The Hour, the UCI, and how to **** up something so beautiful in one easy step

It has just been confirmed that the UCI have imposed a new range of criteria on those who seek to break the hour record.

The governing body is now demanding all potential candidates for the hour record must ride a traditional steel-track frame and commit to a year-long diet of food not only similar to that eaten by Eddy Merckx in 1972 but also actually cooked in 1972.

Candidates will also have to grow their hair to a uniform length of 2.5 inches, dye it black (if it not yet that particular hue), and lash it down with three ‘generous spoonfuls’ of Brylcreem, a la Eddy.

In this way, and only in this way, officials believe that we can reach a record that will truly be in line with the spirit of Merck’s record which was set a whopping 42 years ago.

This means that – wait, there seems to be more breaking news coming through on the fax machine….

BREAKING NEWS: Apparently, all riders will now be allowed ‘any damn haircut they like as long as it’s not a mullet’ (sorry Aussies), and any bike as long as it has two wheels that are ‘relatively round’.

There is one more qualification: all competitors will have to travel back in time to 1993 (‘don’t forget your license’, advises the memo, ‘or you’re not riding’), and will have to attempt the hour ‘in a Scottish accent.’

Makes sense? No? Good, because it’s not supposed to – which might well be the motto of the UCI, come to think of it.

While the above news was a slight fabrication, in spirit it’s not that far off the UCI’s recent track record when it comes to the hour.

For the uninitiated, a brief outline.

There’s a thing called ‘the hour’. It’s a discipline in cycling that demands that a rider ride around a track on his own for an hour as fast as he can. The distance he travels in that hour is recorded and compared to other cyclists who, also on their own, have themselves ridden around a track for an hour.

Whoever travels the most distance is the holder of the hour record.

Simple. Right? Well, not quite.

See, a chap christened by his parents as Edouard Louis Joseph Baron Merckx (a name good enough to win Crufts, they said) – but known to all and sundry as Eddy – went and set a very handy distance at altitude in Mexico in 1972, on a traditional steel bike. He rode 49.431 km that fateful late October day, and when he got off the bike he said:

“That was the hardest ride I’ve ever done.”

merckx_hour_record_1

Eddy on his steel machine, 1972

Not easy, this hour thing, and our Eddy was quite decent on a bicycle too.

A few attempted to break Eddy’s record but the problem was that Eddy was a bit better than decent. He was actually very decent indeed, and no one could manage to get close to the record for many a moon.

Fast forward to 1984 and an Italian stallion called Francesco Moser. He rolled up to Mexico City for a crack at the record with a bike that looked in all fairness nothing at all like Merckx’s machine.

Known (by me) as the LSD Machine, it was all bendy and curvy in odd places and had disc wheels. Apparently all this helped Moser slice through the air better, and that he did, managing finally to smash Eddy’s record with a distance of 51.151km.

The bike obviously did the trick, as did the blood doping that he was quite keen on. It wasn’t illegal at the time though so why anyone makes a fuss and dance about that, I have no idea.

The LSD Experience

The LSD Experience

So, Moser broke Eddy’s record on a bike that clearly gave him an advantage in his attempt, and, clearly, had Eddy used such a machine he’d probably have clocked over 53 kilometres. Moser was good, Eddy was better, there was no question about that.

Everyone knew it but this is sport, machines and humans evolve, technology improves, and cheats get better juice by the half decade on average.

(And for the pedants out there, yes – Eddy was also a doper too.)

Yet despite Moser having the advantage of the march of time no one complained, at least not in an official capacity.

Just as F1 cars improve and are raced and set new records, and just as tennis rackets get harder and lighter and demand their owners to adapt, so bicycles change and so everyone accepted the new record and saw no reason to implement any draconian requirements on bike design.

Certainly no one thought to ever demand that a rider in 1984 use a bike built to the same specifications as a bike built in 1972.

And even if they had, well they’d have best thought of it back then, implemented the rule and leave the bloody thing alone and let the riders get on with it.

Yet if you were to do that, where’s the appeal in a rider going for the record for the bike brands? Where’s the appeal for the helmet designers and the shoe companies? What about the wind tunnel experts and the riders themselves?

Who wants to ride around a track for an hour, which as Eddy said himself is proper knackering, on Merckx’s bike, only to learn at the end of it all just how much crapper you are than Merckx?

But I digress. Let’s jump again to the 17th of July, 1993, and a cycling pioneer called Graeme Obree. The Scottish rider set a quite incredible record on this day, on a quiet track in Norway, of 51.596km.

It was incredible in that Obree was relatively unknown, had hardly any funding, and had designed and built his own bike, a bike that looked less like a bike than just about any other bike ever seen.

It also won the Ugliest Mare in Competition award at the Scunthorpe County Fair of June 1993. That is a little known fact but a revealing one nonetheless, I feel.

Obree on his little beauty

Obree on his little beauty

An Englishman named Chris Boardman then snatched the record from Obree just six days later in France on a bike designed by Lotus and funded by mega-bucks. There was little doubt that technology was winning the day in this era, but then, this is life, and things tend to work like that.

Obree attempted to win it back from Boardman quickly but at every turn he was foiled by Hein Verbruggen, then president of the UCI, who’d taken a disliking to a man coming along and using a homemade bike that the UCI could see no way of profiting from in any way whatsoever.

