The Impossible Hour and Those Who Failed
Spectacular Hour Failures: The World Hour record is the true test of a champion. Riders have needed to be lifted off their machine at the finish, and the great Eddy Merckx said it shortened his career, but they will never stop trying. Ed Hood takes a look at the top men who failed in the hour race of truth.
The King of the Hour… and lots of other things – Eddy Merckx
It’s a sport where sometimes it’s hard for a layman to understand what the hell is going on – omnium, the green jersey, match sprinting, madison, keirin – what’s that moped for? But ‘The Hour’ is simple, one man, one bike, he rides around a velodrome for one hour to see how far he can go before the gun fires. He leaves that track elated or a broken man. Alex Dowsett’s recent gallant but abortive bid made me think about other’s who have jousted with the sweep hands and lost.
Jacques Anquetil on the Vigorelli
‘Maitre Jacques,’ one of the most talented and stylish ‘chronomen’ who ever threw a leg over a bike, twice broke the record, albeit the second time his distance was never officially recognised. In 1956 on the boards of Milan’s legendary Vigorelli Velodrome he rode 46.159 kilometres to beat the ‘Campionissimo’ Fausto Coppi’s 45.798 kilometres. In 1967 he bested Roger Riviere’s figure of 47.347 kilometres with 47.493, again on the Vigorelli. The ‘but’ is that this distance was never ratified due to no dope test having been conducted. What’s less well known is that Anquetil twice failed in record bids in 1955, sitting shattered beside the track after his failures the Italian fans in the stands chanted; ‘Coppi! Coppi!’ to add to the Frenchman’s misery.
The blond Russian blazed brightly across the cycling heavens in the 90’s, going from World Amateur Individual and Team Pursuit Champion to Giro winner within a couple of seasons. However, like most shooting stars he quickly began to fizzle out, after a lack lustre 1997 season with the Batik–Del Monte team he was held by his squadra to a clause in his contract stating that he had to attack the world hour record. Riding a 54 x 13 gear on the boards of the Bordeaux Velodrome it took a mere 17 minutes at way off record pace to establish that Evgeni’s name wasn’t going to be added to the role of honour.
Jack Bobridge Hour attempt
The Australian was a prodigy, world junior team pursuit champion, he added the Commonwealth and senior world individual and team pursuit titles to his palmarès as well as setting the world record for the four kilometres pursuit. On the road he won the national and world u23 time trial titles before twice taking the elite national road race.
However, his ‘liking of a drink’ caused him problems with his elite trade and national teams and in 2015 riding for the Australian continental team, Budget Forklifts he made an attempt on the record to refresh his career. Despite riding himself beyond the pale, being unable to get off his machine at the end of the hour, he missed Mathias Brandle’s record of 52.852 kilometres by some 500 metres; his only consolation was that he established a new Australian record.
It all went wrong for Peugeot
Vuelta winner, World Professional Pursuit Champion, stylish ‘chronoman’ with the GP des Nations and Trofeo Baracchi on his palmarès, not to mention six day star, Bracke broke the record in 1967 on the boards of Rome’s Olympic Velodrome, eclipsing Anquetil’s unratified distance with 48.093 kilometres. But the following year, Dane Ole Ritter travelled to Mexico and in the rarefied air rode 48.653 kilometres on the Olympic Velodrome.
Bracke decided he wanted his record back and travelled to Mexico as reigning World Professional Pursuit Champion, having beaten British pursuit star, Hughie Porter in the final. However, despite two attempts in good conditions the Belgian couldn’t get to grips with the thin air leaving his sponsor, Peugeot with no record or positive publicity, just a huge bill.
The Italian was women’s world record holder until British rider, Joss Lowden recently relieved her of the honour. But what’s less well known is that Bussi twice tried and failed to break the record prior to her successful bid. Of her first failed bid, one year before her success, she told us;
“The main thing was that the position I had was too extreme, it was really aero but I couldn’t maintain power and my breathing just collapsed. We went into the wind tunnel after that and as a result raised my handlebars, it wasn’t as aero a position, it was a compromise but it meant I could maintain the power.”
She also, ‘did an Obree,’ trying and failing in her record bid the day before she broke the record, telling us;
“There was a lot of pressure on me on that first day, maybe too much? I had too much focus and couldn’t enjoy the experience, at 45 minutes I was on the pace but the ‘flow’ just wasn’t there. The next day I found the ‘flow’ and the atmospherics were better too.”
If at first you don’t succeed. . .
Thomas Dekker gave it a good go
If you’ve read his book, ‘The Descent’ then you’ll know that the man was a serious ‘party animal,’ drink, drugs, fast cars, faster women, the full gamut of stuff which is ultimately incompatible with our ‘king of sports’.
