“It’s just you on that track with 6,000 people who have come to see you succeed or fail.” The Hour Record, dating back to 1893. 60 minutes of individual, lonely effort around a velodrome, lap after lap, counting down each minute until the end, in the vainglorious attempt that you’ve travelled further than anyone else at the end of it all. Just you and a bike. A massive risk. No second place. Simply failure or a place in the record books while the world watches you. The hour record has to be the ultimate do or die sporting event. “My Hour” is Bradley Wiggins’ story of his successful bid to be the fastest cyclist over the course of one hour.
Bradley Wiggins has always been one of those unique and intriguing athletes: a man who has achieved so much, from Olympic medals to winning the Tour de France and yet, he can appear to be at the mercy of his own self doubt at times, despite laying down the most ambitious targets for any professional cyclist. What’s more, he’s a real “Sports Personality”. In an articulate foreword by Chris Boardman, he remembers how, when he won the BBC SPOY, everyone held their breath. “Is he going to swear, put two fingers up, or give the most eloquent speech you can possibly imagine?” My own fond memory is when he won the Tour de France, and, after picking up the mike to give the usual thanks to team mates and sponsors, announced to the world in his laid back style, “Right, well we’re just about to pick the winning numbers from the raffle,” as if he had been at the local village fete.
And so Brad has always remained somewhat of an ambiguity: someone who will go about meeting the absurd challenges he has set himself, achieving them through that selfish dedication we have come to expect from professional sportsmen, while avoiding that descent into shallow blandness that characterises some of the greatest athletes of our era. We love and admire him for his outspoken comments, his sartorial elegance and his sheer everyday ‘blokeishness’. The insouciant style can make you wonder if the Gold medals, his place on the Tour podium and the Hour record have simply come his way through inherited genes that freakishly allow him to perform better on a bicycle than almost anyone else in the world. Reading “The Hour” certainly puts paid to that.
This is a beautifully produced book with some stunning photography of the event itself at the Olympic Velodrome, some posed poster boy shots of Brad himself, and wonderful glimpses into the past from iconic photographs of former Hour record holders that give this achievement the full sense of perspective and context that it deserves.
A self-confessed geek “with an obsession with cycling history,” part of Wiggins’ motivation to break the record stemmed from his encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport garnered from picking up his copy of Cycling Weekly from the Kilburn Newsagents round the corner from his school every Thursday lunch time. When Graham Obree broke the record in 1994 on a Sunday, with no internet, TV or newspaper coverage, Brad had to wait a full 4 days to find out the result. It was from an old article of the magazine documenting Indurain’s training programme for The Hour, carefully cut out and filed away in the Wiggins’ teenage bedroom that he based his own training program upon many years later. More than anything he wanted to join that special club of Hour record holders, only 5 in total, who had made the extraordinary leap from being a Tour de France winner to being the fastest on the track as well. He desperately wanted to join the ranks of Lucien Petit-Breton, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Miquel Indurain, and be able to compare himself with those greats.
The juxtaposition of historical profiles of Hour record holders with accounts of how he trained and prepared for the attempt, along with an almost minute by minute insight of his thoughts, pain and the sheer mental anguish that he went through over the hour, make the book immensely readable. There are also some helpful diagrams to explain some of the complexities of air pressure and aerodynamics, the geometry of the velodrome and the mathematical calculations needed to meet his target.
Wiggins chose the Olympic Velodrome as the venue for his attempt for sentimental reasons – part of the Olympic legacy and because he used to race on this site as a youngster before the billions of pounds had been spent that transformed it into the world class facility it is today. But the track in London is widely considered to be a slower track than Manchester. Added to that, the generally higher air pressure here means that the rider has to work harder to push the air out of the way. Cram 6,000 spectators into the stadium as well, and you not only increase the air temperature in there up to about 30 degrees, but they also suck away a good proportion of the oxygen in the enclosed space too.
To meet his target, Wiggins had to consistently cycle around the 250m track in about 16.5 seconds. Ironically he had to reign himself in for the first half an hour because he felt so good on the day, but realized that if he didn’t pace himself he wouldn’t have enough energy for the second half of the hour. “I think of people like Jack Bobridge, who went out for 10 or 15 minutes on a pace he couldn’t sustain, and finally cracked.” The discipline and self-awareness to beat the record is extraordinary. In fact Wiggins claims that the second half is almost easier because you have to push yourself to the limit at this point, but are constantly checking yourself in the first half.
The account of his last 7 minutes is an agonising read: “I’m in that red zone where you can’t go any harder…waiting for it to end…The drift between the splits seems huge…This is just about survival. I’m losing it.” At the end of the 60 minutes, Wiggins had broken the record by traveling 54.526km and “the cycling fan in me came out a little bit. I’d felt like I’d joined a club.”
Wiggins has crowned an incredible career with an incredible achievement, and this book is a great way to mark it. There are still one or two ambitions to be fulfilled - a gold medal in Rio would be a perfect way to bow out, although he also offers the tantalising thought of having his own team racing in the Tour packed to the gills with cycling mavericks, including himself, to stir things up a bit. What a great prospect that would be!