Putting the hour record into perspective: How does an amateur compare?
Admit it. You’ve wondered how you would compare when stacked up against the pros. Most of us will never have the chance to find out, but the hour record offers up a unique opportunity for the bold and the brave to see how they compare to those at the top-level of the sport. The beautiful thing about the hour record is that it’s a race of truth with a controlled set of variables affecting the outcome.
Cycling is unlike most other sports in that you can visually see the talent at work, and the hour record is one of the most torturous challenges to that talent. Eddy Merckx famously described his world hour record: “It’s very, very hard. I couldn’t walk for a few days after I did it. That’s how hard it is.”
Local Melbournian Nick Bensley wanted to find out for himself what it was like to attempt a World Hour Record. To put Nick’s abilities into context, he’s an accomplished racer at the club and national level and does well at the individual time trial. He came in 13th at the Australian National ITT championships (2:57 behind Richie Porte over 40.9km and only six seconds behind Drapac’s Will Clarke who previously rode at the WorldTour level). Nick can hold an average of 380 watts for more than an hour.
At 31 years of age, Nick also holds a full-time job as a consultant, trains about 12 hours each week and has fulfilled his potential as an amateur competitive cyclist more than most of us.
Nick isn’t fooling himself nor is he trying to get attention from this. Nick’s friends describe him as “a quiet achiever with very loud achievements.” Knowing Nick, I was surprised to see him doing this. When put up to this by his local club Melbourne Cycling League, he thought it was just going to be him and a few mates who were going to find out about this. He’s in good form on the road bike but had no idea of what to expect on the track.
Before his attempt
I sat down with Nick before the event and I asked about his thoughts on what a World Hour Record attempt entails.
Nick spoke about his preparation on the track: “Two weeks ago I thought I’m relatively good at sitting on the ergo at one set power, which I thought was the key to success for the hour record. Then I got on the track and I had no idea that when you’re going 50km/hr on the banking how hard it pushes you into the saddle and into the arm rests. It’s unbelievable. So it’s not flat power production. If you try to pedal hard through the corners you have these massive power spikes to maintain your speed which you’re not really aware of.
“I spoke with Hendo (Greg Henderson) and he told me to float the banks and to put the power down on the straights. I’m not good at that so it’ll be really important to not push hard through the banking, because you feel like you need to.
“It’s amazing how fast those guys [Dennis, Bobridge, Brandle] are for how much power they produce. It’s because of how aero they are. For me to do the same lap times that Rohan did I would need to average 450 watts.”
As Nick predicted, it’s not only about the wattage you can push.
“I can do 380 watts for an hour, but I can’t go anywhere near his distance. I’m six kilos heavier. I’m bigger. My bike has been cobbled together. I’ve never been to a wind tunnel … I won’t be anywhere near as aero as someone like Dennis,” Nick explained.
“I’m confident at being able to produce the power, but I’ve spent so little time on the track that I’m not unconsciously competent at riding on the black line. When I TT, I’ll put my head down and I probably do my best when my head is off in another world. But in this I’m just concentrating on not crashing or launching myself into orbit when I hit the banks. That concerns me a lot.”
To Nick’s point, the difference between riding in a 250m velodrome on the black line versus the red “sprinters” line is eight metres per lap. A series of small errors can add up to over a kilometre over 200 laps.
To attempt a seemingly simple ride over an hour takes a lot of planning and preparation – especially if you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re putting yourself out there.
“I’ve been under the pump at work and I managed to get to DISC – once for 45 minutes and once for an hour,” admitted Nick. “And I’ve probably done 50 laps total. I never had the final bike or wheels so I don’t know what power equates to what pacing. This is not the way I like to do things. I have no idea.
“I borrowed a bike (Fuji), borrowed some old campaign wheels. I have no idea what tyres are on there – and tyres are so important. I borrowed some Zipps, Kask Bambino helmet and old team skin suit…”
Nick added: “I’ll be riding a 55×13. Everyone tells me I’m doing the wrong thing. I’m told that I need to be doing 105rpm. I can’t do that. Whenever I TT, no matter what course I always end up with an average of 82rpm. Everyone says to go 55×14, but at the speed I want to do I should end up averaging 93rpm in the end. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. But some people have told me that I’ll lose 10 or 20 watts because of the berms.”
Rohan Dennis used 56×14 gear combination to acheive his World Hour Record.
We saw the importance of pacing with Jack Bobridge’s failed Hour Record attempt. Negative splits are said to be the best pacing strategy:
— Ross Tucker (@Scienceofsport) January 31, 2015
“The most efficient way is just flat power production the whole way, no doubt – in terms of human physiology. But mentally, negative splits are the way to go. I think the important thing is not to go too hard in the first five, 10, 20 minutes,” Nick predicted.
After the attempt
Nick Bensley made it to 48.275 kilometers by the hour’s end and nearly collapsed after the effort. It was almost the exact distance he predicted he would do.
Jack Bobridge said that he hoped to produce 380 watts during his attempt last month, which is what Nick achieved after his effort. We don’t know what power output Jack did (he wasn’t using a powermeter), but what this does show is that there is far more to this equation than wattage alone.
Despite being warned about what pacing mistakes not to make, Nick went out at over 50km/hr with sub-18 second laps, and ever-so-slowly faded as the hour progressed.
Nick said straight after he regained his composure:
“That was f^&%ing hardest thing I’ve ever done. All time trials hurt. There was just no relief on this.
“It got easier every lap. It meant there was one less lap to do. It was the middle 20 [minutes] where I really struggled. I went way too hard at the start and I didn’t listen to Stu [Mckenzie]. Classic mistake. It just felt so easy at the start.
“I felt I could have held that pace on the road, because you’re able to get a bit of recovery. That effort felt like it could have been sustainable on the road, but this type of effort gives you absolutely no rest. No opportunity to coast on a downhill…it’s just not sustainable over an hour.”
“I didn’t understand how much I’d fade on the track compared to the road. It gets harder and harder to stay on top of the gear. I was glad I chose the gear I had (55×13). If I had chosen a bigger gear that everyone told me to I wouldn’t have been able to keep up my cadence.”
Another untold problem with long track events is that riders cannot drink during the effort. This is because water spilled on the track can be dangerous. Nick said: “The feeling in my mouth was f&^%ing horrible. It was like glue the whole time.”
Six-day riders will sometimes cut a lemon into a quarter and put it under their skin suit (near the collarbone) and suck it through their skin suit. The acid gets rid of the mucus build-up in the mouth (which is evaporated saliva).
Nick’s distance may have seemed surprisingly close to recent record attempts, and was only nine percent off of Rohan Dennis’ world hour record. However, there are years of coaching, training miles, determination, and favourable genes that make up that nine percent difference.
Masters hour record performances
Nick Bensley unofficially beat Curtis Gunn’s Masters (30-34) distance of 47.7644 kilometers set over ten years ago. As you can see below, some of the best times have been set by riders in older categories:
Will grassroots events such as this lead to more amateurs wanting to see how they compare? As much as I’d like it to, it’s unlikely that we’ll see these type of sanctioned events becoming very common. To officially sanction an event, it’s extremely expensive to get the UCI commisaires, the drug testing, the velodrome hire, and most of all, the timing. Not to mention that a whole team of people helped put this particular event together. However, if events such as these are done off the back of existing track events, like Bobridge did at the 2015 Australian Track National Championships, it could be an exciting way to bring in some much needed attention to track racing.
If nothing else, there’s nothing better than seeing a mate absolutely bury himself!