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He was known for his innovative approach to tackling the hour record, for his focus on engineering and aerodynamics and for creating his own bikes for his record attempts. Now, 21 years after he set the first of his two world hour records, Graeme Obree has hailed the renewed focus on the discipline and tips Jens Voigt to set a new marker.
“I think it is fabulous for a couple of reasons,” Obree told CyclingTips this week. “Firstly, it is good because it is a rejig of the current record, using a state of the art pursuit bike, and also because it would mean that Sosenka, the convicted drug cheat, doesn’t hold it any more.”
In the 1990s Scottish amateur Obree was the first rider to set what was a spate of successful record attempts by riders. Utilising a self-designed bike and so-called praying mantis position, he covered 51.596 kilometres in Hamar, Norway on July 17 1993, beating the nine and a half year record of Francesco Moser.
Obree’s mark was bettered six days later by Chris Boardman, who covered 52.270 kilometres in Bordeaux. Undeterred, the Scot bounced back in April 1994 with 52.713 kilometres, also set in Bordeaux.
This led to a succession of successful attempts, with Miguel Indurain (53.040 km, September 1994), Tony Rominger (53.832 km, October 1994, and 55.291 km, November 1994) plus Boardman (56.375 km, September 1996) all going further.
Obree’s maverick genius was a factor in the latter attempt, with Boardman mimicking the stretched out, ‘Superman’ position that Obree had invented after the UCI banned his preying mantis setup.
Concerned by the appearance of this position plus also the increased focus on technology and aerodynamics, the UCI said that it considered that the record was moving away from what it considered the ideal of man against man.
It consequently introduced rules restricting bikes to similar dimensions and technology to that employed by Eddy Merckx in 1972, and reset the hour record to the 49.431 kilometres covered by the Belgian then.
Boardman duly took on that mark in October 2000 and managed to beat it, albeit by just ten metres. The little known Czech rider Ondrej Sosenka then attacked and bettered his record in July 2005, covering 49.7 kilometres.
Sosenka’s mark was a controversial one. He had been excluded from the 2001 Peace Race after he was over the 50% limit imposed by the UCI on riders’ haematocrit. In June 2008, three years after beating Boardman’s record, he tested positive for the banned stimulate methamphetamine. These incidents plus his unexpected beating of the record mean that his effort is doubted by some; this is why Obree is keen to see a new marker set.
Given that the UCI has relented and now allows more modern technology, he believes it’s almost certain that this will happen.
“Whoever does it first is always going to do 49.7 because of the bike and because it is three kilometres less than I did in Bordeaux,” he said. “So there is no way that Jens Voigt is not going to break the world record. He is going to set out a time that other folk can then in turn attack. He is a respectable rider and others will then take his record on.
“It gives a credibility in that other people will be able to attack a valid record set by a respected rider. It brings the record alive again.”
Although the philosophy of asking riders to use technology similar to Merckx was a plus in that it allowed comparisons across the generations, the stifling of innovation meant that the bike industry had little incentive to get behind new attempts.
This all changed once the UCI limitations were relaxed. The revision meant that technology has once again become a factor, providing the big bike companies with a way to showcase their products and gain attention.
Consider the massive publicity Voigt’s attempt on the record has earned for Trek, the sponsor of his team this season. It is likely that other big riders will also garner big publicity when they attempt the hour. Voigt’s team-mate Fabian Cancellara is one rider who has indicated he will likely take it on; Sky’s Bradley Wiggins is another.
“It is so beautiful because it is so hard”
Obree is clear on the difficulty that Voigt and others will face. He, Merckx, Boardman and others have previously spoken about how tough the hour record is physically and mentally. He elaborated on the sensations to CyclingTips, saying that the 60 minutes is perhaps the most torturous experience a rider will ever feel.
“It is like cycling up a hill, but it’s getting steeper and steeper and steeper while you are in the same gear and at the same pedalling rate,” he said. “It is like that for an hour. It is so much harder than a normal time trial because there is no respite.
“It is totally about continuous wattage output, being right at the edge of what you are capable of doing.
“If you are at the edge of your capabilities, it is the worst thing you can ever do. Merckx dug so deep that it must have taken years out of his life.”
Still, despite that, he regards his experience of the hour with a real affection. It’s clear the record matters a lot to him; not just because he beat it twice, but also because he sees it as a pure test of man against the clock.
