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VOIGT REINVIGORATES WORLD HOUR RECORD

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Whether or not Jens Voigt sets a new world hour record on Thursday, he is rejuvenating cycling’s oldest and most revered track record. That’s because the German veteran, a day after his 43rd birthday, will be the first man to make use of the UCI’s revised rules for hour record attempts—which can now be made on the type of track bike with aero bars currently used for 4000-meter pursuit races at world championships and Olympics.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

The hope is that Voigt will spur time trial champions such as Fabian Cancellara, Tony Martin, Taylor Phinney, and Brad Wiggins to shoot for the record in a spate of record attempts similar to that in the mid-1990s, which was enabled by rapid changes in aerodynamic technology and culminated in Chris Boardman’s all-time record of 56.375 kilometers set in September 1996. The UCI subsequently banned the “Superman” position used by the flying Brit and then in 2000 drastically modified the rules for making hour record attempts, decreeing that the bike had to conform to a traditional format, as used by Eddy Merckx in October 1972 when he set a record of 49.431 kilometers on a steel-framed machine with drop handlebars, wire-spoke wheels and no aerodynamic features.

Using the new regulations later in 2000, Boardman rode 49.441 kilometers, to marginally improve Merckx’s record. Five years later, the unheralded Czech national time trial champion Ondrej Sosenka upped the record to 49.700 kilometers—which is the mark that, another nine years later, Voigt is almost certain to improve upon this week. Even though Voigt, whose illustrious road career ended last month, is not an experienced track racer and is the oldest man to make a world hour record attempt, it would be a huge surprise should the German veteran, using aero bars and the latest in Trek’s carbon-fiber frame-building technology, not set a mark of 50, 51 or even more kilometers.

The bike being used by Voigt has the potential to go as fast as the one ridden 18 years ago by Boardman using the infamous Superman position when he set his 56.375-kilometer mark. How do we know that? Well, a week before setting that hour record, Boardman, in the Superman position, set a world 4000-meter record of 4:11.114, which works out at an average speed of 57.344 kilometers per hour (kph). After that super-stretched-out position was banned, it was believed that no one would be able to match Boardman’s records. But just over three years ago, in February 2011, Australian pursuit specialist Jack Bobridge set a new world 4000-meter record of 4:10.534—an average speed of 57.477 kph.

That performance by Bobridge demonstrated that a modern-trained athlete using the latest in track-bike technology can match Boardman’s speed in the special environment of a world record attempt. Perhaps sometime in the near future a Cancellara, Martin, Phinney or Wiggins can translate that theory into practice over a 60-minute timespan. For now though, Jens Voigt, in the final race of his pro career, is center stage and ready to add his name to the list of champions who added considerable prestige to their palmarès by breaking the world hour record—including Tour de France champions Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Induráin.

WORLD HOUR RECORD HISTORY

Bicycle racing was in its infancy when Frenchman Henri Desgrange set the first official world hour record in May 1893, when he raced 35 kilometers and 325 meters in 60 minutes on the famed Buffalo track in Paris. By the time Desgrange founded the Tour de France a decade later, three others had bettered his hour record, including an American, Willie Hamilton, who was the first to top the 40-kilometer mark (40.781 kilometers) in July 1898.

Hamilton added almost 2 kilometers to the previous distance thanks to making his attempt in the thin air of Denver, Colorado, and by riding at dusk, following a spotlight that was calibrated to move around the track at the requisite 25-mph pace (a practice that was subsequently banned). Amazingly, in the 116 years since then, not one American has joined Hamilton on the list of record holders. Perhaps Phinney could be the one to correct that anomaly.

The record was broken 20 times in the 70 years after Hamilton’s successful attempt, with Coppi riding 45.848 kilometers in 1942 (at age 23), Anquetil upping that to 46.159 kilometers in 1956 (at age 22), and Merckx topping those marks with 49.431 kilometers in 1972 (at age 27). The legendary Belgian cyclist had to be helped off his bike at the end of his 60-minute ride in the thin air of Mexico City, and afterward he said it was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life—tougher than the victories he scored earlier that same year at the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and four classics.

