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Amateur Hour

Amateur hour

Words by Chris Case | Photos by Brad Kaminski

I MIGHT BE DYING. The corners of my vision are turning dark, vignetted like an old photograph. Someone, or something, seems to be persistently pushing the front of my head downward, and my neck muscles no longer have the strength to fight back. I have a sickening feeling of panic inside.

I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know how I’m going to do this anymore. I can’t do five more minutes.

“Ten more minutes, buddy. Come on! Up! Up! Up!” come the yells from my pacer, mechanic, and friend, Nick Legan, at trackside.

Oh f***, did he just say 10 minutes? I really, really thought he was going to say five. Oh f***.

I’m at the absolute bottom. A feeling of deep despair sweeps over me. I feel so alone.

But none of that matters now. I am in the midst of indescribable agony. The black line is wandering beneath my wheels. My head keeps dropping further, more frequently. “Fast feet, fast feet,” I repeatedly hear on the exit of turn two. The clinking, clacking of cowbells ring in turn four. My brain is only absorbing a fraction of these sporadic sensations. All I want is to rest my head.

It’s getting dangerous out here. I might crash; I could very well crash. I can’t control this bike anymore, especially not while steering with my elbows.

Instead of looking 10 feet ahead, I’m staring over the tip of my nose. All I see is a blur of sun-soaked grey. I’m hearing the yells to hold the line, stay smooth, keep my form, but I’m having irrepressible and involuntary urges to sit up. Something inside is driving, but it doesn’t feel like it’s me. I’m angry because I’m not in command. I’m scared because I’m out of control.

And then the gun goes off. It’s over.

“Head up! Head up!” yell fans and friends trackside. I am depleted, destroyed (in retrospect, I think I might have been about to blackout) and heading straight for the lap counter at the edge of the track at almost 30 miles per hour. I correct myself as I wildly veer away from the infield wall, back up the steep banking of the first corner, then down to the blue apron of the track again.

I’m alive. I don’t fully believe it yet, but it’s all over now. There aren’t enough expletives to describe what I was just able to do to myself while riding in circles, pushing as hard and as fast as I could with every atom of energy in order to finish right back where I started.

That’s the hour.

I had volunteered for this misery. And for what? The pleasure of telling this story. I’d never ridden on a track before. I’d completed one time trial in my life in the aero position. I figured this was going to be amazing fun. And it was. Until it wasn’t.

CYCLING IS A SPORT for geeks, nerds, and science-loving athletes. At its best it is a perfect blend of machinery and man. The ultimate expression of that symbiosis? The hour.

“It sounds cliché, but it’s so pure,” says Colby Pearce, who established a new U.S. national hour record in 1995, during the anything-aero days, at 50.191km. “It’s the purest effort. It’s just you going in circles. And there’s something very, very challenging about that. It’s so cool.”

(So cool that Pearce has since ridden the hour twice more. He attempted to set a national record in 2013, falling short but hitting 49.806km, which established a new 40–44 masters record. The following week, having not had enough pain, he set a U.S. Merckx-style record of 46.452km.)

It is easy to become obsessed, tweaking every detail in an attempt to wring seconds and centimeters out of a stone. The best approach is through trial and error—experimentation and repetitive test rides after subtle changes to a slew of variables.

“I was surprised at the magnitude of this attempt, because I have done many, many track events,” says Kevin Nicol, who attempted to break the 45–49 masters national record last September. He came up just short, after years of research and preparation. “I felt very green when I was going into this. It was a very daunting learning process. And everybody has advice. You have to take this advice and sift through it to what is applicable.”

What is applicable? Aerodynamics, of course, of bike and body. Friction is a big one, both within your drivetrain and hubs and between tire and track surface. Psychology plays a massive role in helping you ride to your potential. Ultimately, it is a pure test of your threshold physiology. And then there’s everything in between.

Only with fanatical analysis, in combination with an understanding of the constraints of the individual, will you find ultimate speed.

