August 15, 2006
“The Flying Scotsman” premieres in Edinburgh
In 1972, the greatest bike racer of all time, Eddy Merckx, improved the record for the most distance covered in an hour on a bicycle to 49.431 kilometers, or almost 30.72 miles, on a velodrome in Mexico City. His hour record stood until 1984, when Francisco Moser, using an early set of aero wheels, pushed the record over 50 kilometers, to 51.151 kms, or about 31.78 miles.
There the record slumbered for nearly 10 years, until a controversial Scotsman stepped forward to push the limits of human performance. Graeme Obree was a strong track and time trial rider, and looked around for ways to streamline the rider position on the bike. Using a position variously called the “egg” or “crouch” position, with the rider's torso nearly horizontal and his arms tucked tight to his chest, Obree thought he could set a new hour mark, and in July 1993, he rode 52.27 kilometers in an hour in Norway.
Obree's efforts ignited an interest in the hour record unmatched since the 1930's. Between July 1993 and September of 1996, the record was extended 5 times. Outdistanced by Britain's Chris Boardman less than a week after setting the record, Obree came back and did 52.71 kilometers in his improved "Superman" position, with the rider's arms stretched out to cut the wind on a plane with his body.
Obree's autobiography, The Flying Scotsman, was well-reviewed, but a film version has had tremendous trouble getting made. Last night, it it finally premiered in Edinburgh.
Early reviews are a little rough.
Naturally, there's a doping angle to the story, as, when he turned pro, Obree says he was sacked by the Le Groupement squad almost immediately for refusing to dope.
With the hour record so hotly contested, Boardman, Miguel Indurain, and Tony Rominger engaged Obree, with Rominger's 55.291 standing for almost 2 years before Boardman, in the Superman position on a custom Eddy Merckx, did an amazing 56.375 kilometers in Manchester, UK, on September 7, 1996.
The UCI wasn't happy to see the record ratcheted up by what it considered to be improved equipment -- the aero frames, wheels, and positions -- rather than stronger riders. So in 2000, they ruled that Boardman's record, and those of Obree, Indurain, and Rominger, were no longer Hour Records, but the “Best Human Effort,” and that Eddy Merckx had ridden the last “pure” hour, and therefore reinstated Merckx's 49.431 as the “Athlete's Hour Record.”
Boardman, confused about the rules, scheduled a session at the Manchester velodrome believing he would automatically set a new hour record by riding a standard frame without aero wheels to any distance, but was informed he had to beat Merckx's distance, which he did, by just 10 meters, at 49.441 kilometers, in October 2000. His record was only beaten last July, by Ondrej Sosenka in Moscow, at 49.700 kilometers.
Obree also took the 1993 and 1995 world title in the pursuit.
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Thank you for this thread. Thank you for your comment: "the greatest bike racer of all time, Eddy Merckx..."
Obviously, "Le Cannibale", as he was called in France, is peerless, unmatchable, and although he was himself involved in a few doping scandals of his own, he will always hold a very special place in my personal "Greatests of all Times Hall of Fame". 1972, Merckx beats the hour record in Mexico, but that was just one of the multitude of his achievements this year; in 1972 he "ate away" the competition in the following races:
Tour d'Italie, Tour de France, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Milan-San Remo, Tour de Lombardie, Flèche Wallonne, GP de l'Escaut-Schoten, Flèche Brabançonne, Montjuich, Tour d'Emilie, Tour du Piémont.
Season after season (starting in March) Eddy did them all in stride, thus exposing himself to controls (granted, more lenient back then) year around. Quite hard to compare this champion to the likes of Indurain or Armstrong, who were "one race only" riders, winter-training in some obscure and remote places with secretive schedules to keep the WADA inspectors at bay,
Eddy Merckx, it's 5 Tour de france 5 Giro 1 Vuelta and 3 Paris-Roubaix. Any question ?
You see Mr Steel I don't mean to sound like an old fart but those were times where champions were gaining the respect of the fans, the media and their fellow riders alike with very little contrversy. I've always thought that the hour on a carbon framed, lenticular wheel, profiled helmet and months of training in wind tunnel was bogus, a sham. Merckx approach 50k/h 34 years ago on my drandpa's bike with spoke wheels and a fabric hat on. Boardman and Sosenka are two fly turds in the history of the sport; He will never be equalled.
Posted by: Francois Chicoree at Aug 15, 2006 5:24:50 PM
Francois, I couldn't resist the Obree story. I got into the sport in the Lemond era, when I was in college, and Moser had only just set the record.
I remember the buzz about Obree, and the constant see-saw battle back and forth, as a combination of high-tech arms race and spectacle, as the cycling press traded in rumors on who would try to break the record next, and what new equipment or methods they were working on. I sort of miss that excitement now that the record has sort of been marginalized.
As always, I can see both sides of every question, and I agree that it's not fair to compare Boardman on the superbike to Merckx on the fairly standard Colnago. But Boardman went back to beat Merckx on a standard spoked wheel bike, per UCI rules, so how can you invalidate that ride?
