hour, it’s an episode of Top Gear”.
The furthest someone has gone on an upright bicycle in 60 minutes is 56.375km, Chris Boardman in the “Superman” position while riding the infamous Lotus Type 108 bike in 1996. However, his ride has now been chalked off the UCI Hour record board and is instead classified under the defunct ‘Best Human’ Record. Both the wind-cheating bike and position fall foul of modern-day equipment regulations.
Could a human being ever break 60 kilometres for the Hour? Next time you’re riding downhill, try to reach that speed. Imagine holding that for an hour from a standing start; it seems absurd within the current regulations. However, it also begs another intriguing question: what could a human do if they were to attempt an unofficial record outside of the UCI’s rules? The Ineos 1:59 marathon attempt was not ratified by World Athletics, but that’s not the point. They proved it could be done and it received incredible attention.
“You’ve got the dream and then you’ve got the reality,” says Alex Dowsett, who broke the Hour record in 2015. His issue with the Best Human Hour is that “you’re not bound by any limits”. So, just how far do you take it technologically before it’s not a fair record? If the UCI were to allow full creative freedom, Dowsett believes the standard would “climb very quickly” and we could see an arms race. (For the sake of argument, not total freedom: we’re referring to “upright” bicycles – the recumbent record is already somewhere past 90km. We’re also going to be keeping those pesky anti-doping rules. There’ll be no doping to the gills on our watch, thank you very much.)
The main problem with breaking 60km is that, even with significant technological advancement, there are very few people on the planet who have the physiological capability to produce the power required. A little bird tells us that Wout van Aert’s data makes him an interesting candidate – should he get bored of dominating every other discipline, that is. However, the obvious choice is Filippo Ganna. The 24-year-old is currently the best time-triallist in the world. He has track pedigree and holds the world individual pursuit record over four kilometres – although he would have to repeat his mark of 4:01.93 14 more times at a greater speed. Plus, he’s an Ineos Grenadier. They’re the best funded team in the sport, backed by a company who have an appetite for doing the unthinkable.
“No human is limited,” says Robby Ketchell, a performance scientist with Ineos Grenadiers and influential part of their 1:59 marathon project. While he admits that he “hasn’t received the memo to start working on the Hour record for Ineos”, it’s something he would love to do. He looks at the 60km Hour record idea in a logical way. For him, time, resources and belief are three elements that need to come together to make any project work.
Eliud Kipchoge at the 2019 London Marathon (Photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
With the successful 1:59 challenge, he based himself out of Vienna for almost a year. They had the resources to remove paths and repave roads. No stone was left unturned, quite literally. For cycling’s Hour record, the difference is that there are already set venues to choose from – velodromes. “Unless you build your own,” Ketchell adds. His attitude shows Ineos’s dynamic way of thinking in the various sports they sponsor. If the best doesn’t exist, they’ll develop it.
Kipchoge’s groundbreaking marathon got the world talking and inspired many to go jogging. “It brought together people who maybe weren’t into running before by humanising the process of trying to achieve something that has never been achieved before,” Ketchell says.
If Ineos wanted to have a similar effect in cycling with a game-changing Hour, it wouldn’t be cheap; the unsuccessful Breaking2 marathon project in 2017 reportedly cost Nike €30 million. Alex Dowsett says that it would be “easy to spend north of £100,000” on a record attempt. Organising the logistics of a record is a full-time job in itself and there are countless costs, from registering the record with the UCI to focussed training camps, velodrome hire and paying personnel. If the athlete isn’t already on the UCI anti-doping Whereabouts programme, that’s £7,000 down the pan straightaway.
Two of the biggest expenses are publicising the record and getting a reliable livestream of the event. Because if sponsors are going to pump money in, they want to be sure of exposure off the back of it – and in an Hour Record, there is a considerable return to be had. “I was live on Eurosport in 52 countries for over an hour, the Movistar and Endura logos were the sole focus of the camera,” Dowsett says of his 2015 ride.
