33.881 miles per hour. For an hour. On a bike.
June 9, 2015 6:59 AM   Subscribe

In the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, The Hour Record was hotly-contested. The best bike racers in the world tried to be the person to ride a bicycle the furthest on a track in one hour. It's so grueling that Eddy Merckx said it burned three years off of his life.

In the 1990s, the event was dominated by the rivaly between Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree (Part 1 of a documentary on their attempts, and Obree, previously) - but a rule change about what types of bikes were allowed throttled attempts.

Last year, the sport's governing body hit the reset button, changing the rules about allowable equipment. A flurry of top-tier athletes attempted the record, starting with the retiring congenial German strongman Jens Voigt, who set the new-rules record at 51.110km.

On Sunday, Bradley Wiggins - perhaps the sport's most diversely accomplished athlete - smashed Alex Dowsett's previous record of 52.937 km with a new Hour Record of 54.526km (33.881 miles), which you can watch here. He called his effort "the closest [he] will come to knowing what it's like to have a baby."
posted by entropone (38 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, god, this is an awesome post and I am pissed that I cannot watch these videos until much later today!
posted by OmieWise at 7:01 AM on June 9, 2015


I'm having a hard time finding a credible source, but I've message boards are talking about how they raised the temperature in the velodrome to lower the air density, and thus reduce his drag. That's nothing new, and it's not cheating. Previous record attempts have done similar things by using velodromes at higher altitudes (the one in Mexico City is popular for this). Still.........putting out that amount of sustained power is ridiculous. It's an incredible feat, and now that the record has again been broken I look forward to others attempting it.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:12 AM on June 9, 2015


And being sports, there's already some drama regarding British Cycling involvement, as well as non-stock handlebars.

It might take a while to see who'll try to beat the record, other than Wiggins making an attempt to 55. Cancellara has apparently dropped out (he still has obligations on the Spring classics, and when he doesn't... I doubt he'll be in shape for the record), and Martin might struggle keeping a perfect line on a velodrome.
posted by lmfsilva at 7:25 AM on June 9, 2015


Yes, the air pressure is a big part of it. I've heard that the high pressure system over London on Sunday knocked as much as a kilometre off the distance. Most of the energy goes into punching a hole in the air in front of you so the less air the better. Of course, past a certain point the reduction in oxygen going into the lungs will outweigh that.

Wiggins should consider another attempt soon with better conditions while he's still in peak shape.
posted by kersplunk at 7:26 AM on June 9, 2015


A great feat of endurance, obviously, but watching the record setting video is not exactly exciting viewing.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:28 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


And thus was born what was my favourite cycling geek joke. It takes the form of a headline:

"Perico Delgado shaves three minutes off the Hour Record"

I'm pretty sure it was one of the alternative covers of El Jueves in the late 80s ("Perico Delgado rebaja en tres minutos el record de la hora"), but have no way to check.
posted by kandinski at 7:31 AM on June 9, 2015


I was against the equipment rule change until someone pointed out the that hour challenge was dead without it. Basically, everybody admitted nobody would ever beat Merckx on Merckx's bike and stopped trying.

They can blow him away on modern time trial bikes, but now we're getting into such details that I honestly think it's a meaningless record.

(What?)

Seriously. You need to be supremely fit and a technically able rider, true -- but you also need the right combination of a hot day and a low pressure day. When the weather is as much of a factor in the record as you, it's not a test anymore.

Since it's indoors, if this record is to have any meaning, they need to pressure seal the building, set it at a standard temp and pressure, and declare any attempts at any other pressure and temp null and void. Get atmospheric density out of this record, period. If this is truly a test of you versus an hour, make it just that.

Otherwise, it's you versus the weather forecast.
posted by eriko at 7:31 AM on June 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


The pacing aspect is a big thing too. Here's a graph of some of the previous attempts before Sunday (not including the previous record) - Bobridge went off way too fast and then faded big time in the third quarter.