I THINK I WENT out too fast. But that’s okay. I can’t go back. Just look forward. The data says this is sustainable. I believe that. God, this doesn’t seem sustainable. That point of horrendous pain that everyone talks about is right here.

The hour is the ultimate threshold effort. There have been volumes of journal articles written about what that actually means, but for the purposes of this article, it is the point in one’s power profile where there is a rapid rise in lactate. This break point, caused by an imbalance between production and clearance in the blood, is often the number bandied around as the power you can hold for an hour.

Neal Henderson, an associate trainer with BMC Racing, coaches Rohan Dennis and worked closely with the Australian before his record-setting effort in January. His training advice was very simple: “If we are trying to simulate a reuptake, instead of plugging the system and going over, we stay just under, near that maximum clearance rate. So doing your efforts specific to the hour right at 90 percent of threshold is going to be better than at or above threshold, because you can recover from it more quickly and you can progressively build the volume of training there.”

Once you know what power you can sustain for an hour, you can determine the speed you should expect to go (see page 29). If you know your speed, you can determine your gearing. The right cadence can make or break your attempt.

According to Henderson, there have been very few instances in the past 100 years when someone completed the hour with an average cadence of less than 100 rpm, including Chris Boardman in the superman position and Mathias Brändle, who averaged 99rpm in October 2014. Most average about 105rpm.

“There are a lot of reasons for this. If we look at the physiology, the force production of pushing a big gear can start to preclude blood flow, so you are actually not getting all of the blood in and out of the muscle, which is not a good thing,” Henderson says.

Evidence suggests that for the same power output, higher cadences not only make for better muscle blood flow but also reduce muscle strain, making for better endurance.

That first 30 minutes didn’t feel as good as it did in my last training session. That’s not good. Forget it. Move on. Keep the feet moving fast. Stay over that gear, find the arc in your stroke, and repeat it, repeat it. Shrug the shoulders, tuck the head, forget about time and place. Break it down into small chunks. Just ride. One more lap down. One more lap down.

When I first spoke with Henderson about my hour attempt, and the effort in general, his initial reaction was, surprisingly, not about fitness, aerodynamics, or pain.

“Half of this is going to be about getting your head ready for it,” he said. “No matter what, if we got you incredibly fit, but your head isn’t in it, you would not access that capacity. This will ultimately reveal what you can or can’t do. Your head will drive what is possible.”

This is an often-neglected aspect of performance. When you consider the solitary, painful, and repetitious effort of the hour, the psychological hurdles are harder to overcome. Anyone who attempts it will do so virtually blind, having never, or very rarely, done it before. How hard can I realistically go? How will I react when I start to crack? Will I get bored going in circles?

Pearce, on the other hand, has gone through the training and the effort at least three times. He offers insight that very few people have.

“The thing about the track is that time stops,” he says. “If you think that your biology class in high school was boring…16 laps is an eternity. Two hundred and seven laps is eternity squared. It is insane. Mentally, it will change your game. And that’s cool, because it readjusts your perspective.”

When working to prepare Dennis for his attempt, Henderson had the Australian watch at-speed point-of-view video of the track. It nearly cracked Dennis.

Accept that you will hurt. Everyone who does this has a tale to tell of excruciating pain. “It might not have been the most painful, but it was still right up there as one of the worst experiences on a bike that I’ve ever had,” Dennis says. Knowing what will happen is enough to scare some people away. Others see it as an opportunity to prove something or, as Pearce noted, discover something new.

This is a type of hard I’ve never felt before. Why is it so damned hard? What can I do? It’s almost over. It’s only an hour. Keep your head up, lift your eyes, don’t let go. Keep the pressure on. Relax, inhale, exhale. Fast, but not too fast. Remember all the sensations from training and channel them now. You’re almost there. Yes, you’re almost there.

