History of the women’s hour record: Sarah Storey battling to join the greats of the sport

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It’s a mark that has remained static for over a decade, but Sarah Storey’s decision to post a new chapter in women’s hour record history will secure herself a place alongside some of the world’s top female names if she succeeds in London on Saturday.

The 37 year old rider is taking on the athletic efforts of some of the greatest names in women’s cycling, with former women’s Tour de France winners amongst those in the prestigious list.

While Storey has not taken similar results at that level, she is one of Britain’s most successful Paralympic riders (she was born without a fully functioning left hand) and won the stage two time trial in the Tour de Bretagne Féminin in 2014.

Breaking the hour record would however be by far her biggest achievement.

The lustre of the goal is due to the calibre of riders who have previously achieved that status.

So, who are the previous names she is seeking to join?

Scanning the records, Tamara Novikova is listed as the first women’s hour record holder by the UCI. The Russian covered 38.473 kilometres in the open air track at Irkoutsk in July 1955, a mark that stood for two years and two months before France’s Renee Vissac clocked up 38.569 kilometres in Milan’s outdoor Vigorelli stadium in September 1957.

They were followed by Britain’s Millie Robinson in September 1958, with her effort in Milan yielding a distance of 39.719 kilometres and getting ever-closer to the 40 kilometre barrier.

That was breached two months later by Elsy Jacobs, with the Luxembourg rider setting a distance of 41.347 kilometres in the hour in Milan.

She was also the first-ever UCI women’s road race champion, beating Novikova to win the title in August of that year, and later went on to take a staggering fifteen national road race titles in sixteen years.

Jacobs’ mark stood for fourteen seasons, with Maria Cressari then managing to beat it in November 1972. It was a tough battle, though: despite the evolution of technology and heading to altitude in Mexico, the four time Italian road race champion went just 124 metres faster.

Cressari’s place at the top of the table persisted for six years. Dutchwoman Keetie van Oosten-Hage then went quicker with her distance of 43.082 kilometres. She was an accomplished track rider, taking the world pursuit championship in 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979, and also netted the road world title on two occasions, 1968 and 1976.

Van Oosten-Hage’s hour success took place in Munich in September 1978. That remained in place for exactly eight more years, but Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli then notched up the first of several successful attempts at both altitude and sea level.

She took the record to 44.77 kilometres in Colorado Springs in September 1986 then, later setting a sea level mark of 43.588 kilometres ten days after in Milan and again with 44.718 kilometres in Grenoble in November of that year, she returned to Colorado Springs in September 1987 to extend the altitude record to 44.933.

Jeannie Longo pictured during World Championships in 1986 in Colorado Springs; the same year and place she set her World Hour Record of 44.77km and the next year returned to set a new record of 44.718km.
Jeannie Longo pictured during World Championships in 1986 in Colorado Springs; the same year and place she set her World Hour Record of 44.77 kilometers.

In October 1989 she tried again, and on that occasion pushed out the number to 46.352 kilometres in Mexico. Later that month she headed back to Moscow and improved her non-altitude mark to 45.016 kilometres.

Longo-Ciprelli’s success surprised nobody. She is one of the most successful riders of all time, clocking up thirteen world championship titles on road and track, the 1996 Olympic road race crown, three women’s Tour de France general classifications plus multiple other victories.

However her image was later tainted when her husband and coach Patrice Ciprelli was linked to the purchase of EPO in 2011.

Her 1989 record stayed in place until April 1995, yet it too would fall. On that occasion fellow Frenchwoman Cathérine Marsal added almost 800 metres, pushing the standard up to 47.112 kilometres in Bordeaux.

She too ran up a glittering palmares during her career, building a haul that include the junior road world championship in 1987, the junior pursuit title the following season and the road and time trial senior double in 1990.

The women’s Giro d’Italia gave further example of her versatility.

Coaching was evolving and Britain’s Yvonne McGregor combined talent plus scientific guidance to snag the record for Great Britain in 1995. She improved upon Marsal’s record by clocking up 47.411 kilometres in the hour in Manchester, one year after a Commonwealth Games points race crown and five years before she became the UCI’s world pursuit champion.

