Beyond fitness: What it takes for a world hour record attempt

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Last week Australian Bridie O’Donnell announced that she would take on the world hour record in January, hoping to beat the mark of 46.273 kilometres set by American Molly Shaffer van Houweling in September. While the attempt is only a little more than two months away, O’Donnell has already been working up to this moment for much of the year. The world record attempt will come down to just one rider on a bike for one hour, but it takes a team of people and the culmination of countless hours of training, paperwork, organisation, study and planning to get her there. And then there is the price tag, which runs into tens of thousands of dollars. So why would you do it and what does it really take to light the track up for an hour? We talk to O’Donnell and the team behind her to find out.

In pursuit of the hour record, there are no teammates to draft off, no one to chase, no hills to break up the flow, no other gears to change in to, no downhill for relief but also no roaring headwind to hold you back. There is just one rider, going around in circles for 60 minutes. While the eyes and pressure are on the individual, the UCI hour record attempt is anything but a solo effort and it’s crucial to build a good team off the track that will help with the training, the gear, the aerodynamics and all the other behind-the-scenes things that go in to a world hour record attempt.

Historic attempts

The current resurgence of interest in the world hour record is due to the UCI rule changes of May 2014. Previous regulations had restricted the technology riders could use, winding the clock back four decades to Eddy Merckx’s successful attempt in 1972. The UCI decided to relax these, permitting riders to use newer technology and thus benefit from more modern machines.

As a result, we have seen a new men’s record set five times in the past 14 months, with Bradley Wiggins setting a high bar of 54.526 kilometres. The women, too, took to velodromes around the world in an attempt to break the women’s record that stood untouched for the past 12 years.

Leontien van Moorsel. Photo by Cor Vos
Leontien van Moorsel. Photo by Cor Vos

The women’s hour record –before the rule change– was set by Dutchwoman Leontien van Moorsel in 2003. Dame Sarah Storey of England tried to beat Van Moorsel’s 46.065-kilometre mark in February of this year but, running out of time at 45.502 kilometres, fell just shy. Her distance however was recorded as the new para-cycling and masters (35-39) record.

Meanwhile, U.S. hour record holder Molly Shaffer van Houweling was building toward her UCI world hour record attempt, beating her own U.S. hour record in February with a distance 45.637 kilometres. Her UCI world hour record attempt took place this past September in Mexico City, where she successfully set a new mark with a distance of 46.273 kilometres.

Now Australia’s Bridie O’Donnell is intent on nudging the mark higher, planning an attempt for January 22, 2016 in Adelaide, where top riders and cycling fans will be gathered for the Tour Down Under.

Amateurs in the professional realm

While the increased number of recent attempts is a common thread between the men’s and women’s hour, the type of athletes taking it on are different.

The men who have taken the mark higher have been professional cyclists and riders with a depth of experience in track cycling. The female record holder Van Houweling meanwhile is an amateur, earning her living as a law professor at UC Berkeley. O’Donnell is a physician at the Epworth Hospital in Melbourne. Both are strong time trialists on the road but neither rode on the track before contemplating an hour attempt.

This amateur road rider status adds another layer of organisation, expense and lead-up time before any attempt can even get off the ground as a support team needs to be put in place, equipment procured and track skills developed. Then, there is the process of becoming part of the registered testing pool to get a biological passport, which takes months of time as well as thousands of dollars.

A biological passport is an electronic record of an athlete’s biological values that is developed over time from multiple collections of blood and urine samples. Funded by teams, it is something that top-level male riders already have, but is not yet widespread nor required in women’s professional cycling. For Van Houweling and O’Donnell it was the first step in a year-long build-up the hour record attempt.

The new women's world hour record set by Molly Shaffer Van Houweling.
The new women’s world hour record set by Molly Shaffer Van Houweling.

