New UCI Rules to reinvigorate the Hour Record; makes a big mess of it

Under the direction of new president Brian Cookson, the UCI has announced that the rules governing the prestigious Hour Record will be amended to allow modern aero equipment, ending a period in which the Holy Grail of cycling had been regulated into esoterica. The so-called “Merckx Rules” had excluded any bicycle features that differed significantly in form to the bike used by Eddy Merckx to set a legendary record of 49.421km in 1972. These regressive rules were a product of the UCI zeitgeist of the late 1990s, expressed in the Lugano Charter of 1996 as a return to purity of cycling. These rules retroactively erased the record marks set by Francesco Moser, Chris Boardman, Graeme Obree, Miguel Indurain, and Tony Rominger in the years 1984-1997, all set on aero bikes with aero wheels. Boardman, whose record of 56.375km atop a Lotus “Superbike” in Obree-inspired “Superman” position of arms extended full-forward on long aerobars, obligingly went out on a suitably archaic track bike and beat Merckx’s 1972 distance by all of 10 meters (though he was at sea level). For a moment, it seemed as if the UCI had gotten it right, as the record seemed to simultaneously bring acclaim to the current generation of riders like Boardman and solidify a sense of continuity with a golden age of cycling as personified by Merckx.

Then five years later a record of 49.700km was set by Ondrej Sosenka, a nobody out of the Czech Republic known only for the aforementioned record and getting popped for doping twice. Perhaps this record was actually the better symbol for that era of cycling: a thin veneer of superficial purity masking a deeply ingrained culture of doping. After that……nothing. Because no one was interested in pursuing the Hour Record after that, not riders, not their team management, and certainly not equipment manufacturers. What team and bike sponsor are going to give their star rider time away from racing for specialized training and a record attempt if there is no payoff? Boardman’s records on aero bikes sold a shit load of Corima and Lotus bikes; his Merckx-style record bike did not. Beyond that, there are no time trials on the road or pursuit events on the track that would provide competitive targets to athletes on the way to an actual attempt. As it was, training for a record attempt would be a significant loss of time from competition and sponsor exposure, and no team wants that, especially if the attempt is ultimately unsuccessful (or even more likely, called off because prior testing proves pessimistic). By loosening the rules governing the Hour Record, the UCI is hoping to ignite interest from athletes, teams, and sponsors. Ideally, multiple riders will attempt in succession, generating headlines throughout the year.

The confusing part is how the UCI is retroactively declaring the current valid records. As of this week, the record rules essentially allow bikes that are currently legal for UCI pursuit events on the track, or rather legal since the Superman-position, small front wheels, and non-diamond frames were banned in the late-1990s. Since the bikes used in the records set between 1984-1997 do not meet that criteria, Sosenka’s record is the target. Paradoxically, Moser’s bike and the rest were legal for track pursuit according to the rules as they were written at the time. In fact, Boardman had set a 4000M individual pursuit record in 1996 using the same bike/position as his 56km record. That record was only recently beaten on a now-legal bike by Jack Bobridge (AUS) in 2011.

Many rumours have tied Fabian Cancellara, this day’s greatest rouleur and time trialist, to a future Hour Record attempt. Other names being mentioned are Bradley Wiggins and especially the German, Tony Martin. Sosenka’s record is a relatively easy target from a B-grade time trialist on a bike without disc wheels or aerobar. But honestly, the only way the Hour Record will return to prestige is if someone can beat Boardman’s Superman-position record to obliterate all the confusion and asterisks. Bobridge has shown that refined equipment and training can do it, at least at 4000M.

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