The Evolution of the Impossible Hour | The Record Men
The Hour of Truth: With Dan Bigham recently setting a new World Hour Record in Grenchen, Switzerland. The British rider beat Victor Campenaerts’ record by 400 metres. This got Ed Hood thinking about the evolution of the modern Hour Record and how it got to where it is now.
Jorgen Leith’s ‘The Impossible Hour’
Jorgen Leith got it right with the title of his documentary film about Ole Ritter’s unsuccessful attempt in 1974, ‘The Impossible Hour.’
Merckx was the ‘Hour King’ much like everything else
Dan Bigham’s brilliant ride to raise the bar to 55.548 metres on the Grenchen Velodrome in Switzerland recently had me thinking that it would be good to look at the ‘defining moments’ in the progression of the Hour in modern times and try to clear up the rather confusing different incarnations of the record.
Dan Bigham’s new 2022 World Hour Record ride
1968 Ole Ritter 48.653: The first Hour of the ‘modern era;’ the first at altitude to take advantage of the ‘thin’ air, albeit Ritter says that the main reason for choosing Mexico as the venue was that the world’s press were there in anticipation of the Olympic Games and would be looking to fill column inches. The super stylish Dane would return to Mexico in 1974 to try to reclaim the record – but it was not to be, hence the title of Leith’s wonderful documentary.
1972 Eddy Merckx 49.432: The great Belgian, riding a super light gem of a Colnago ignored his schedule and went off like a rocket en route his record ride, breaking the now defunct 10 and 20 kilometre records along the way but suffering badly in the closing laps; there’s little doubt that had he managed his pace better he’d have come very close to the magical 50 kilometres barrier.
1984 Francesco Moser 50.808: The ‘Campionissimo’ in the autumn of his career added a kilometre and more to Merckx’s record; however there are caveats, like the double disc wheels he rode, allegedly with internal oil filled tubes containing ball bearings at the hub end then spreading out towards the rim as he got under way aiding his acceleration; then there was the plastic film added to the track to reduce friction and not least, Sen. Moser’s choice of ‘preparatore,’ a certain Francesco Conconi.
Moser had ‘help’ from Francesco Conconi
Just four days later, making a nonsense of Merckx’s statement that Hour was a, ‘once in a lifetime effort’ the Italian took the record up to 51.151 kilometres where it would remain until a skinny, eccentric Scotsman came along. But in 2014 this became the first, ‘Best Human Effort Hour’ when the UCi revised the status of the record, more of which later.
Moser 50.808kms and then 51.151kms
1993 Graeme Obree 51.596: ‘L’Incroyable Mister Obree’ L’Equipe said, here in Scotland we’d seen what he could do but he was unknown on the world stage until he consigned Moser’s record to the ‘previous record holder’ column. He’d tried and failed to grab the record the day before on the boards of Hamar in Norway but fuelled by cornflakes and marmalade sandwiches he lined up on that bizarre machine and had the world’s eyes popping. He was way ahead of his time on aerodynamics; his shoulders on the bars position reduced the usual cyclist oval shape to a ‘T’ profile with knees practically touching and a super-narrow ‘Q’ factor thanks to that famous washing machine bearing in his bottom bracket.
1993 Chris Boardman 52.27: It was hard to take in for us; Merckx, Moser then two ‘Brits’ squabbling over the Hour in the space of a week! Englishman Boardman was none too pleased with Scot, Obree beating him to the punch and taking the record just six days before the man from The Wirral’s own attempt on the Bordeaux boards during the Tour de France. Using his successful record ride as a ‘shop window’ Boardman grabbed himself a contract with GAN. The super-meticulous Boardman was in direct contrast to the madcap Obree and found it hard to get his head round Obree’s approach. Obree, Boardman, then Obree again at 52.713, and Indurain’s 53.040 successful subsequent attempts would all fall within the ‘Best Human Effort Hour’ after 2014.
1994 Toni Rominger 53.832: The Swiss ‘chronoman’ and Grand Tour star took the record on the Bordeaux boards on a steel Colnago with ‘scaffold clamp’ tri-bars to make Dan Bigham weep. ‘Swiss Toni’ then, ‘did a Moser’ and upped the record to 55.291 kilometres just days later. Did I mention that Toni had Conconi’s protégé, Ferrari track side? Again, these records would fall into the ‘Best Human Powered Effort Hour’ in 2014.
1996 Chris Boardman 56.375: Using the ‘Superman’ position invented by bitter rival Obree, Boardman shelved the record with a huge 56K effort on the Manchester boards but the position was deemed illegal by the UCI albeit the ride currently remains as ‘Best Human Powered Effort Hour.’
2014: This is where it gets a little complicated, for a period, the UCi had an ‘Athlete’s Hour’ which had to be ridden on a ‘conventional’ track machine a la Eddy and the bike within strict dimensional parameters. Boardman updated Merckx’s record of 49.432K to 49.441K under these conditions in 2000 at Manchester before big Czech ‘chronoman’ and Peace Race winner, Ondrej Sosenka updated that to 49.7K in Moscow in 2005.
In 2014 the UCI decided to rejuvenate the record and went back to ‘Year Zero’ and the Merckx/Boardman/Sosenka rides as the yard stick, with the likes of Moser, Obree et al filed under ‘Best Human Powered Effort.’ The new dictate was that machines which were being ridden in current 2014 individual and team pursuits could be used for the record attempts, to the usual strict dimensional control. However, it should be noted that Rominger’s bikes fell within those parameters except for one factor, his front wheel was 25mm smaller than the rear – the 2014 regulations demanded wheels of the same size.
2014 Jens Voigt 51.115: In the twilight of his career, big German, Jens Voigt was quick to see the PR potential of this fresh approach to the Hour and on the Grenchen, Switzerland boards was first to start the new era of the Hour. Successful bids would then follow from Matthias Brandle 51.852K at Aigle, Rohan Dennis 52.491K at Grenchen and Alex Dowsett 52.937K at Manchester before a certain Knight of the Realm came along.
2015 Bradley Wiggins 54.526: In front of an adoring crowd on his home, London track the Tour de France winner looked to have shelved the record.
2019 Victor Campenaerts 55.089: The Belgian ‘chronoman,’ a former National and European Time Trial Champion and Worlds Time Trial medallist raised the bar, literally, travelling all the way to Aguascalientes in Mexico and an altitude of 1800 metres to revise Wiggo’s distance.
2022 Dan Bigham 55.548: On the boards of Grenchen, Switzerland, British ‘aero guru,’ Dan Bigham added two laps to Campenaerts distance and in the process exceeded Rominger’s 55.291K to leave only Boardman’s ‘Superman’ 56.375 as the last ‘Human Powered Effort’ ahead of the ‘UCi Hour.’
Next up Ganna?