On a mission

O’Donnell came to cycling late, having taken up riding only about eight years ago but she adapted quickly. She has been a professional rider, a competitor at the world championships three times, and a Australian and Oceania time-trial champion. The 41-year-old, now an amateur who races for and manages the Total Rush Hyster team in Australia’s National Road Series (NRS), said the attempt is about achieving her potential.

“I’m doing this not as a competition, it is actually about a mission. The mission is about a year long and it is going to culminate hopefully in an exceptional performance for me,” O’Donnell told Ella CyclingTips. “This is really an extraordinary opportunity. It’s frightening, it’s exhilarating and I guess that’s why it’s a very invigorating thing to be doing.”

For O’Donnell, the UCI hour record attempt is also about reaching her own potential.

“It was wanting to do something exceptional, wanting to fill expectations that I had had of myself at the time trials. I feel like I haven’t yet gotten the best out of myself and I also think I’m still improving,” said O’Donnell. “Riding as a domestique for amazing climbers in Europe or America or Australia, while it’s satisfying when it works, it’s never really an opportunity to get a result for yourself. I want to do something where my work, my preparation and my performance related then to a result for me. But of course, like any race, it’s not just about you. It is about the team of people that are there to support you. You don’t do these things on your own …there are multiple people behind the scenes that are creating an environment that makes it easy for you and I’ve got some great people in my life that make this a lot easier than it could be.”

Paperwork, preparation and the mounting cost

UCI Hour Record

One of the core members of this team is Max Stevens, who is partnering with O’Donnell to help in the huge undertaking of organising the attempt and an event surrounding it. The logistics include coordinating with Cycling Australia and the UCI, arranging a UCI commissaire to be at the attempt, organising the track, supporting events, trial runs, the webcast, commentary and importantly becoming part of the biological passport program.

“It’s not something where you can say ‘oh gee in three months I’m going to have a crack at that’. It’s a lot of planning. Every day there is something that needs to be turned over and done,” said Stevens, who also works as a contractor for Cycling Australia’s High Performance Unit. “It’s a world record – everything has got to be done to a tee and done perfectly so no one can question what has gone on.”

Preparation began in January but there was so much to be arranged that the first six months was focussed more on the logistics than any specialised training and it was thoughts of the cost rather than the physical effort required to do it that was one of O’Donnell’s biggest hurdles. The biological passport was the biggest expense, accounting for about $11,500 of the tens of thousands O’Donnell estimates the entire attempt will cost.

“I talked about it in detail with my partner because it was really crazy expensive. I just thought I don’t know if we can afford this,” said O’Donnell. In the end though, the thought of pulling off the attempt and then potentially not having it ratified made finding a way to pull together the money for the biological passport crucial.

O’Donnell said personal sponsors, such as Bendigo Bank, Dux Dreams Foundation and re-usable coffee cup maker Frank Green helped with the biological passport costs. Then there were many others that have come on board to assist in different areas, like Derby Cycles who provided a Cervelo T4 track bike –the same frame as ridden my Van Houweling in her record setting attempt – and law firm King & Wood Mallesons.

Australia’s track cyclists have also come to the party, with 11-time world champion Anna Meares and Stephanie Morton among those racing at the Super-Drome in the lead up to the attempt, to create an event atmosphere around it.

It was the desire to draw Australian fans in and help provide inspiration to other women cyclists in the nation which was a part of the decision to locate the attempt in Australia, rather than taking the option of heading off to the high altitude track in Mexico’s Aguascalientes where Van Houweling set the record.

“Doing it here is a wonderful opportunity to be able to show cycling fans in Australia women’s cycling at an elite level,” said O’Donnell. “To see Australian cycling fans come and watch this event, for my family to be able to come, for my friends, for my team and support to be there and for it not be some crazy insurmountable got to go to Mexico thing. That’s pretty special.”

Getting the body and mind ready

Bridie O'Donnell. Photo by Con Chronis.
Bridie O’Donnell. Photo by Con Chronis.