“There is no respite…there is no uphill, no downhill, no tailwinds. Basically it is a time trial on a line on a track; it’s just around and around and around, which totally wears you down.
“But that is why it is so beautiful, because it is so hard, because it is so debilitating.”
Given the large gaps between the various record attempts, he recognises that many won’t have seen the previous efforts. In fact, given the influx of new converts to the sport, he accepts that many won’t understand what the test is all about.
“I did a talk last week in a cycling café in Newcastle. There were 60 people there,” he explained. “I realised that although they are all keen cyclists, they came to the sport in the last ten or fifteen years, or maybe even the past five years.
“Some are old school but the majority of them came to the sport much more recently. For them, the hour record thing is like an orchid which has suddenly appeared from nowhere.
“They are like, ‘what is this about, I never heard of this before?’ It is a whole phenomenon rebooted. It is going to be as exciting as it was in the 1990s.”
He also hopes that Voigt’s attempt is just the first in a line of many. If things work out as he hopes, the German’s effort on Thursday will prompt a series of other riders to also take on the challenge. A domino effect, of sorts, and one which will re-establish the hour record as one of the most prestigious goals in the sport.
“I think of it as an institution in its own right,” he said. “You have got the Tour de France society, you have obviously got the UCI for cycling. But the hour record – it certainly used to be such a big thing. It could be re-established as an institution. The hour record is very a special thing.
“To put it in perspective, when I broke the hour record, I broke three records, but nobody mentioned that. I broke the world 10 kilometre, the 20 kilometre and the hour record. And nobody realises I broke the world 10 kilometre record. Why? Because it is so superceded by the hour record that the other records don’t even get mentioned.
“So that gives you an idea of the magnitude of the hour.”
Record predictions and a call for retrospective drug testing:
Voigt has long been one of the strongest rouleurs in the sport, although he has lost some of his former power with age. He turned 43 on Wednesday and will do his record attempt one day later. Still, despite that, Obree is confident that he’ll beat the Sosenka mark.
Just how far could he go, though?
That question will be answered in the Swiss velodrome, but Obree is willing to hazard a guess.
“It would be nice to see him doing more than Moser did in Mexico City. That is the modern era benchmark,” he said, referring to the 51.151 kilometres covered by the Italian on January 23 1984. “I would think he can do about 51 kilometres, which would be a respectable ride.”
Cancellara or Wiggins are tipped to be the next rider to try after Voigt. Both have a better pedigree as time trialists, with Wiggins having the additional bonus of plenty of track experience. The Briton has taken Olympic and world championship medals and already has the velodrome technique that others have had to try to learn.
Obree believes that if he reaches peak condition and gives the hour record a go, that a very good benchmark could be established.
“I think Bradley is probably capable of…I would reckon three kilometres more than Jens. Yeah, I think 54 kilometres,” he suggested.
“If you compare that modern era, if you look at the bike Indurain used, then 52, 53, 54 is a benchmark of what you can do on that without having Dr. Conconi on the case. You have got to remember that the 90s saw road cycling endemic with drug taking.
“So I think 52, 53, 54 kilometres…Chris Boardman stepped up the hour record the first time and then before he joined the road scene, he did 52.2 or something like that.
“That was what Boardman was capable of at that point in time. We were going neck and neck. I stepped up and did 52.7. Indurain did 53, just over 53. So that gives you an idea of kind of where the ballpark is here.”
Obree has long been regarded as a clean rider; in fact, he was outspoken at a time when it was decidedly difficult to do so. He was criticised by former UCI president Hein Verbruggen as a failed rider when he spoke out against drug use in the sport, but was later proven to have been completely correct in his statements.
It’s unsurprising that he backs the requirement for the current riders to be part of the biological passport. However he’d like to see an additional element added.
“I don’t even think it goes far enough. I would like to see them do the biological passport, but then you get blood stored,” he said. “I think it should be stored for ten years or 20 years or something like that, then tested by state of the art methods to reconfirm the fact that was valid.
“Let’s face it, the hour record doesn’t come around very often. It could be another 15 years before it re-emerges again. So people have to have trust in the record that’s there. And in 15 years if somebody from a new generation comes along and tries to take it on, they will know that it was a clean record.
“People have to have absolute faith in this. What is the harm in storing riders’ blood for a decade? And if riders object to having their blood stored for ten or 20 years, what does that say?”
Also see: Graeme Obree’s next goal: mark 50th birthday by helping son beat his record [link]