So daunting was the new record that Merckx’s mark stood for more than a decade until Italy’s Francesco Moser hatched a plan to use disc wheels and a plunging, aerodynamic bicycle to tackle the record. Also in the thin air of Mexico City (less air resistance at an elevation of 7,500 feet), Moser not only smashed the 50-kilometer barrier, he elevated the hour record to what was considered an astronomical 51.151 kilometers in January 1984.

But Moser’s performance—along with a subsequent series of successful attempts in the 1990s by Britons Graeme Obree and Boardman, Spain’s Induráin and Switzerland’s Tony Rominger—was taken out of the record books by the UCI when the world governing body decided that hour record attempts could only be made on a traditional track bike (diamond frame, round tubing, drop handlebars and wire-spoked wheels). So Boardman’s exceptional distance of 56.375 kilometers that he recorded in 1996 using the Obree-invented Superman position, Boardman was reclassified by the UCI as Best Hour Performance.

Under the revised UCI rules, Boardman beat Merckx’s mark by just 10 meters—after he sprinted the final 2 kilometers at more than 50 kph, urged on by a capacity crowd at the Manchester Velodrome in England. And, like Merckx, Boardman said it was the hardest effort he’d ever made on a bike.

Boardman, then 32, was at the end of his career, having suffered with back pain caused by osteoporosis the final two years. Without that handicap, he may well have reached the “impossible” 50 kilometers on a traditional bike. So when the little-known Sosenka went about a lap farther than Boardman in 2005, it wasn’t as big a shock as many made it out to be.

Sosenka, then 29, won his country’s national time trial championship several times, and he twice won the prestigious Tour of Poland. On the downside, the Czech was excluded from the 2001 Peace Race when he and two teammates tested above the then maximum blood hematocrit limit of 50 percent, while his career ended when he tested positive for the banned drug, methamphetamine, at his national TT championship in June 2008.

Several interesting facts emerged from Sosenka’s successful hour record attempt. First, he set the record on the venerable Moscow velodrome, which measures 333.33 meters, compared with the 250-meter track that Boardman used (and what Voigt is using in Switzerland this week). That meant that Sosenka rode just under 150 laps, compared with the almost 200 (shorter) laps raced by Boardman—that’s a total of 100 fewer turns (where riders experience powerful G forces).

Sosenka was the tallest pro racer, measuring almost 6-foot-7, which allowed him to use 190mm cranks (the slightly shorter Phinney uses 175mm cranks). Also, the Czech rode a 54×13 fixed gear (compared with Boardman’s 54×14 and Merckx’s 52×14). As for Sosenka’s bike, it was a custom-built Moser, made from carbon-fiber tubes and fitted with a 7-pound (3.3 kilogram) rear wheel to provide a beneficial flywheel effect. His complete bike weighed in at 21.5 pounds (9.8kg)—which compares with the 12.6-pound (5.75kg) bike used by Merckx (who drilled holes in accessories to make it as light as possible). Today, under UCI rules, a race bike has to weigh at least 15 pounds (6.8kg); but because the record is made on a board-flat track, the overall weight is not much of a factor.

Now, with renewed interest in the World Hour Record, Voigt’s Trek Factory Racing teammate, four-time world TT champion Cancellara, 33, could swell schedule an attempt next year. Also contemplating a record attempt is Germany’s current world TT champ, Martin, 29, who rides a Specialized for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team.

No others have yet declared an interest in the record, but two naturals are Team Sky’s Wiggins, 34, the 2012 Olympic TT gold medalist, who rides a Pinarello, and the aforementioned Phinney—who rides a BMC and, like Voigt, could use the new Velodrome Suisse, which is across the road from BMC’s global headquarters in Grenchen, Switzerland. Both Wiggins and Phinney are former world pursuit champions, and their track experience could give them an edge over Cancellara or Martin.

Asked earlier this year about the possibility of making an hour-record attempt, Phinney told peloton: “For sure it’s on my mind, but not an immediate goal.” He added that his “first goal on the track would be the IP (4000-meter individual pursuit) world record” set by Bobridge.

So it looks like Voigt is setting in motion what could be another exciting phase in the history of cycling’s 121-year-old world hour record.