Melbourne physician Bridie O’Donnell set a new UCI world hour record on Friday as she meticulously stuck to a well laid out pacing plan and rode 46.882 kilometres to comfortably top the former record by over 600 metres.
O’Donnell surpassed the four-month-old mark of American law professor Molly Shaffer van Houweling in front of a lively crowd of around 3000, including UCI president Brian Cookson, at Adelaide’s Super-Drome. A smile crept onto her face as the hour ticked down after the start of lap 188 and then she climbed off the bike amid the cheers of the excited spectators.
“Physically I feel really good. It was obviously hard in the last 15, 10 minutes where you feel like your hamstrings and back don’t really want to work anymore but I was reassured by seeing those times,” said O’Donnell after breaking the record. “I felt like I was being very consistent and that made me feel reassured.”
The 41-year-old was nervous and concerned the day before the attempt, but her confidence returned when it mattered, no doubt helped by the favourable conditions. The weather was humid, about 29°C and the pressure low, which reduces the drag.
However it wasn’t a perfectly smooth run for the rider in the Rush Women’s National Road Series team. O’Donnell is a former professional cyclist and a practiced performer in the time trial, having formerly taken out the Australian and Oceania title, but it was only when she began her preparation for the record attempt that she took to the track. She began riding on the boards six months ago and the record was her 33rd time on the track.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist so I think I rode a pretty shitty line to be honest,” said O’Donnell. “Sometimes I would ride one lap that was amazing and it’d be really fast and think ‘well that’s probably how fast I could go if I was good at this.’”
Even as her line wavered a little she continued to deliver on lap times, staying on target to set a new record right throughout the attempt. A slight slowing of the pace with ten minutes to go was extremely short-lived, as O’Donnell kept a clear focus on consistency and a timing plan she had put together with her coaches. The only major variation came in the final laps as she accelerated to the end.
“There is absolutely no doubt I can ride faster than that. I think I rode a really smart conservative race where my objective was to number one, go one metre further, and number two, be really strong and consistent,” said O’Donnell. “I didn’t ride a beautiful line, I moved around a lot … so a few of those things could definitely mean I could go faster.”
Change of rules opens the floodgates
The rules for the UCI hour record were relaxed in 2014 to allow for the use of more modern technology and since then there have been a spate of attempts on both the men and women’s record.
Shaffer van Houweling’s former record of 46.273 kilometres, set at high altitude in Mexico, was the first new mark to be set in 12 years. Dame Sarah Storey of England made an attempt in February 2015 but fell just short of Dutchwoman Leontien van Moorsel’s record of 46.065 kilometres set in 2003.
The last time an Australian held the world hour record, was in 2000, when Anna Wilson took the title for a matter of weeks before Jeannie Longo quickly topped her mark.
It was the beginning of the spate of men’s attempts, with Jen’s Voigt in September 2014, that really got O’Donnell thinking about giving it a go. It seemed a chance to chase an opportunity in the top-level of cycling that just hadn’t been possible in other areas for the rider, who started out in the sport only eight years ago.
As a professional O’Donnell rode as a domestique, which was all about making opportunities for others, and it was made clear to her that she wasn’t under consideration for selection to ride the time trial at the Olympics or World Championships.
“I do feel that there is this enormous depth of potential in Australian women’s cycling and it doesn’t always get the opportunity to be great. And sometimes you have to make that opportunity yourself. I felt like I did that today.” O’Donnell said.
“I feel like this is really the greatest thing I have ever done,” she said. “I’ve had so many challenges along the way. Getting through those things really teaches you a lot about yourself and it teaches you what you are capable of.”
So what is next for the amateur cyclist and new world record holder?
“I go back to work on Monday,” said O’Donnell.
Molly Shaffer van Houweling applauds O’Donnell’s achievement
The now former record holder, Molly Shaffer van Houweling, said she followed Bridie’s attempt via Twitter and graciously accepted defeat.
“I was extremely impressed and delighted for Bridie, who I know went all in for this just as I did,” said Van Houweling who, after breaking a 12-year-old record, got to own her record for only four months.
Van Houweling would not yet say if she’ll try to reclaim the statement.
“Today is [Bridie’s] day. I’ll think about my own plans in due course!” she said.
*Additional reporting by Matt de Neef and Anne-Marije Rook