So many cycling races throughout the season offer exciting storylines and characters.
Downhillers thrill fans with massive jumps and steep terrain, and road cyclists marvel at the grit of world tour riders who cover thousands of miles in the Tour de France, Vuelta a España, and Giro d’Italia. Gravel and cyclocross aficionados enjoy seeing riders struggle with new obstacles and extreme distances.
But one event in cycling has long held a place as a unique proving ground that only the fastest riders even consider attempting: the world hour record.
Unlike other cycling disciplines, which include weather, team dynamics, crews, and many other factors that can give riders an edge, the UCI Hour Record is a solitary race in controlled conditions that only the best riders in the world can manage.
Since the 1800s, cyclists have thrown their hats into the ring to set the world record for the longest distance someone can cover on a bike in an hour flat. The race for the record began on penny farthing bikes and has progressed over the years to highly specialized time trial bikes.
The challenge is bare bones. Riders must attempt the record in a velodrome, starting from a stationary position. After that, they have one hour to ride as far as possible. It is suffering incarnate, as they have to hold their focus while giving maximum effort the entire time.
A Brief History
As with other cycling disciplines, the hour record has been fraught with controversy over the years. Riders have tapped into new tech and aerodynamic body positions that have since been banned to gain an edge.
In an attempt to level the playing field across decades of industry development, the UCI in 1997 created two categories for the challenge: the Best Human Effort and the UCI Hour Record.
The Best Human Effort allowed for modern equipment like helmets and bikes designed with an aerodynamic edge, while the UCI Hour Record held riders to similar equipment that was available to Eddy Merckx when he set the record in 1972 at 49.431km.
When the UCI enacted the new rules, all records set between 1972 and 1997 moved into the Best Human Effort category. All women’s titles also moved to the Best Human Effort category.
Chris Boardman took up the UCI Hour Record challenge in 2000 and clinched victory at 49.441 km, a razor-thin margin over Merckx. Boardman already held the Best Human Effort title since 1996, with a distance of 56.375 km.
However, he completed that task using Superman-style handlebars that flattened his body into a position the UCI disallowed, so that effort did not stand for the stricter UCI Hour Record. Ondrej Sosenka upped the ante and hit 49.700 in 2005, though his time was later clouded by doping allegations.
The Women’s Battle for the Unified UCI Hour Record
Another rule change from the UCI in 2014 brought a new era of competition to the hour record. The switch created a unified category in which riders may use any bike that meets UCI standards for track pursuit races.
The men’s benchmark under the new rules stood at 49.700, set by Sosenka in 2005, though there were faster times in the Best Human Effort Category, including Boardman’s. The latest record for women came in 2003 when Leontien van Moorsel posted a distance of 46.065 km.
The unified record has come under assault dozens of times since the UCI rule change in 2014. The women’s record has fallen six times since then, while the men’s has changed hands eight times.
Over the next few years, more women stepped up to the plate to take the distance further. Bridie O’Donnell hit 46.882 km in 2016. That same year, Evelyn Stevens reached 47.980 km. Vittoria Bussi took the record at 48.007 km in 2018, but Joscelin Lowden dethroned her in 2021, going 48.40 5km.
Earlier this year, Trek-Segafredo time-trial specialist Ellen van Dijk claimed the title at 49.254 km, a blistering pace befitting the current world time-trial champion.
The Men’s Battle
On the men’s side, Jens Voight set a new benchmark in September 2014 at 51.110 km. One month later, Matthias Brandle pushed the distance to 51.852 km. An onslaught of successful attempts followed in 2015.
That year, Rohan Dennis brought the record over the 52km mark with a total distance of 52.491 km. A few months later, Alex Dowsett hit a distance of 52.937 km, followed by Bradley Wiggins, who claimed the crown at a beastly 54.526 km.
Victor Campenaerts took up the challenge in 2019 after a lull following the 2015 rush. He set a new record of 55.089 km. Ineos Grenadier’s Dan Bingham brought the record up to 55.548 in August 2022, setting the stage for his teammate Filippo Ganna to make his attempt earlier in October.
Before Ganna’s attempt, Boardman’s Best Human Effort held steady since he set it in 1996. Ganna, however, put down a scorcher of a ride on Oct. 8 that bested both Boardman and Bingham’s records, clocking 56.792 km.
Where Does the Record Go From Here?
The recent hour-record renaissance has seen distances and average speeds previously unheard of. The current record holders, Ganna and van Dijk, established commanding leads in their latest efforts, leaving many wondering whether the record remains within reach for anyone else.
But every time a new record springs up that seems impossible to beat, there is usually, if not always, someone waiting to come out of the woodwork to move the needle even further. Much may come down to UCI rules and regulations and how extensively bike manufacturers can tinker with these bikes to make them even more aerodynamically efficient.
If a rider can find the right mix of power, grit, and tech in the next couple of years, and have a great day in the saddle, the hour record could still be a thrilling test for years to come.