Others went on to break the record over the next few years using bikes (and in some cases drugs) that took full advantage of advancements in technology, until in 2000 the UCI took the extraordinary decision to create two hour records.

One was known as the UCI Hour Record, and required riders to use equipment that was more or less the same as that used by Merckx.

The other was known as the UCI Absolute Record (not baffling at all, naturally), and allowed riders to use any old vehicle they wanted, with the exception of yellow Lamborghinis and post-1953 school buses.

The result was that everyone was confused, no one was sure which record actually mattered, and one of the greatest records in cycling, lost its allure overnight.

In a sport that usually makes it very difficult to say who in any given generation is really the strongest, the hour used to sort out that out quite precisely. There were few variables. You got on a track, they were all much the same size, and you pedaled. One guy could go to altitude to do it but then so could the next fellow.

Yes, too much of a variation on bikes would make the hour like an F1 race, where sometimes the best drivers are not the fastest. Technology must be given its head but not to the point where it is that which wins the race.

Yet surely the UCI could have set some kind of dimensions that would have meant that the actual bikes were not that different within in a given generation?

It was back with Obree that this all started, in my opinion, where all the fuss and kerfuffle began. It was economics and greed at the nub of it all and it was wrapped up in the skin of a man who was, as president of the world cycling union, as petty as he was vindictive.

Verbruggen had no time for this renegade who loped in off the Scottish streets with a hand-built bicycle and a disregard for authority who went on to snaffle the Crown Jewel of professional cycling from it’s bullet-proofed box.

Now, this is a serious question: what kind of a fool does it take to not see immediately the romance and beauty of Obree and his ugly bloody bike?

Obree broke the record on a bike he designed and built in a shed, with bearings from his then-wife’s washing machine, which is so tremendously and amazingly wonderful that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to see the sheer nutty majesty in that.

The UCI took away his records and banned his bikes, putting obstacles in his way at every banked turn. Why? Because they could, and because they were fools. They were so out of touch with the average cyclist that they failed to see the potential of trumpeting Obree’s amazing achievements.

Verbruggen

Verbruggen

After much wrangling with officialdom, Obree went and joined pro team Le Groupement and got kicked off because he wouldn’t dope, after a few weeks on the team.

“I was signed up to ride in the prologue of the Tour back in 1995,” he wrote later, “but it was made very obvious to me I would have to take drugs. I said no, no way, and I was sacked by my team.”

Dream realised, dream broken. The blink of an eye, the breaking of the cover on a vial. It’s not too far a stretch to argue that that was the UCI’s fault also, ultimately, for turning a blind eye to and facilitating doping.

Young men died in the early days of EPO, those who said no had their careers smashed, villains got rich and the king and his monkeys in their suits looked on and did whatever they could to let the good times roll.

I apologise, I digress yet again.

Back to the hour. The beautiful, amazing hour.

A few moths ago Fabian Cancellara, a man to challenge Merckx’s 1972 record if ever there was one, announced that he was going to have a go at it. His bike manufacturer was quietly confident that they could utilise new technologies and yet still produce a bike that fit the UCI regulations for the UCI Hour Record.

Then on May 15th, just a few days ago, the powers that be announced that they were scrapping the regulations set in 2000 and would now implement new rules.

Basically put, the Hour can now be attempted by any rider on a bike that conforms with the endurance track bike regulations of the day.

Cancellara, the poor lad, then said he’d have to rethink his plans. Quite how far down the line his bike was to being built and how many hundred of thousands of hours had been put into its development is unclear, but keep an eye on Ebay over the next few weeks.

You might pick up a 1972 Colnago frame re-decalled as a Trek for a few bucks.

Bradley Wiggins, who himself now is thinking about having a crack at the hour after hearing the new news, made a salient point in regards to all this changing and a-messing with the rules.

“It kind of begs the question: Why did they change it in the first place?” Wiggins asked, as though he lived in a vacuum in his house in Chorley and had never had to deal with the UCI and its Kafkaesque befuddling.

“We’ve lost a decade now of the hour record. It’s a shame that they changed it.

“It’s a shame, really, that we’ve missed maybe Cancellara doing it five or six years ago. So it’s good I guess that they’ve gone back now.”

It is good, indeed, but Wiggins is right when he makes the point about Cancellara. The rules needed looking at for sure back in 2000, but the heavy-handed, kneejerk reaction from the UCI at that time almost destroyed a once hallowed chalice of our already much-maligned sport.

No other sport would be stupid enough to have allowed records set with equipment made from new technologies to be entered in the books and then go back years later and say that those records had become void, then turn around again and say that they had once again become admissible.

Catch-22 on wheels? Very much so.

The ‘Old UCI’ showed time and again that it was neither the legacy nor the future of the sport that it cared about – just its bank account.

Wonders will never cease. Get Verbruggen to throw in an apology to Obree and I’ll eat that last remaining hat of mine.

7 comments

  1. Noel

    you should read ‘the Hour’ by Dr Hutch… apart from being very readable, he got a similar response from the UCI along the lines of ‘who are you?,,, we don’t want nobodies breaking our records thank you…’

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