How and why Evelyn Stevens took on the hour

Evelyn Stevens owns a new hour record, but beyond that, she has a key stepping stone toward success at the Rio Olympics.

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Everything echoes inside this pressurized dome. The click of Evelyn Stevens’s pedals, dialed to their tightest setting; the whir of her tires and hum of her disc wheels against imperfect concrete banking; the encouragements of her coach, Neal Henderson, as she passes him with each revolution. The laps echo off each other, too. Ovals lay upon ovals. But where echoes fade, Stevens cannot. She set off across the 7-Eleven Velodrome’s imperfect concrete on Saturday and the amplitude of cheers and pain rose, louder and louder, higher and higher, until a crescendo at 60 minutes, when the world received its new hour record holder.

The hour record, now held by Stevens at 47.98km, is the closest thing cycling has to an equation on wheels. No tactics beyond pacing; no more speed than one deserves. This makes it too easy to bog down in data and forget its humanity. Too easy to forget the brain powering the engine, that inseparable relationship so crucial to athletic success.

A week and a day before her hour record attempt, Stevens sits on a metal bench on the newly covered velodrome’s infield, still in her lady Captain America USA Cycling skinsuit. An upturned aero helmet sits at her side, straps splayed like the sleekest flipped tortoise you’ve ever seen. The last of the day’s six efforts are behind her, and she can relax a bit. The work done at 48km, her goal for an hour, went well. Davis Phinney, confidant, supporter, reliable smile, sits to her left. His posture is excellent, his broad shoulders unbelievably strong. A few minutes prior, he expressed his confidence in his younger charge. “I’m very confident she can do it,” he said. “She’s tough.”

Stevens doesn’t look tough. Most cyclists don’t. She’s 120 pounds, forever smiling. Charming, intelligent answers to questions indicate good schooling but provide no insight into her capacity for suffering. Those who know her well say it’s preposterous. Disarmingly, she’s still joking a week before she takes on one of cycling’s great records.

“What is time?” she asks, putting on her best Colorado stoner voice. “An hour could be an hour, but how long is 60 minutes? Time is a flat circle, maaan. A 333-meter oval.” She laughs, spreads her arms wide to point at the velodrome’s banked corners.

But prod a little, begin to talk about the impending pain, and a hint of a something like fear creeps through. Maybe that’s the root of the jokes. Maybe she’s the foxhole comedian type.

“What about those last 15 minutes, how do you prepare for them?” I ask. “Merckx said they’re …” I get no further before Phinney cuts me off. I was going to say that Eddy Merckx called his attempt the “longest hour,” and said that the final few minutes were the most painful of his entire career. “Some things are better left unsaid,” Phinney says with a smile. “She doesn’t want to think about it.”

“It’s kind of like childbirth, which obviously I haven’t gone through yet. I just don’t want to know that much about it. I just want to actually do it,” Stevens says.

Pain threshold is a prerequisite for her job. But the hour is different, more difficult mentally and physically than any other event. Most who attempt it only do so once. Sixty minutes in the same position, no breaks, no downhills or uphills or standing, just utter concentration and pain that builds inexorably. How do you prepare for that?

Stevens works with a sports psychologist, as many world-class athletes do. For the hour, she took mental preparation a step further, floating in sensory deprivation tanks for 60 minutes at a time at a place called Reboot near her home in San Francisco. She was following the lead of Steph Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. He’s something of an idol, she says. It helps her tune into her body, and helps her picture what she has to do on the day of the attempt.

Henderson, her coach, emphasizes her mental preparation as much as her physical training. He takes video on the front of a motorbike at exactly 48kph, has her watch it so she can better feel the proper pace. This is his second hour record, after coaching Rohan Dennis to a successful attempt last year.

“Number one is accepting it and knowing that it’s part of what comes,” Henderson says of the inevitable pain. “It’s about knowing we’re capable of great things when we go to a place we’ve never been. You’re never going to do something you’ve never done without going someplace you’ve never been, whether it’s a physical sensation, or a mental breakthrough. Accepting that, knowing that, not being afraid of it. Know that it’s part of what comes.”

Suppressing fear of the final 15 minutes comes in part from increased confidence in her physical strength. She prepared specifically for the hour-long effort, longer than any time trial on the women’s calendar. In the weeks leading up to her attempt she trained on a newly refurbished flat track near her home on her time trial bike, including full hour-long efforts. She’s spent days on the velodrome, building the skills that will let her power shine.

The training had two purposes, she says. The first was her immediate goal, the hour record. But there is a secondary goal, too. Olympic dreams are a source of great motivation for Stevens, and were an incentive for her hour record attempt. In short, Stevens and Henderson are convinced that doing the hour could win her a medal in Rio.

In early 2014, Dennis lost the Australian national time trial title to Richie Porte. His power dropped in the final part of the race, Henderson says, and with it went the national title, even though he was ahead at the halfway point. In 2015, with hour record training in his legs, he didn’t fade, and came away with his first elite national time trial title. He then followed that up with a Tour de France yellow, again in a TT. It was his best season ever. “He went to a new level of sustained power when he broke the hour record last year,” Henderson says.

Stevens is hoping her form follows a similar trajectory. She rode the first half of the worlds time trial in Richmond last fall on pace for a medal, but slowed in the final kilometers. She finished sixth, 26 second back. As she looks ahead to a long and difficult Olympic time trial, the ability to hold a higher pace for more time could earn her a medal.

“The first discussions [of the hour record] were in Richmond for worlds,” Henderson says. “Evie had the third-best time going through the first lap, and then had a little of a fade on the second half of the course. She had trouble producing the power from start to finish. In thinking about all the things that could help improve that ability to stay on the gas, the hour was something that Evie thought of, that training and doing that would help increase that capacity.”

After the longest hour, what’s a mere 29.8km in Brazil?

A weave works its way into Stevens shoulders as 60 minutes tick closer. She hits one of the foam bollards laid on the blue apron with an audible thump. An overcorrection, back up above the red band; she’s doing all she can just to ride in a straight line. The grimace that crept onto her face with 15 minutes to go has turned into a snarl.

These are the moments she trained for, on the track and the road and in the sensory deprivation tank. Two hundred fans bang on the infield’s Plexiglas boards, screaming themselves hoarse as she lays oval up on oval upon oval until, finally, the gunshot that signals an end to her agony.

47.98 kilometers in 60 minutes. 29.81 miles per hour. Bridie O’Donnell’s record falls by over a kilometer. Jeannie Longo’s all-time record, set using the “superman” position in 1996, is safe by less than 200 meters, less than one revolution of the velodrome.

The contortions that beset Stevens’s face and body in the final laps are gone by the time she loops back around to the start line, replaced by a giddy smile.

Is a world record worth the pain? The look on her face answers, a definitive yes. Was it the longest hour?

“It was about as hard as I thought it could be,” she says. “There was one moment when I thought about Merckx, how he said it was the worst sensation ever. Oh yes, he was right.”

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