Here's the equivalent graph for Wiggins - as mentioned the heating was turned up which improved the aerodynamics but may have caused some fatigue if he hadn't trained for it.
posted by kersplunk at 7:33 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Here are some better graphs:

Influence of atmospheric pressure

Average speed for previous attempts
posted by kersplunk at 7:36 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah this whole thing is just a bit too fiddly for me. Thankfully the other 98% of pro cycling is 150+ guys zipping through narrow town/forest/rain-soaked mountain pass while screaming fans try to throw themselves under the wheels.

Bravo to Wiggo though; to me, pro cycling is all about performing in vastly different conditions and rules and to win across almost all disciplines is just a stunning achievement. Bummer that he didn't win a monument, but you can't have them all.

And now we await The Panzerwagen.
posted by selfnoise at 7:38 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Eddy Merckx said it burned three years off of his life.

Yeah, steroids will do that to you.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:40 AM on June 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


Jens Voight had the perfect response to Wiggins' ride.

The hour record is an event where I find the history and the background way more interesting than actually watching a man get into the tuck position and do loops for an hour, so I put the TV on mute and went with the Cycling Podcast live commentary. They also had a preview show which is worth a listen for the discussion of the history of the record, and interviews with Boardman and Dowsett.
posted by penguinliz at 7:43 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


It was blood doping and amphetamines in Eddy's day.

I can't wait for Tony Martin to attempt this.
posted by cmfletcher at 7:44 AM on June 9, 2015


Get atmospheric density out of this record, period. If this is truly a test of you versus an hour, make it just that.

Otherwise, it's you versus the weather forecast.


You've still got the whole bicycle for the engineers to play drag reduction tricks with, though. If you really want it to be about the cyclist, just stick them on a stationary bike instrmented to measure power output for an hour. Only that is even less exciting than riding in a circle for an hour.
posted by indubitable at 7:49 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I can't wait for Tony Martin to attempt this.

Yep, he's the main contender now, Cancellara is probably too old and has said he's not interested now that the rules have changed. Don't rule out Dowsett trying to take it back again again in a couple of years either - he's still young.
posted by kersplunk at 7:58 AM on June 9, 2015


Graeme Obree's attempt was probably the most remarkable. He attempted the record at a velodrome in Norway but failed by about 1km. As he had hired the velodrome for 24 hours, and refusing to accept defeat, he went to bed and then made a second attempt the following morning which was successful.
posted by bap98189 at 8:00 AM on June 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm excited to see what happens when they attempt this in space.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:09 AM on June 9, 2015


I wonder what the limits on environmental modification are for this? As an architect I have to think it wouldn't be *that* difficult to seal a velodrome well, depressurize it fairly significantly inclusive of raised humidity all while oxygenating the air to keep the rider from becoming quite so oxygen starved. Now, I can see everyone drawing the line on the oxygen cylinder hooked directly into the make-up air system but really that's just the logical next step if you are already playing with environmental factors.

Actually, engineering the space for the event could be just as interesting and innovative and engineering the bicycle. Heck, make an empty shell velodrome and force anyone planning an attempt to provide their own mechanical systems! Build it right into the sport.
posted by meinvt at 8:11 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


54.526 km sounds so much more impressive than the measly 33.881 miles cited in the title.
posted by fairmettle at 8:15 AM on June 9, 2015


The equipment requirements are probably the biggest single controversial aspect of this. The 1-hour TT-Faired recumbent time has historically been the goto for the fastest person on two wheels, though this result beats that by a fair amount.

So from that point of view alone, this is an amazing result---a diamond frame upright bike has blown not just a recumbent, but a faired recumbent time away.

On the other hand, it is what it is. The equipment is the thing that defines the result. There's no point comparing Formula 1 results with NASCAR either.
posted by bonehead at 8:15 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


You've still got the whole bicycle for the engineers to play drag reduction tricks with, though. If you really want it to be about the cyclist, just stick them on a stationary bike instrmented to measure power output for an hour. Only that is even less exciting than riding in a circle for an hour.

