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Cometh the hour, cometh the Wiggo

A cycling record that strips sport down to its distilled essence

Simon Barnes | June 1st 2015

Entertainment is overrated. The best of sport is much better than that. Now we have an event that pushes this principle to an extreme, creating a spectacle that is almost wilfully—almost insultingly—unentertaining. If you go to the Lee Valley VeloPark in London on June 7th, you will be able to watch a man going round and round. He’ll be on a push-bike, and he’ll be pedalling away for an hour. All by himself. For exactly 60 minutes: not a nanosecond more or less. In that time he will see just how far he can go. And that’s it. End of excitement.

The man in question is Bradley Wiggins—Wiggo himself, who in 2012 won an Olympic gold medal and became the first British male rider to win the Tour de France. He doesn’t know how far he’s going to travel in that single shining hour, but it will all be the most terrible flop if he doesn’t travel more than 52 kilometres and 937 metres—the world record he’s trying to break.

He will make a stationary start, easing the bike forward until he has got the huge gear in his bike spinning as he wishes, and then he will settle on a crash-hot cruising speed. If he’s got anything left in those hard-pumping legs, he’ll use it all up in the final minutes, which must be frantic and controlled at the same time. Sustained speed is about shape and balance and cadence. So round he’ll go, and round and round, aiming to complete each lap in a little less than 17 seconds. In doing so he will strip sport down to the ultra-distilled essence that comes in the pursuit of pure excellence. This rarefied piece of sport has a beauty of its own—a conceptual beauty.

It’s an ancient thing, this hour record. You’ll get all kinds of arguments among the purists about when it started and who has the right to be honoured as its first holder. I’m inclined to support the American Frank Dodds, who in 1876 completed 26.508 kilometres—on a penny-farthing. For a while cycling’s governing body, the UCI, divided the hour record into two categories. There was the record set with the most basic equipment, the kind used when the great Belgian Eddy Merckx set the record in 1972, and then there was the souped-up version, in which you could wear a superhero time-trial helmet and ride a bike with disc wheels and aerodynamic bars. This second record was called, perhaps a touch sniffily, the Best Human Effort, but last year they unified the two classifications and we’re back to the simple notion of covering as much ground as you can before the hour strikes.

In May Alex Dowsett, another Brit, had a crack at the record in Manchester, and that’s when he set the mark that Wiggins seeks to beat. Dowsett smashed the old record by nearly half a kilometre—some effort, that—and said afterwards, “I expected it to be horrendous but it was only terrible.”

One of the best things about the Wiggo Show is that if he beats the record—and he’s talking about 54 kilometres, or even 55—then Dowsett plans to have another crack. Wiggins won’t be setting a record for all time. Perhaps no more than a few weeks. The evanescent nature of the achievement only adds to its perfection. Dowsett's strategy was basically conservative, with metronomic 17-second laps, riding a little within himself for the first 45 minutes. It was a strategy designed to beat the record, rather than to maximise the potential of the rider. Dowsett came most carefully upon his hour. He has something left in his locker; and besides, he’s only 26 to Wiggins 35.

There is, then, something wonderfully absurd about this. Wiggins is working frighteningly hard and will put himself through a serious physical ordeal in order to achieve something pretty pointless that will soon be irrelevant. And if that’s not the sort of thing a person should do in life then I don’t know what is. It’s the whole useless because-it-was-there thing that drives people up Everest and makes those with more limited but still glowing ambitions run marathons. And it’s in these achievements—rather than the glossy events witnessed by billions—that you find the secret essence of sport: the madness and the beauty and the wonder that carry so much more meaning than mere entertainment. 

Bradley Wiggins hour record attempt Lee Valley VeloPark, London, June 7th

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