The Torqued Wrench: The tech behind the hour record

With Fabian Cancellara aiming at cycling's purest record, Caley Fretz waxes on the rules surrounding the attempt

Photo: AFP

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Ovals laid down upon ovals, upon ovals, upon ovals. Vision, blurred, inundated with nothing but boards and corners, honed in on a thin black line, the one that signifies the shortest route around this banked hell; nothing to occupy the mind but searing, fiery pain and total concentration. It is 60 minutes stretched into an eternity, they say; it is the longest hour, they say.

Eddy Merckx described being afraid to move, to blink, lest it throw off the rhythm, or cause the lapse in concentration that could be the distinction between success and failure. Nothing, not a thing, can be allowed to grab the focus, break the concentration. It’s the ultimate test of not only the body but of the mind.

“It’s not possible to compare the hour with a time trial on the road,” Merckx said, following a successful attempt at the record in 1972. “Here it’s not possible to ease up, to change gears or the rhythm. The hour record demands a total effort, permanent and intense, one that’s not possible to compare to any other. I will never try it again.”

He never did.

Less than six months from now, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) will. Or might. He’s being very coy about it all.

If he does make an attempt, rumored at the moment to take place in Mexico’s high-altitude Aguascalientes velodrome, he would be the first to make a real go at the hour record since Ondrej Sosenka in 2005, and the first big name since Chris Boardman in 2000. He has a very real chance of writing himself into the record books in a way that few ever have — but what exactly would an attempt look like?

A complicated hour

The hour is a simple test, on its face: ride as far as possible in 60 minutes. It’s always performed on a velodrome, removing wind and elevation from the equation, and on a fixed-gear track bike, because there are no hills. Theoretically, it provides the best possible barometer of human performance over time. But, underneath this idealistic exterior, it’s far more complex.

There is more than one “hour record.” The Best Human record, held now by Chris Boardman at 56.375km, places minimal rules on equipment and position. That record is largely ignored in favor of the one Cancellara will likely chase: the UCI-approved so-called “Merckx” record, performed on highly regulated equipment, in a highly regulated position — similar, at least in form, to the bike and position used by Merckx for his 1972 record of 49.431km.

The idea is to make it a competition of men, not machines; the rules were born of the superbike era of the 1980s and ’90s, when equipment and positions were changing so rapidly that victories were seen as results of technology, not the riders. Merckx famously lambasted Francesco Moser’s record-breaking ride in 1984 as being the first time a “weaker man has beaten a stronger man.”

The rules call for the use of a “traditional bicycle,” and regulate the size of frame tubes (circular, with a diameter no smaller than 2.5cm), rims (cross-section must fit inside a 2.2cm square), spokes (can be bladed, but no wider than 2mm, and no fewer than 16 per wheel), tires (no narrower than 16mm or wider than 25mm), and handlebars (traditional bend, no narrower than 34cm or wider than 50cm). Basically, a track bike that could come straight out of the 1970s.

But why freeze the frame (pun fully intended) on that era? Why not simply allow any currently UCI-legal bike, legalizing the use of the bikes and positions seen in UCI track races?

There are valid arguments on both sides. The bike Merckx competed on is relatively similar to the bikes that came for 40 years before, but looked nothing like the bikes found just 10 years later. If the goal is truly to compare human performances across time, the Merckx bike represents a good standard around which to base all future equipment.

Then there is the fact that the bikes and positions of the ’90s — think massive solid frames and stretched-out, “Superman” positions — are faster than anything that is legal today. So even if the hour record were opened up to all currently legal equipment, today’s riders would have a disadvantage relative to the Graeme Obree/Chris Boardman era. (Of note, though, is that Jack Bobridge recently beat Chris Boardman’s now-banned superman position record in the individual 4,000m pursuit, so that argument may not be entirely valid.)

If the hour record rules were opened up completely, ’90s style, then you run into even more problems. As blogger Cosmo Catalano Tweeted at me yesterday, removing the current rule set puts the event “on a slippery slope to a fully faired HPV.” He’s right; a happy middle ground would have to be found, some line in the sand would have to be drawn. And if we’re drawing lines, why not draw them in the ’70s, when bikes were as close to their historical mean as ever.

On the other side of the coin, the Merckx rules feel arbitrary, turning the event into a “track cycling version of the Eroica,” as the blog put it last fall. Certainly, Trek wishes it could put Cancellara on a track version of its time trial frame, rather than being forced to build some one-off, vintage bike — the ’70s throwback isn’t quite as good for business.

Other track racing records are not confined to a single type of bicycle; they simply require that the bike used be UCI legal at the time. It is only the romanticism of the hour, then, that seems to inspire this need for a more direct comparison between men over time. It feels right, to many, to leave this one particular event in its purest form forever, so that it remains a touchstone we can return to time and time again.

What will he ride?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Cancellara will hit the track on a bike straight out of the 1970s, though. Though the bike will fit the same classic aesthetic, the technology inside will be thoroughly modern. It won’t be steel; there are no rules about material, so its thin tubes will probably be carbon fiber, and will surely be considerably stiffer than the frame used by Merkcx in 1972.

Cancellara probably won’t attack his bike with a drill, either, as Merckx did in an effort to save weight. We now know that Merckx likely did more harm than good with that particular strategy, as the hundreds of extra edges certainly had a detrimental aerodynamic impact greater than any gains from weight savings on a dead-flat circuit (which would amount to approximately zero).

He will likely run a radially laced front wheel, meaning the spokes don’t cross, with only 16 spokes. A 2mm blade isn’t much, but it’s a marginal gain that won’t be ignored. There’s no need for a stiff or particularly strong front wheel in a one-off event.

Merckx’s record was achieved with a 52-tooth chainring and 14-tooth rear cog, a 97-inch gear. If Cancellara wants to go faster he may have to up that figure, perhaps to a 53/14 (99 gear inches), or even a 52/13 (104.6 gear inches). But that will come down to personal preference. [Gear inches is dependent on tire size. We’ve computed these numbers based on 21mm tires. —Ed.]

There will certainly be some internal debate over tires. A wider tire can provide lower rolling resistance on roads, but on a smooth track, the superior aerodynamics of a narrow tire may take top priority. Perhaps Cancellara will run a narrow front and wider rear, as the frame better shields the rear.

Sosenka, who stands at 6-feet-6-inches, ran massive 190mm cranks, but it seems unlikely that Cancellara would change his standard crank arm length of 175mm.

Don’t be surprised if Cancellara shows up with hyper-narrow bars, perhaps at the lower limit of 34cm.

Perhaps more important than the bike will be what Cancellara wears. The rules forbid an aero time trial helmet, but today’s aero road helmets are fair game. The gains from helmets and modern skinsuits should not be underestimated.

Can Cancellara do it? He has as good a chance as any of today’s top time trialists, certainly. And more importantly, he’s proven to be highly skilled in solo efforts on a normal road bike. Just because a rider is a good time trialist does not necessarily mean he will be a good time trialist on a road bike. It all comes down to the power-to-drag ratio. If a rider is particularly aerodynamic in the TT position, but less so (relative to his peers) on the road bike, he will suffer in a Merckx-position event like the hour record. But that would not appear to be a concern for Cancellara, whose solo classics efforts are stuff of legend.

The only concern for Fabian will be one number: 49,701. That’s how many meters he needs to travel in exactly 60 minutes to add his name to one of the few record books that does not already contain it. For fans, watching him try may just be the treat of the year.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.