However, he was a wonderfully talented athlete, silver medallist in the u23 World road race and time trial championships in 2004 and as a second year pro he won the prestigious Tirreno-Adriatico. His crazy extracurricular activities though meant that he never realised his full potential and he slipped down the rankings. In 2015, with no contract on the table he travelled to the current, ‘Temple of Speed,’ Aguascalientes in Mexico in attempt to take the record and grab a contract on the back of it. His ride was creditable at 52.221 kilometres, just some one lap shy of Rohan Dennis’ record of 52.491 kilometres – but The Hour is, ‘binary,’ success or failure; and Dekker’s career was over.
On the international stage, Hutchison’s name isn’t well known but the Irishman was a prolific winner of British national time trial championships. His entertaining book, ‘The Hour’ charts his ultimately fruitless bids for Hour immortality in the early 2000’s. It’s well worth a read for information on the hoops that have to be jumped through just to sit on the record start line, not to mention much ‘Hour trivia’.
The summer of 1995, he’d won his fifth Tour de France and taken the world time trial championship; and at 06:00 am – the early hour so he was riding during the stillest part of the day – he mounted his Pinarello Espada and rolled off on 62 x 14 in search of Toni Rominger’s 55.291 record. In spite of the time of day on a Sunday, some 5,000 people had packed into the Bogota Velodrome to witness a Living Legend make history. But it was not to be, despite being up on Rominger early in the ride he slipped further and further back before climbing off after 31 minutes.
Banesto team manager, Jose Miguel Echavarri put the failure down to the early morning cold, damp conditions and a rising breeze. The big man himself said; ‘I can’t be happy but it’s not the end of the world, I want to consider it as a defeat like any other, as a race lost and nothing more.’ But things would never be the same again between the two men and the following year ‘Big Mig’ would call a halt to a great career. Manolo Saiz, the main man at the ONCE team is said to have offered Indurain 4.5 million Euros to ride for him in 1997 but he’d had enough. . .
Graeme Obree on ‘Old Faithful’
Back in the 80’s when I was a ‘time tester’ on Scottish roads, I was racing a 25 mile time trial down at Ayr. My life long amigo and DS for the day, Dave Chapman said to me at the finish; ‘there’s a guy out there on a circus bike!’ He was of course, referring to Graeme who had recently adopted his crazy but SO aero and powerful inverted handlebar position. Little did we know what the future held.
But the day before the maverick Scotsman broke ‘Campionissimo’ Francesco Moser’s of 51.151 kilometres with 51.596 kilometres on the now demolished Hamar Velodrome in Norway he failed in his attempt. However, fuelled by a night’s sleep and a highly scientific diet of marmalade sandwiches – ‘pieces’ as we call them in Scotland – and corn flakes, Graeme lined up next day and the rest is history, as they say. . .
Ole Ritter ‘The Impossible Hour’
The so stylish Dane, who, on his best day could beat Merckx in a time trial was the first to exploit the thin air of Mexico City, albeit he maintains that it was rather the presence of the world’s press corps in anticipation of the 1968 Mexico Olympics which was his prime motivation for choosing that venue for his bid.
However, Merckx relegated the Dane to the ranks of, ‘former recordman de l’heure’ with his epic 49.431 ride in Mexico in 1972. Ritter decided to go again to reclaim his record; the cult documentary film by Ritter’s countryman, Jorgen Leth, ‘The Impossible Hour,’ tells the story of Ritter’s unsuccessful attempts to reclaim the ‘Blue Riband’ of cycle sport better than I can, watch it – and if you already have then do so again, it’s wonderful.
Roy Schuiten and Peter Post
The Dutchman was pure class, as an amateur he won the Tour of Britain, ‘Milk Race’ and the super-fast Olympia Tour in his homeland. As a fresh professional he won the World Professional Pursuit Championship, the Grand Prix des Nations and the Baracchi Trophy with Francesco Moser – a fabulous debut. The following season his meteoric progress continued with another world pro pursuit title, the GP Frankfurt, the GP des Nations, the GP Lugano. . .
‘The Hour’ seemed like a formality and a trip to Mexico was duly organised, but his son told us the story like this;
“There’s no doubt that his material was top of the bill for the era – the bike, the clothing, it was all perfect. But things between my father and his team manager, Peter Post weren’t the best any more, in 1974 he’d been ‘his boy’ but now he had more stars on the team and my father felt that Post wasn’t so supportive any more, he felt abandoned even? And there were commercial interest in play; Post had sold the TV rights to a Dutch broadcaster and to get the satellite link he had to start at THIS time. Merckx didn’t have that handicap, his start time wasn’t set for him – the wind is a factor on an outdoor track like in Mexico and you should ride to suit the weather conditions not just for maximum publicity or satellite link. People talked as if it was going to be easy but it was a Merckx record; my dad was only 23/24 years-old, a rookie and if you look at the guys who took the record in that era, mostly it was towards the end of their career.”
Jorgen Leth perhaps summed it up best, yes indeed, ‘The Impossible Hour’.