If a company was to go all in and develop new, non-UCI legal equipment, the bill could be astronomical. Endura alone tested 57 different iterations of Dowsett’s skinsuit – imagine what would be possible if the shackles were completely off. Using the example of athletics, the controversial VaporFly Elite shoe was developed for the Breaking2 project in 2019 and the range has revolutionised running. One can only imagine how many rabbit holes you could go down when optimising the humble bicycle and its rider.
Dan Bigham is a leading track cyclist, ex-Formula 1 aerodynamicist and the founder of WattShop, a company that offers aero testing and manufactures watt-saving products. Using Filippo Ganna’s individual pursuit world record in Berlin as a data baseline, he gave some hypothetical outcomes. If Ganna were to attack the 60km challenge at sea level, it is estimated that he would need to produce 561.2 watts for the hour. That is, quite simply, ridiculous. Bradley Wiggins ‘only’ pushed 430 in his successful 2015 attempt and you can expect a top club rider to be doing approximately half of that.
If Ganna went up to the Aguascalientes velodrome in Mexico at 1887 metres, where Campenaerts set the current record, that number would drop to 515.9 watts, thanks to the reduction of air density due to lower barometric pressure at increased altitudes. While going high may seem like an easy win on paper, there is an immeasurable drop off in physiological capability. The lower air pressure reduces the saturation of oxygen in the blood and there is no mathematical equation that can predict this – each rider is individual. Most athletes also see a ten per cent drop off in their top-end power numbers when transferring from the road to velodrome.
Bigham, who is planning a record attempt himself, says it’s currently impossible to break 60km at sea level within the current regulations. “We simply don’t have athletes capable of riding at 500 watts for an hour on the velodrome. You’d need a lot of people working on a lot of different things.”
It is an almighty task that would require a combination of revolutionary technology and the absolute peak of human performance. “We’ll get there eventually,” Alex Dowsett says. “But when I go for the record again, I’ll be aiming for 55.2km.”
The Dream Hour
When going for a 60km Hour, every little helps. We speculate on the main areas where gains can be made if the UCI rulebook is thrown out of the window
Alex Whitehead training for his Hour Record attempt (Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)
A rider accounts for around 70% of drag. The Superman position, invented by Grame Obree and used by Boardman back in 1996, is a “no brainer and doesn’t get the merit it deserves,” Bigham says. He believes that just by using that position, a rider’s CdA (drag coefficient times frontal area) could drop by approximately ten per cent. This means they’d need around 55 fewer watts to get the 60km Hour.
The development of a radical, non-UCI legal frame would have considerable benefits. “You could go for things like a single-sided fork design or even bigger forks like the Hope design [the wildly-flared ones on the revolutionary British Cycling Olympic track bike],” Bigham says.
Cycling can learn from downhill skiing, whose top athletes have custom-made helmets. R+D would be required to create a lid to match the rest of the equipment.
The CeramicSpeed Driven system claims to increase drivetrain efficiency to 99%. Compared to the “standard” 97% efficiency, this would save around ten watts.
As per UCI regulations, a rider is not allowed to see their data while attacking the Hour. For pacing, they rely on track-side staff to shout lap splits. Having visibility of power, heart rate and speed would be game-changing and allow them to regulate the effort. There is also the potential hack of using a simple psychological tool such as a pacing line on the track. This would allow a direct comparison to the current record.
David Starr, performance nutritionist at Eat Drink Win, says we would see the relatively standard practices of “carbohydrate loading to maximise energy availability and caffeine to increase alertness as well as reduce the feeling of pain and fatigue”. The use of nitrates would also lower the oxygen cost of submaximal exercise.
Going to altitude has benefits when chasing the record. One limiting factor is the location of current velodromes. If a backing budget was big enough, a team could build a custom venue, choosing an altitude with minimal physiological drop-off for the rider and maximal aerodynamic gain.
Boundary layer suction could work in a similar fashion to the outlawed F-Duct in Formula 1, which McLaren introduced in 2010 before the development of the DRS (Drag Reduction System). Think of a mini Dyson with strategically placed attachments around the rider. It’s effectively a way of manipulating airflow. “Instead of powering yourself through the cranks, you’re powering yourself by reducing airflow separation and therefore drag. It’s an e-bike of sorts, but not as you know it,” Bigham says.