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The hour record may be the ultimate benchmark of a cyclist’s fitness. It requires few rules and even less explanation. Go all-out for an hour on a velodrome. How far can you get before the gun sounds in 60 minutes?
Words: Patrick Brady
Images: Yuzuru Sunada
The mark was first set in 1876 by Englishman Frank Dodds. He managed to travel 26.5 km in an hour. Not impressed? He did it on a penny farthing—a high-wheeler.
The hour has attracted names known to us as important in cycling’s history. Tour de France visionary and impresario Henri Desgrange was next to tackle the mark, moving it to 35.3 km. That was the single largest improvement of the hour record in its long history (not counting human-powered vehicles), and should give you some window into how much more aerodynamic the “safety” bicycle was as compared to the penny farthing.
Other greats attracted to make their own mark on history include Lucien Petit-Breton, who later won the 1907 and ’08 Tours de France. Olympic champion and bike company founder Giuseppe Olmo left his imprint in 1935 and was the first rider (of a traditional bicycle) to break the 45 km mark, and he did it on a bike that would make a Schwinn Varsity seem bantam weight.
Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil helped to propel the prestige of the hour record skyward thanks to their successes in Grand Tours. However, they didn’t chasten others from chasing the dream. Roger Riviere and Ole Ritter—mere stage winners in Grand Tours—both increased the record.
However, it was Eddy Merckx’s record that came at the end of his immortal 1972 season that made furthering the mark seemingly impossible for a span of nearly eight years, until Francesco Moser—using every aerodynamic edge available then—added 1,400 meters. In doing so, Moser was the first to break the magic 50 km barrier. Days later he added another 300 meters to his mark—51.2 km.
There it would sit for nearly 10 years.
Rominger on the boards.
On July 17, 1993, Scot Graeme Obree put the world on its ear. While the hour record had typically been set at the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan, Mexico City or the Velodrome du Lac in Bordeaux, Obree holed up at the velodrome in Hamar, Norway.
Obree was barely known outside the U.K. Using an approach that discarded convention, he used a bicycle he built himself and a riding position no one had ever considered. He added another 400 meters to the record, making it 51.6 km. And while Obree’s record shocked the world, his was simply the first shot, not the last.
Over the next 18 months the record would fall another five times. No period in the history—not before, not since—of the hour record has seen the effort receive so much attention. Four different athletes—Obree, Chris Boardman, Miguel Indurain and Tony Rominger—would tackle the endeavor, making the rarely competed discipline the stuff of cycling magazine covers.
Only ten days after Obree’s mark, Englishman Chris Boardman would notch the next reach, adding just less than another 700 meters, bringing it to 52.3 km. Obree came back the following April, boosting it to 52.7 km.
The machinations of the UCI’s effort to stifle Obree’s innovation and the struggle that nearly crippled his career are really left to another story.
Here’s where the story takes an unusual turn. Merckx was the last Tour de France champion to hold the mark; it had been 21 years since he etched his name into the record books. Moser had been a Giro winner, but worldwide the Giro carried less weight than the Tour, as it still does today.
On September 2, 1994, Miguel Indurain swung his leg over a carbon fiber Pinarello that looked to have more in common with a bird wing than a bike frame. The bike sported Campagnolo discs front and rear and Indurain’s typically stubby aero bars. The Spanish rider chose the Bordeaux track recently used by Boardman and Obree.
Indurain hadn’t spent a lot of time on the track, and because he is a big rider the centrifugal force he experienced in the turns of the 250-meter track presented a challenge the open road does not. It’s hard to say just how much that detail affected his performance but the outcome was less impressive than cycling fans were expecting. Ahead of his attempt some estimated that he might achieve 55 or even 56 km. Ultimately, he reached just a tick over 53 km, barely 300 meters more than Boardman’s distance.
Still, the cycling world rejoiced. The hour record had been restored to the hallowed possession of a Grand Tour champion. All was right with the world. It was absolute confirmation that Miguel Indurain was the greatest cyclist on the planet.
Now, finally, we turn to the real subject of our story, the Swiss rider Tony Rominger. Rominger was cut from the mold of the riders entering retirement. Like Laurent Fignon before him, Rominger raced a full season. He was a stage racer and focused on events like the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Paris-Nice in the spring.
Rominger would move on to the Vuelta in April (the race didn’t move to August until 1995) or the Giro in May. But he often kept a low profile in July. From when he turned pro in ’86 through ’92, he raced the Tour only twice, finishing anonymously. He blamed his lack of appearances there on allergies that made racing in July difficult.