WHEN YOU THINK about the hour, you likely conjure up images of Graeme Obree on “Old Faithful,” the bike he made in his garage from washing machine parts that initiated a flurry of dramatic positional and aerodynamic changes in the way competitors rode a bike. Along with the eccentric Scotsman, Chris Boardman revolutionized the hour. But it was not to last. The UCI had enough of their tinkering, their “superman” positions, and their futuristic bikes. The hour went dormant.

Since the rule changes in late 2014 that allowed for modern pursuit bikes to be used for the event, the quest to set a new, modern mark has seen a resurgence. Aerodynamics is now squarely back on the table; riders and teams have clearly defined constraints in which to work as they attempt to minimize every gram of drag.

“You can’t take this stuff for granted,” says aerodynamics specialist Andy Froncioni, who holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers in aerospace and mechanical engineering. “This is a good 105 years of engineering that’s coming together. The airplane wing is not a shape that came easily. It’s significant technology. And you look at a modern bike and it’s easily taken for granted now, but it’s not nothing.”

Froncioni works his magic for Montreal-based Alphamantis, a firm that specializes in making cyclists faster. They have pioneered a system that enables them to determine in real-time the optimal position and equipment combination for rider and bike. No wind tunnel necessary.

The findings from their research are never to be applied universally—there are always exceptions to the rules—but they have seen trends that can’t be ignored. To emphasize just how much aerodynamics can mean to a record attempt, it’s best to understand air density, which varies with barometric pressure and temperature, both of which are influenced by altitude. Hotter air is faster. Moister air is faster.

Air density determines the mass of air that you displace as you ride through it. For example, a cubic meter of air at the velodrome in Aguascalientes, Mexico, which sits at almost 6,200 feet, is about 0.96 kilograms. At sea level, it’s 1.2 kilograms. That’s a difference of almost 0.25 kilograms for every cubic meter of air that you’re displacing. “Over 60 minutes, that adds up to a big difference,” Froncioni says. “That’s an important, invisible part of the hour record.”

At race speed, particularly on a track, nearly 90 percent of your aerodynamic drag comes from your body. Reducing the amount of air you’re pushing reduces the amount of energy you expend to move forward. Therefore, under the same power, you can go faster.

Imagine a bullet shot through the air at an angle—it wouldn’t fly very smoothly, or quickly. That’s because air would go over the tip then leave the surface of the bullet and begin recirculating, creating a vortex above and behind it. That vortex has a negative pressure and will actually pull backwards on the bullet.

“Same with the human being,” Froncioni says. “You want to have flow that goes over the back and detaches as late as possible. You want that bubble of negative pressure to be as small as possible.” Cyclists ride along with an eddy behind them that’s tugging them backwards. Aerodynamic positioning has everything to do with reducing the size and strength of those eddies.

Through repeated inquiry on the track, Alphamantis has also discovered the significance of the up-tilted forearm position. Look at Wiggins in his hour and it harkens back to the days of Floyd Landis and his “praying mantis” position. That up-tilted forearm went away only because the UCI mandated it. Since removed from the rulebooks, new rules stipulate that the top of the extension can not be more than 10 centimeters higher than the lowest point of the top of the arm pad. But the horizontal position lives on.

“We’re still living the history of that rule, where people still like the look of that flat arm position,” Froncioni says. “A lot of position coaches without any aerodynamic knowledge will put people in that position. It certainly looks faster, but there’s no way that it is. Just about every time we test forearm tilt, it is definitely better than flat arm.”

The air, power meter, and CdA figures don’t tell aerodynamicists why that position is faster. But Froncioni surmises that by lifting the fists up, there’s a core of air that remains untouched as it goes over a number of aerodynamic elements on the bicycle that produce such little drag they are said to be invisible.

That little core of air? “Just subtract it right out of the picture,” Froncioni says.

A frame accounts for 10 percent of your drag. Frames with a low stack figure (the dimension from center of bottom bracket to top of head tube) offer the opportunity to separate rider from bike, in a sense, by allowing for the use of high risers under the arm pads.