Once the wheels were in motion to organise the attempt, it was time to start making the physical preparation more specific and for O’Donnell to go beyond her normal training for road time trials and NRS racing. The first challenge was to get out on the track, which she started on in July, and become familiar and comfortable with riding on a different bike and in a different environment. Then the testing and the fine tuning of position, equipment, skills and physiology began with the help of two sports scientists from Human Performance Technology, Stephen Lane and Ken Ballhause.

“The hour record is an amazing thing because it is so easy to define what it actually takes to achieve it, given that it is a known distance over the hour. So we can do physiological testing with Bridie to quantify her abilities and see how that shapes up against what the requirements of the hour will be,” said Lane.

This predictability and lack of variability, however, is a double-edged sword.

“In a way it makes it easier. In a way it makes it hard. You are reducing all of these variables but everything has to be perfect. The cadence that she rides and therefore the gear that she runs has to match up perfectly with what she can sustain. It’s not like a time trial on the road where you get an opportunity to change gear, where you get an opportunity to get out of the saddle,” said Lane. “It is a pure steady state effort and that is a massive challenge,”

Firstly there were some laboratory tests to establish O’Donnell’s VO2max (or aerobic ceiling), her functional threshold and consideration of technical aspects such as aerodynamics. O’Donnell’s strong record in the time trial on the road meant they knew she had a suitable physiology and a well-established base aerodynamic position.

“The things we are currently working with when it comes to position is what can we do to make her as comfortable as possible without there being a cost to her coefficient drag. Basically making the hour more sustainable while not making her less aero,” said Ballhause. “It’s those more minute changes that maybe for a time trialist on the road don’t seem all that significant but, when you are trying to maintain the one fixed position for 60 minutes duration while you are working border-line on your limit, make it that little bit more comfortable.”

Then there is the training, which is based on what has worked for her in the past as a road time trialist, but is incorporating specific longer track based efforts aimed at increasing her familiarity with the attempt environment and equipment.

“The training is around three main factors,” said Ballhause. “One is increasing the VO2max, one is increasing the percentage intensity that she can sustain of her VO2max … and the last one is not going to be so much a metabolic cost of the hour but muscular endurance. Because of the thousands of pedal strokes during the hour the muscles just do fatigue naturally.”

Pacing the priority

Bridie O'Donnell during the 2009 World Championship TT
Bridie O’Donnell during the 2009 World Championship TT

Current record holder Van Houweling, worked up to her attempt, first taking on the US record and Master’s record. O’Donnell won’t be taking the same approach, but will have some test runs before the January 22 world hour record attempt so any problems can be ironed out. Things like cooling strategies, such as ice vests, if it is hot and hydration will be key shortly before the event but when it comes to the attempt there is one thing that keeps coming up as the key priority and that is pacing.

“It’s ruling those things out so the only thing she has to think about is her pacing strategy and sticking to that pacing schedule that we know that she can sustain for the hour,” said Ballhause.

The amount of attempts in the past year have provided plenty of lessons about what to do and what not to do. It seems, the biggest, is sensible pacing as going out too hard at the start has been the undoing of others. Jack Bobridge’s said that he paid the price for a start that was too quick during his hour attempt in January. He failed to beat the world mark but did claim an Australian record of 51.30 kilometres until Rohan Dennis took the Australian and world record with 52.491 kilometres in February.

The women’s Australian hour record currently belongs to Anna Wilson, who managed 43.501 kilometres in October of 2000 and also took out the world hour record. However, it was only weeks later that Jeannie Longo topped the world mark.

The possibility of someone else quickly taking on and beating the record if O’Donnell breaks it isn’t one she is interested in worrying about, particularly as the positive side is that it all adds to the level of interest in the performance of females in cycling.

“I’m just focusing on me breaking it,” said O’Donnell. “If someone else wants to devote the time and energy and they have got better DNA and better equipment and they are faster … go for it.”

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