Invent nanobots to dismantle all of the proteins in an individual and tally for once and for all who is the strongest?
(that would get more viewers I think, too)
posted by Theta States at 8:19 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Influence of atmospheric pressure

I've always been sceptical of these claims. There's a lot of reporting bias and invention of tends in these sorts of things. There's likely an influence, but I'd also suggest that it's no where near as dramatic as many people claim.

The problem is that we'd need at least 7, and I'd be more comfortable with 12, full-on attempts to establish uncertaintines. It's not clear what that graph is reporting, as there's almost no information on it---time and date attempted. How big is human day to day variation? What were his biometrics, level of hydration, amount and quality of sleep, and so on.

Sorry, I look at data all the time, and I'd reject this paper.
posted by bonehead at 8:28 AM on June 9, 2015


all while oxygenating the air to keep the rider from becoming quite so oxygen starved.

Until the rider bursts into flames.
posted by GuyZero at 8:29 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


While the technological/aerodynamic/engineering part of this is certainly interesting, the physiological part is impressive:

Cyclists can measure their power output, in watts, using special cranks, hubs, or pedals that have built-in strain gauges. Every person has a number that is their aerobic threshold - basically, the maximum amount that their body can sustain for 30-60 minutes without accumulating more fatigue than it can handle. Going fast is a ratio of this power output to weight and aerodynamic drag.

An untrained person likely has an aerobic threshold around 150 watts. A good lightweight amateur bike racer might have a threshold between 275 and 300. An elite racer would be in the 300s, easily. Wiggins was likely targeting around 440 watts for his hour. His aerobic capacity is simply huge.
posted by entropone at 8:29 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Influence of atmospheric pressure
I've always been sceptical of these claims. There's a lot of reporting bias and invention of tends in these sorts of things. There's likely an influence, but I'd also suggest that it's no where near as dramatic as many people claim.


Eh, if you simplify a bit, drag varies linearly with air density. From there, you can calculate the distance someone will travel given a power output. Dropping the simplifications, you can be sure that the team/manufacturer measured this effect in a wind tunnel beforehand.
posted by indubitable at 8:40 AM on June 9, 2015


The 1-hour TT-Faired recumbent time has historically been the goto for the fastest person on two wheels, though this result beats that by a fair amount.

Er, the fully-faired recumbent 1-hour world record is currently 91.556 km (56.89 miles), set by Francesco Russo in 2011.

In other words, Russo on his fully faired recumbent went further in miles than Wiggins did in kilometers. That says quite something about the effect of aerodynamics on this--especially since Wiggins is pretty certainly a stronger rider than Russo.

FYI the Recumbent 1-hour World Record page on Wikipedia is an interesting read, as is the upright 1-hour record wiki page.
posted by flug at 8:49 AM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


This page has all International Human Powered Vehicle Association Records (ie, allowing any type of bicycle and streamlining, as long as it is human powered), including the one-hour record. I'm not sure why the Russo record isn't listed there--if there is some type of controversy or the 2011 ride didn't meet their requirements somehow. Their current 1-hour record holder is Sam Whittingham at 90.60 km (56.29 miles).

FYI the fastest human-powered speed record listed there is the 200 meter flying start. The current record there is 133.78 km/hour (83.13 mph).
posted by flug at 9:02 AM on June 9, 2015


I've always been sceptical of these claims. There's a lot of reporting bias and invention of tends in these sorts of things. There's likely an influence, but I'd also suggest that it's no where near as dramatic as many people claim.

But why would you suggest it's nowhere near as dramatic? This is stuff that can and has been a) predicted by simple well understood equations and b) measured in wind tunnels. Here is some background reading. Rolling resistance and gravity are negligible on a flat track (and are fixed anyway) so speed is a function of Watts/CdA. Watts can be measured with a power meter and CdA (drag) can be measured in a wind tunnel or estimated reasonably accurately.