Sosenka I agree is a little dubious, but again, he rode a UCI-legal frame and wheels; how can we deny that he's a legitimate record holder?
It seems like you're building a situation where the only way to best the record is to borrow Merckx's actual bike (whether it fits or not) -- and his fabric hat -- and then go beat the record in Mexico City.
Eddy's the greatest so far, but it's a shame to close off the possibility of somebody even greater ever coming along.
Posted by: Frank at Aug 15, 2006 6:01:05 PM
I didn't really mean to diminish in the accomplishment of Boardman or Sosenka on the Hour; what they did seems quite respectable considering that it was done going back to the fundamentals of the sport that we both love. What I meant to say was that the Hour in Mexico was only one of the many feats that Merckx would enjoy this particular year. Moreover it would be interesting to compare how this three riders prepared to finally beat this record (altitude tent and what else ??? for Boardman, remember we're in right in the middle of the EPO era). E M was undoubtdly the more casual, "matter-of-factly" of the 3. And in the end, Boardman beats Eddy's record by 10 meters, and Sosenko (who's that guy anyway ?) by + or - 250 meters (2 and 1/2 football field). Then you remember what kind of a racer Boardman was ? Prologue, 1st CLM (time trial) of the tour and come the Pyrenees: good bye ladies and gentlemen ! Merckx was giving you a run for your money anywhere, he could whip some ass in the mountain - Van Impe, Ocana or Zoetemelk could relate - or in time trials; nobody could resist, he was ruthless. He won 34 stages of the TDF in his 5 victories. Armstrong won 25 stages in 7 V's.
I guess that's what I meant when I wrote that Boardman is insignificant in this sport. He was not an all around athlete, he should have stuck to pursuit racing, he had nothing to do in the TDF. No more than a Mario Cippolini in my opinion.
Funny also that I lost interest in the Tour precisely when yours picked up. I think LeMond was a beautiful champ.
Posted by: Francois Chicoree at Aug 15, 2006 9:30:56 PM
Then I think we're in complete agreement -- the thing that made Merckx special was that, if you were racing bikes, over any terrain, with any rules, he would find a way to win.
But while the champions create the sport's outline, it's the specialists and domestiques who give it color, and I'm fascinated by the guys who can rock the TTs, like Boardman or Zabriskie, but suffer in the mountains, or vice versa. That it's so incredibly hard to do it all well is Merckx's magic.
And part of why I wanted to point out the Obree movie is to point out the death of the hour record. Once considered a crowning achievement for a champion as he faced retirement, an entire generation of TT specialists have ignored the hour.
What could Ullrich or Armstrong have done in the hour? We'll likely never know.
Sosenko's record was like news from the moon -- nobody seemed to know he was pursuing the record, or even who he was.
Posted by: TdFblog's Frank at Aug 15, 2006 10:57:56 PM
Actually, the suggestion that future aspirants use Merckx's original bike, while not literally practicable, may be the right one in spirit. You want the hour record to be and remain meaningful, and to make it all about the rider, not about improvements in technology. So why not produce a decently large set of bikes in a reasonable range of sizes, all based on well-defined and standardized technology (which could be judged as "close" to the technology available to Merckx and his generation - you have to fix some time point at which to "freeze" the technology, obviously), and require all future aspirants to the "classic" hour record use one of those? They could adjust the bike in any of the standard ways (seat and handlebar height, etc.), but no other modifications would be allowed. One would also have to disallow skinsuits and high-tech helmets - basically, you can wear bike shorts, a T-shirt or 70s-style jersey, and 70s-style shoes. (The UCI could provide any or all of these, as well). Since it's a one-person track event, helmets can be dispensed with. Riders could construct or buy their own training bikes of the same kind as the "official" bikes, but would only be allowed to borrow the latter for training under the eyes of UCI officials. Keep it simple, keep it pure.
I have no problem with a separate wide-open hour record which allows pretty much any technology, as long it fits some reasonable definition of "human-powered bicycle" - heck, I don't even care so much about the "bi" - as long it's wheeled and touches the ground at all times, fine. This would be the human-powered version of the land speed record, which on the non-human-powered side has always been a celebration of technological innovation. But for historical reasons, it's important to find some way to standardize and preserve the meaningfulness of the classic hour record at the same time.
Posted by: ewmayer at Aug 16, 2006 12:42:55 PM
Yeah, split it up into two divisions: the "classic hour" TT using the Eddy specs, and the "modern hour" TT using all the technological advancements possible. It's apples and oranges, but both would be interesting.
Posted by: Steve at Aug 16, 2006 4:40:40 PM
Lots of good reviews of The Flying Scotsman have followed including http://www.filmstalker.co.uk/archives/2006/08/the_flying_scotsman.html which paints a very different picture of the film which has also been described as possibly the best British cycling movie ever on the BBC website. This link http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/filmnetwork/eiff to the BBC should allow you to get an impression of just how good the cycling scenes are!
Posted by: Graeme at Aug 20, 2006 5:51:45 PM