“Having your arm pads and extensions right on the base bar introduces complex shapes into that space creating a lot of dirty air,” he says.

In the end, the key to speed isn’t just formulas and physics but a balanced position that considers aerodynamics, the cleanliness of the design and configuration, and power output. It takes time and patience to find that balance.

A hierarchy of choice simplifies things: 1) The best position is the fastest; 2) the fastest position works within your individual biomechanical profile; 3) the fastest position must be sustainable; 4) if sustainability and aerodynamics come into conflict, choose sustainability.

Sometimes, it all comes together.

“Being a world-class time trialist is an act of contortionism,” Pearce says. “It’s not just about having a big VO2. It’s about shrugging the shoulders up to the ears, making the whole frontal area around your clavicle all the way up through the neck disappear and making the upper arm segments vertical as opposed to sticking out like struts. The people who can do that and happen to have good VO2s and smooth pedal strokes and aero-shaped asses are really good time trialists.”

IT COST $9,500 to create Bradley Wiggins’s chain for his hour-record attempt, according to Muc-Off, the company that provided it. The British firm used a machine to quantify the efficiency and durability of its chain lubricant formulations. It then tested more than 30 Shimano Dura-Ace chains to select the most efficient ones, deep cleaned those in a sonic bath, then applied a specially formulated lubricant to reduce friction.

What reports didn’t share was that Jason Smith, the man behind FrictionFacts.com, gave Muc-Off the plans for both the machine and his optimized lubricant treatment. Working from his basement laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, Smith has pioneered the research of drivetrain efficiency, finding small (sometimes very small) ways in which to decrease the power loss due to friction. You’ve heard of marginal gains? He lives them.

Smith, who holds a degree from Penn State in ceramic science engineering, estimates that the Muc-Off chain helped Wiggins ride an extra 250 meters over the hour. Having designed and built machines that test chain efficiency to 1/50th of a watt, Smith has devoted his life to cheap speed.

How much speed can you find by obtaining the right chain and being smart about how you prepare it? Two percent. In fact, when Smith still prepared the chains (he sold that technology to Ceramicspeed in May 2015), he guaranteed it.

When it comes to finding the right chain, Smith has done the work for you. “From all of the testing we have done, the Dura-Ace is consistently the fastest model,” he says.

It goes without saying that your chainring and rear cog need to be aligned, since misalignment creates friction. The art of tensioning the chain also takes practice. It should be slacked—tension causes friction—but you don’t want the chain flopping around. It’s a fine balance.

“All our tests are done at 250 watts,” Smith says. “You get a guy like Bradley Wiggins, who did his at over 400 watts, and everything is linear, so it would be even more. So, straight out of the box, at 250 watts, between 10 and 7 watts is what you save with that type of treatment. It’s at least 5 watts of savings. At 250 watts that’s about two percent. That’s a fair amount off the top, and that’s just with the chain.”

In your search for ultimate speed, you must also consider the bearing design, the seals, and the lubricant. Ceramics help. They’re not necessarily faster than steel, but the quality of the product is higher to begin with, so the tolerances are tighter. Though he wouldn’t necessarily suggest it for long-term durability, Smith has shown that removing seals, cleaning, and then applying two to three drops of a delicate oil—he suggests a remote-control car bearing oil—provides the most efficient set of bottom bracket bearings possible.

These increasingly small gains carry over to rolling resistance, found at the interface of tire and track (see page 54). Wheel Energy, of Finland, specializes in tire efficiency research and testing. They found that at a speed of 50 kph, the best and worst tubular track tires can mean a difference of between seven and 10 watts. Furthermore, to be specific to differences within a tire, the Vittoria Pista CS Elite tire was eight watts more efficient at 203 psi than at 102 psi. Of course, results will differ between brands and casings. But in the world of infinitesimal gains, it’s just this type of research, yielding just these types of advantages, that leads to world records—or not.