Longo was determined to return to the top of the table, though, and successfully attacked the standard in Mexico in October 1996. She became the first woman to smash through the 48 kilometre barrier, covering 48.159 kilometres during the sixty minutes.

Winding back the clock

Equipment had changed greatly with new frames and wheels being part of the gradual acceleration of the average speed of the riders. The UCI was concerned at this and moved to try to standardise things. This led to a winding back of technology to bicycles and equipment similar to those used by Eddy Merckx when he set the men’s hour record in Mexico in 1972.

Although this was certain to lead to slower times and was seen by some as regression, the UCI justified it by saying that the test would be a better comparison of the athlete rather than evolving technology.

The governing body decided to categorise the previous records under the title UCI best hour performance, with the newer, tightly controlled category being termed the athlete’s hour record.

Australian Anna Wilson
Australian Anna Wilson
Australian rider Anna Wilson was the first to ride the new category, posting 43.501 kilometres in Melbourne in October 2000. Although the time was considerably slower than Longo’s old record, her credentials as a rider were well established.

She had been World Cup champion in 1999 and would go on to achieve that again in 2001, thus making clear that the near five kilometre drop in pace was mostly or completely due to the windback of permitted equipment.

The hyper-competitive Longo was frustrated to no longer be at the top and she twice attacked the hour record at altitude in Mexico that same year. In November 2000 she covered 44.767 kilometres and then, returning to the track one month later, pushed that out to 45.094.

However she would hold that mark for less than three years, with Leontien Zijlaard Van Moorsel swooping in October 2003 and averaging 46.065 for the hour.

She had tried to beat Longo’s mark two years earlier but was well adrift of the necessary pace. As a result she also decided to head to altitude, attacking the previous record in Mexico and succeeding there. She spent much of the season preparing for the ride, with reports at the time suggesting it had cost her an estimated €150,000.

The Dutchwoman was another giant of the sport and twice beat Longo to win the women’s Tour de France in 1992 and 1993. Prior to that she had underlined her ability with world championship gold meals in the individual pursuit and 50 kilometre team time trial in 1990 plus the world road race championship in 1992.

Another road race crown followed in 1993, but she withdrew from cycling in 1994 due to a battle with anorexia. She managed to overcome the illness and took world championship time trial titles in 1998 and 1999, Olympic road race, time trial and pursuit titles in 2000 plus world championship pursuit rainbow jerseys in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

In that light, her 2003 hour record was not surprising at all, and she further underlined her ability against the clock when she took another Olympic time trial title the following year.

What’s clear is that the list of world hour record holders features some of the greatest riders in the history of the sport. Storey’s palmares are not on the same level – even though she is a very successful athlete in her own right – but the decision of the UCI to relax the tight restrictions on equipment means that she can benefit from more modern technology.

Sarah Storey will be attempting the hour record this weekend (Saturday, Feb. 28).
Sarah Storey will be attempting the hour record this weekend (Saturday, Feb. 28).

That decision has led to a regrowth of interest in the men’s record too, with Jens Voigt, Matthias Brandle, Jack Bobridge, Rohan Dennis and Thomas Dekker all making their own attempts in recent months.

Of those, Voigt, Brandle and Dennis all succeeded in clocking up new records, while Bobridge and Dekker came up short.

Storey is determined to figure in the first of those classifications and has been working hard in recent months to ensure that she is as physically and mentally prepared as possible.

She spoke at length recently to CyclingTips and said that she believed it was possible that she could surpass Zaijlaard Van Moorsel’s mark.

“I’m as confident as you can be,” she said last month. “[But] if it was a foregone conclusion, then it would be boring to try…”

She’ll finally have her chance in the coming days, and will learn then if her name will slot in amongst – or, rather, ahead of – some of the greatest competitors in the history of cycling.

That’s a little intimidating, but also extremely motivating. She’ll know that she can join the greats, and will keep that firmly in mind when the effort bites in and minute after painful minute ticks by.

Note: The feature image is of current hour record holder Leontien Zijlaard Van Moorsel in Australia in 2004. It doesn’t depict her during her actual record breaking performance, where she used an more traditional “Eddy Merckx-style” bike and wheels.

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