“Is the Hour Record achievable? If you have good control over pacing and positioning, then the entire thing is within your control and grasp.”
Dan Bigham would know. The 30-year-old recently became the British Hour Record holder setting a distance of 54.723km, and is planning on going for the World distance in 2022, needing to register a minimum of 366 metres more than his first ride.
As Alex Dowsett found out last month, though, setting your sights on beating the record and undergoing meticulous preparation doesn’t always result in the dream becoming a reality.
So how will Bigham - or anyone else for that matter - beat Victor Campenaerts’ record of 55.089? How can any other female better Joss Lowden’s mark of 48.405km?
The answer lies somewhere between two crucial components: physical power and science. “If Dan Bigham can beat Bradley Wiggins’ time - and I’m going to guess Wiggins would have 70-80 watts more than Dan - then it proves that you can clearly overcome horsepower with technology,” says Michael Hutchinson, Dowsett’s coach for his ride in Mexico.
It is a simple task in theory. Ride around a velodrome for one hour and see you far you go. That's it.
But there's so much more, so many factors to weigh up. Altitude or sea-level? Opting for the former can give a rider an estimated additional advantage up to 1.5km, but push the entire attempt towards a total fee of between £70,000 - £100,000. There’s also the role of air density and humidity.
“You need a lot of time on the track to prepare, minimum two or three times a week," adds Hutchinson. "But most of it is about finding the budget, the team support, the time to do it. You need a substantial break off racing in order to do that.”
The problem for most riders is that being permitted a significant amount of time away from the racing calendar does not appeal to most teams. “It’s a really hard for a WorldTour pro,” says Hutchinson. “If your teams wants you at Flanders, the Giro, the Tour and the Worlds, you can’t take six months off to ride around the velodrome.
“And that, I feel, limits what is possible, because you have to test the clothing, the riding position, and you can’t really do that terribly effectively if the athlete isn’t there. You can use manikins in a tunnel but that has its limitations.
"It’s not uncommon to find that a skinsuit will gain or lose you five or six watts depending on how you put it on. It’s a technical challenge just to wear the clothing.”
Testing, testing, testing - Bigham epitomised this in his preparation. “There wasn’t anything we really learned from the Hour itself because we had done so many practise hours that we made the mistakes before the ride and learned from them," Bigham says.
“In different 35 minute blocks we tried stuff and some worked, some didn’t. It was an extensive process of learning and it meant that we knew what the pitfalls were to avoid, how to hydrate, what the physical and mental strategy should be. Stuff like positioning was all pre-agreed.
“The main thing I did learn from the attempt was that the models to predict performance held true - there was no glaring error afterwards. That’s a good sign as it means all you need to do then is go out and execute it.”
Hutchinson made two unsuccessful attempts of his own at the Hour, while on the road he won more Cycling Time Trials titles than any other man in history. He therefore has a deep understanding of the importance of aerodynamics - and how pivotal smooth airflow is to a rider.
“In a standard road time trial, the chunks between the riders are 15 seconds, 30 seconds and so on," he explains. "In that context, you wouldn’t say that taping over a hole in the handlebar set-up would make a difference.
“During Alex’s record he was five seconds up at one point and the schedule was to break the record by six seconds. So putting bits of tape on the handlebars bolts start to count towards a measurable difference in the overall result in an Hour Record.”
An engineer by trade, Bigham talks about the role of CdA (coefficient of aerodynamic drag). “If you haven’t got the power or the aero, it’s all about watts to CdA, and as long as if you can ride the line, you’ve just got to be able to produce the power and maintain the position.
“But actually the biggest thing is not losing the head. When the heads fall off and you don’t feel in control, it can start to fall apart quickly. It’s about keeping everything within your control.”
“One thing that is underestimated is being able to hold a particular position,” Hutchinson adds. “It’s not easy to do. Alex delivered what he had to do pretty well. It’s demanding for someone to hold that position under stress for an hour.”
Rumours are rife that Ineos Grenadiers’ Filippo Ganna will attempt to break the record in late 2022, with many assuming that he will set a benchmark that won't be breached. It’s why Bigham is attempting his second go at the challenge within the next six to nine months.
But Hutchinson cautioned against excessive expectations. “Historically it’s never been on the shelf. Everyone said that [Miguel] Indurain had set a distance that no one would ever break and then 18 months later Tony Rominger broke it by two kilometres. People said Wiggins had put it on the shelf, but that wasn’t the case.
“Whichever side of the balance - power or aero - you choose to look at, you still have to address the full package and have the skillset. There’s no right or wrong way to break the Hour Record.”
The question is, who will take Campenaerts' title?
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