ARC INTO THE CORNER and float around the bend. Eyes on the line, power down the straight, carve toward the apex of the curve. Damn, not perfect. Try again. Find the line and ride it. Throttle on the straights, lift in the corner. Damn, not perfect. Try again. Hit the black line. Keep low, keep steady, keep smooth. Damn, not perfect. Try again.

There are nuances to riding on a velodrome that can’t be ignored. Distance is measured in laps, regardless of how high on the track you ride. The higher you are, the larger diameter circle you’re covering on every lap—and you’ll gain a small amount of altitude by climbing the banking, which counters the natural acceleration you would normally get in the corners. But you’ll get no extra credit. An ideal ride stays as close to the black line as possible, which is where the track’s distance is measured. But there is a fine line between pressing too hard to be on that line and staying relaxed so as not to waste energy. If you were to ride, on average, 20 centimeters from the black line over the course of an hour, you would ride an extra 250 meters for which you would not get credit. On most tracks, that’s an extra lap. According to Pearce’s rough estimate, Jens Voigt, an inexperienced track cyclist, could have lost as much as 400 meters in total distance by frequently drifting above the line during his record-breaking hour attempt in 2014.

But watch Dowsett or Wiggins. Placid, still, yet powerful, comfortable, and incredibly smooth.

“You look at Dowsett and that guy was just pinned on the black line,” Pearce says. “And the same with Wiggins. Metronomes. And that’s what it is: rhythm. That’s what cycling is. You build the pressure, and on the good days you can find the rhythm with the throttle all the way open. On the track, the positive is you’re doing laps. There’s a really clear indicator of what your rhythm should be. You get to try it again the next lap. In fact, you’ll have almost 200 opportunities to get it right [laughs].”

On the track, power goes up on the straights. In the corners, your center of gravity shifts and you accelerate—you have to accelerate. So your wheels accelerate. But they’re also doing a bigger circle, so they accelerate more relative to you. That repeated fluctuation in cadence and power output is what makes riding long-distance efforts on the track even more dynamic.

“It’s not the same as Cancellara out there for a 40km TT on the road,” Pearce says. “The hour is a different beast, and the power profiles are different, too. It’s surge and recover, surge and recover. I think that’s why some people get on the track and their heads just explode.”

Look at any modern time trialist on the road and he is scrunching his body into a tiny ball, tucking his head at every opportunity. Not so when you’re doing lap after lap on a velodrome. There, you’re under a repetitive centripetal-force burden, which loads your inner ear and challenges your balance system. And, remember, you’re having to process all of this at threshold, going 30 miles per hour.

Thus, stillness is essential.

“You go through these corners and your inner ear, your balance challenge, gets to be higher and higher,” Pearce says. “If you were to try to drop your head to be super aero on the straights and then raise your head in the corners to see where you were going and try to match the black line, I don’t think it would work at all. It would only add to that challenge.”

Instead, you want consistent rhythm. If you want to go forward, you look where you want to go. Study Wiggins. Watch Dowsett. Metronomes. Fast metronomes, ticking away.

I CREPT DELICATELY around the track, completely dazed, finally coming to a stop near the gathered fans. Legan held me upright, helped me unclip my right foot from the pedal, and I slowly, deliberately swung my leg over my saddle onto the concrete apron. I stood there, head down, aching in a near-catatonic state of relief and emptiness.

“How far?” I asked.

“Far. I might have been lying to you a bit on your lap times,” Nick said. “Over the record.”

My distance of 45.927 kilometers was deemed a new track record, but since USA Cycling officials were not present to oversee the attempt (none could be arranged on the weekend of the road world championships in Richmond), my unofficial distance, though farther than the existing 35–39 national record, will not be recognized.

Later, I’m told I rode farther than Fausto Coppi and came up just short of besting Jacques Anquetil. Nothing could have more quickly made me realize what I had just done or made my ravaged body ache a little less. Anything for a good story. ♦

Listen to a podcast of Case and Legan talking about the hour attempt here.