In the late summer he would return to racing and keep a heavy schedule straight through to the Giro di Lombardia at the end of the season. Between ’86 and ’92 he won nearly every minor stage race. His palmares included Tirreno-Adriatico, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. In April of ’92 he took only his second start at the Vuelta a España. His first appearance resulted in a respectable 16th, but this time he won two stages and assumed the gold jersey, winning his first Grand Tour.
In September of that year Rominger took his second victory at the Giro di Lombardia. He had maintained winning form for more than seven months. In ’93 he took his second consecutive victory in the Vuelta, this time with three stage victories along the way. Armed with a new UCI-legal allergy medication, it was time to try the Tour again.
Indurain had two Tour victories to his credit. He was considered formidable, but he didn’t yet seem unbeatable. Rominger, with two Grand Tour victories notched in his belt, seemed to be the obvious choice. If Indurain’s victory in the Giro concerned him, it didn’t show at the start race in Puy du Fou when Indurain won the prologue.
Rominger brought the race to Indurain. That year the Tour had but two Alpine stages. No matter, Rominger won them both, earning the mountains classification in the process. While Indurain seemed untouchable in time trials, Rominger proved that wasn’t the case; he won the 48 km final time trial, depriving Indurain of a sweep of all the individual time trials. However, those three stage wins weren’t enough. Indurain took his third Tour, beating Rominger by 4:59.
There’s always next year, right? What he didn’t know was that time trial victory would be his last Tour stage victory… ever.
If you want to gain a psychological edge prior to a rematch, it’s helpful to put a shot across your opponent’s bow. Rominger did exactly that. He opened his ’94 season with a victory in Paris-Nice. Next, in April, he won his third straight Vuelta. However, he didn’t just win this one, he utterly dominated it, stealing six stages. Mikel Zarrabetia—one of Indurain’s lieutenants—finished in second place, 7:28 down. Worse, former Tour and Vuelta champion, Pedro Delgado finished third at 9:27.
The Tour rematch started well enough. Rominger rose through the GC and at the end of stage 12 in the Pyrénées he was second to Indurain. Second is as close as Rominger would ever get to yellow. The next day he got sick with symptoms of an intestinal flu. Dehydrated by diarrhea, Rominger climbed off his bike 40 km from the end of stage 13.
The Swiss cyclist didn’t wait for ’95 to plot his return. No, after recovering his form he won two time trials, the GP Eddy Merckx and the Grand Prix des Nations.
Surely Indurain knew his hour wouldn’t stand. While he had rushed into his effort, mounting his challenge only five weeks following the Tour de France, Rominger was patient. After his two time trial wins he took time to ride a final block of training before his attempt.
On October 22, Rominger took to the Bordeaux trawck on a steel bike and two discs. An hour later, when the gun sounded, he had added almost 800 meters to the record. His distance of 53.8 km was the largest increase in the record since Moser had bested Merckx in an effort that was often derided as more technology than human power. There could be no mistake that Rominger had just achieved the triumph over Indurain that had eluded him.
What satiates the soul? Satisfaction can be hard to define, hard to recognize. For Rominger, the October 22 record left him wanting. Two weeks later, on November 5, he returned to the Velodrom du Lac for a second assault on the record.
History shows that he bettered himself by more than Indurain bettered Boardman. Rominger added more than 400 meters to his own record, crossing a distance of 55.3 km.
Competition is more than a battle of will; it is a measure of one’s peers. The greatest contests are those that collect the greatest competitors.
Rominger would return in ’95 to win the Giro d’Italia, claiming four stage wins and the points competition as well. However, the race lacked Indurain and that tarnished some of the luster from that win.
That he won from March to September demonstrate his journeyman status beyond doubt. Four Grand Tour victories and two monument victories prove he was a champion for the ages. Yet, as great as those are, had we but one reason to remember Rominger it is this: when he faced Indurain in the ultimate crucible, the purest of time trials, he surprised everyone with a win that wasn’t timid, it was emphatic.
Grand Tours Finishes
Vuelta a España: 16th (‘90); 1st (‘92); 1st (‘93); 1st (‘94); 3rd (‘96); 38th (‘97). Giro d’Italia: 97th (‘86); 44th (‘88); 1st (’95). Tour de France: 68th (‘88); 57th (‘90); 2nd (‘93); 8th (‘95); 10th (‘96).
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