PEAK HOUR
CYCLING WEEKLY|November 18, 2021
It’s 25 years since Chris Boardman rode 56.375 kilometres in an hour – a distance that has never been surpassed. Paul Greasley charts the rise and fall of the technical innovations that produced cycling’s most spectacular record
Paul Greasley

The year 1984, like its Orwellian namesake, ushered in what became a dystopian future for bicycle design. It started with Francesco Moser’s Hour record on 19 January in the wafer thin air of Mexico City. Here he would use every conceivable aerodynamic aid including aero bullhorn handlebars, shoe covers, a rubberised cycling cap, a weighted rear wheel to produce a flywheel effect and even had the track of the Agustín Melgar Olympic Velodrome specially varnished, to beat Eddy Merckx’s previously unassailable 1972 mark.

Then during the summer, the United States cycling team would end a 72-year drought to win nine medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. This transformation in fortunes was achieved largely through the ‘Racing System’ concept developed by US Cycling’s technical director Ed Burke and aerodynamicist Chester Kyle. Central to the success of this concept was the pooling of various aerodynamic specialists to build a series of bikes. One of the more noteworthy was the Raleigh-badged 100km team time trial bike which, if research and development costs were factored in, was calculated to have cost $40,000 per bike.

For the UCI, cycling was now making a far too radical departure from the performances of the individual, and placing too much emphasis on technology. It would respond in 1986 with meddlesome zeal and implement Article 49. This dictated that a bicycle frame must be composed of three main tubes with a maximum diameter of 35mm, or three main ovalised elements with a maximum of 75mm. The effects of this regressive rule would stifle development by banning the monocoque bikes that were on the cusp of making a breakthrough.

However, five years later in one of the few examples when the UCI has effectively admitted it had ‘taken things a bit too far’ it would attempt to resuscitate interest in track cycling by rescinding Article 49. For cycling traditionalists and performance purists, it was akin to lifting the lid on Pandora’s box.

The following summer Chris Boardman would win the individual pursuit in Barcelona with the assistance of the Lotus 108, before turning his attention to the Hour in 1993. Despite being beaten to the punch by his nemesis Graeme Obree, who broke Moser’s mythical mark on his famously homemade bike and unique tucked riding position, Boardman would set a new benchmark of 52.270 kilometres six days later.

All Hours

It would signal the start of a frenetic period for cycling’s blue riband event. Over eight months in 1994, the record fell four times: first claimed by Obree, then by Miguel Indurain, who pushed the record beyond 53 kilometres, and finally by Tony Rominger, who took the record to 53.832 kilometres and then to 55.291 kilometres 14 days later.

This presented a problem for the UCI. How could its ultimate prize for endurance be broken by cyclists who didn’t outwardly appear to endure?

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