The problem is that we'd need at least 7, and I'd be more comfortable with 12, full-on attempts to establish uncertaintines. It's not clear what that graph is reporting, as there's almost no information on it---time and date attempted. How big is human day to day variation? What were his biometrics, level of hydration, amount and quality of sleep, and so on.

The graph isn't measuring multiple attempts - it shows the difference there would have been in distance on different days over the last few weeks assuming everything else stayed the same.

Sorry, I look at data all the time, and I'd reject this paper.

Just as well it's not a paper.
posted by kersplunk at 9:04 AM on June 9, 2015


Chapeau to Wiggo- I've always enjoyed watching him on the bike, and I was extremely disappointed in the way Sky has treated him since his tour win and gold medal in London.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:24 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


a diamond frame upright bike has blown not just a recumbent, but a faired recumbent time away.

The engineer in me says this has to be a mark not towards a diamond frame being altogether better for turning human power into distance over time but instead just an economic and social proof that money can do a helluva lot. That is to say that I just don't see how, from a physics and kinematics point of view, a recumbent format combined with the human form wouldn't always dominate, and this is the important part, given the same amount of competition (via funding and public attention of course).

Maybe the turning radius of the track in question gives non-recumbent form factors somewhat of an edge but I'm hesitant to admit even that advantage without further information.

That said, I know nearly nothing about all this but I find it interesting in an abstract sort of way, thanks for the post.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:32 AM on June 9, 2015


In other words, Russo on his fully faired recumbent went further in miles than Wiggins did in kilometers. That says quite something about the effect of aerodynamics on this--especially since Wiggins is pretty certainly a stronger rider than Russo.

Never mind my comment directly above then, I didn't preview since coming back from grocery store.

I <3 recumbent physics.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:46 AM on June 9, 2015


I am confused and sad that Fabian Cancellara did not attempt the hour in his prime, he might have put it out of reach (for this generation).
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:17 AM on June 9, 2015


If you want to calculate the density of air for yourself the go-to formula is CIPM-2007 (pdf).

I have it as an Excel Add-In if you anybody wants it. Get it here.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:41 AM on June 9, 2015


OHenryPacey,
Nothing to be confused about, they only updated the rules for modern bikes last year. Before that you could not use a TT setup or even aero profile wheels. If they had done this ten years prior, Spartacus would have destroyed the record.
posted by cmfletcher at 11:18 AM on June 9, 2015


Although the hour is a supreme test of endurance, it's also very much about what resources your team can pull together, and how well you can pitch your effort to the UCI to bless it. It's been a moving target since Moser's record, and all seems rather quaint in comparison to the fully-faired records.
posted by scruss at 11:50 AM on June 9, 2015


The physics of it is interesting but so is the psychology. These guys have figured out how to completely turn off the body's "Staap, what are you doing? I'm dying" signals that make ordinary people quit far earlier. That's the part I respect the most. The physical part is mostly lottery winnings.
posted by srboisvert at 12:16 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


It seems that you should also take into account the viscosity of the air as well as it's density.
Reynolds Number uses both density and viscosity, I found this paper(pdf) that calculates the viscosity of air.

It's not clear which combination of temperature, pressure and humidity makes for the lowest Reynolds Number. Another problem that I see is all these equations assume a certain ratio of Nitrogen, Oxygen and Argon, what if they add extra Oxygen to the room and I don't know how that might effect these calculations. Do Temp, Pressure and humidity changes effect your ability to uptake Oxygen?

This is an interesting rabbit hole, what's the best combination of gasses and at what conditions for best performance.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:15 PM on June 9, 2015


Talk to me when somebody goes further than Tony Rominger.
posted by Chuckles at 1:32 PM on June 9, 2015


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