Jens Voigt has broken the hour record. It’s a simple statement, a declaration where the fact is beyond the reach of debate. He broke a record that is cycling itself, that is an aspiration no one needs to explain, an exploration of power so pure it leaves non-cyclists breathless. The wonder of the feat is staggering. His mark of 51.115km works out to 31.76 miles for those of us who still think in English units. Most of the world sees numbers like those only on a downhill, or only in a group, and even then, only for seconds at a time.
This is an achievement that bears repeating: Jens Voigt has broken the hour record.
Such a statement elicits two simultaneous reactions. On one hand there’s the of course that comes with Voigt’s reputation for spending time anywhere but in the pack. A breakaway at the Amgen Tour of California was incomplete unless Voigt was there, gutting it out to the final kilometer. He was a favorite because he was never afraid of the hard work; he burned watts like a Hummer burns gas—without reserve. But he was also a favorite because he had a human side; he would admit that what he did was painful. We loved how he rode because he wasn’t stoic and in that, we could see our own pain. He made it that much easier for us to see just how different we are from the great pros. It was the perfect lens for admiration.
For those of us who follow pro racing closely, there was a second reaction to the news. Jens Voigt? Really? Not Fabian Cancellara, not Tony Martin, not Taylor Phinney. Jens “Shut Up Legs” Voigt?! Oh, it’s on; there’s no way this will be the only attempt of the decade.
Voigt’s bike sponsor, Trek, did the record a service by live streaming the event for cyclists everywhere to watch. It was easily the most-witnessed hour record in history. As folks say, seeing is believing.
Through the 20th century, the hour record was the mark of kings, men whose names are synonymous with cycling itself: Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Giuseppe Olmo, Lucien Petit-Breton. It has been a sleepy mark for most of this century, though. It’s been tackled only twice, by Ondrej Sosenka, whose efforts lifted only the “athletic” record, that is, the record as referencing Merckx’ 49.431 mark set in 1972 in Mexico City. In his first attempt, in 2000, he added but 10 meters. A second attempt, in 2005, saw him add nearly 300 meters. But that’s been it, largely because of the UCI’s completely backward rules demanding riders ride a bike similar to Merckx’ ’72 bike that had smothered interest in the hour record like a blanket over a flame.
The 1990s were a time of considerable interest and effort on the hour record. The salvo opened with Graeme Obree’s Hamar, Norway, 51.596km record on July 17, 1993. The mark would fall six more times over the next three years, with records set by Obree, Chris Boardman, Tony Rominger and five-time Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain, culminating in Boardman’s 56.375km stunner that still stands as the UCI’s “best human effort.” For Hein Verbruggen, a man who proved to be okay with advances in biology but not technology, that was the last straw. The UCI mandated that any further efforts on the hour record would take on Eddy Merckx on his turf, with spoked wheels, drop bars and a traditional frame design. The effect was like inviting the cops to a block party—everybody split.
It was Brian Cookson who showed up with a fresh keg, so to speak. Let there be no mistake, this event would never have taken place had Cookson not been elected president of the UCI. The rule changes that made the record interesting to Voigt were part of the sweeping changes that Cookson instituted upon arrival. The UCI may not be perfect, but it’s far less capricious than it once was.
Voigt rode a track-specific version of Trek’s Speed Concept, a bike otherwise marketed as a triathlon model, and used front and rear discs—actual technology. The combination of an admired rider, someone universally respected as a fast guy, and a bike with an identifiable aerodynamic edge has done more than just etch Voigt’s name into the record books; it has made the mark fresh again. Years from now, we may look back on September 18, 2014, as the day that the hour was granted a new lease on the imagination, that Voigt’s effort inspired his colleagues to take their own swing.
Ambition is its own light, one bright enough to show the future.