THE PARETO PRINCIPLE, more commonly known as the 80–20 rule, is a business principle that holds that roughly 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. That is, a minority of inputs has a disproportional impact on the end result. This definitely holds true for the hour record. In such a controlled, predictable event, little things make a big difference.

This can be dangerous, because it can overstate just how much control one has over the many factors involved in such a demanding performance. Focusing on frontal areas and coefficients of drag can turn the rider into a formula, when the truth is the rider is a human who might not be feeling well. Yet Chris and I read studies that did exactly that. One in particular wrestled with why Indurain’s attempt didn’t live up to his formulaically predicted performance. It didn’t consider he might have just had a bad day.

Chris and I got caught up in numbers, too, and almost forgot what was important: If he trained optimally and showed up mentally and physically prepared, he’d produce his best result. Here are the steps we took to ensure Chris was ready.

Finding the threshold

This type of training can’t be done by feel. Chris doesn’t typically train with a power meter, so we performed multiple tests to determine his functional threshold in his hour position. A 20-minute all-out effort on the track provided a 260-watt estimate. (That was down from 320 watts on the road; this drop indicated that adaptation to the position would be an issue.) Ultimately, his threshold was determined in the lab by Rob Pickels, the lead physiologist at the University of Colorado Medicine and Performance Center. Chris’s highest sustainable power was measured at 275 watts.

Quality over quantity

Last year Chris prepared for a four-hour hill climb by flogging himself on mountain passes and then riding two additional hours. That type of training doesn’t work for the hour attempt.

Now, his training consisted of two short threshold sessions per week that he performed fully rested. Everything else was easy rides of an hour or two, two or three times per week.

In total, given the short schedule he had to prepare for his attempt, he performed just seven structured workouts on the track, all done at 90 percent of functional threshold power (except the final session):

1) 4 x 8 minutes (3 minutes rest in between); 2) 4 x 10 minutes (3 minutes rest in between)3) 4 x 12 minutes (3 minutes rest in between); 4) 3 x 15 minutes (5 minutes rest in between); 5) 2 x 20 minutes + 10 minutes (minutes rest in between); 6) 30 minutes + 30 minutes (3 minutes rest in between); 7) 30 minutes at race pace

Give it 90 percent

Chris performed intervals at 260 watts, rather than at his aerobic limit of 275 watts, since training right on that edge can cause too much stress and actually target the wrong energy systems.

“Threshold power is that workload where everything is barely holding on and still functioning fairly well,” Pickels says. “You go a little above that, and things go haywire. You go below it, you’re pushing the limit, but you’re in a controlled environment. When we look at lactate clearance, just below that threshold is where the body is recycling lactate and other metabolites the fastest. So the body does really well when we train in a place where it’s successful.”

Stamina & consistency

Theoretically, Chris would be able to hold his threshold power of 275 watts for the hour. In practice, doing that while staying steady in an aerodynamic position can be mentally and physically excruciating.

To refine these qualities, Chris focused on holding his position at a steady wattage every workout. Initially, he did only five-minute intervals. These grew in length until he was sustaining two 30-minute intervals to accumulate an hour at threshold (see graphic). Unfortunately, the head unit to Chris’s power meter was inadvertently powered down just before the attempt, so no data is available from his hour.


At first, Chris couldn’t get close to his threshold heart rate. I attributed this to his unfamiliarity with the bike and the high-cadence demands of the track. In fact, Chris had never raced on the track before, and had only done one time trial in the aero position in his life (on a 1990s vintage KHS with clip-on bars, no less). While it was critical for Chris’s position that he balance power and aerodynamics, his body still had to adapt to this new style of riding. So he performed his intervals on his track bike, and two weeks from the event we stopped making changes. As he became more familiar with the position, both his power and frontal area improved.