A seasonal cold is keeping me pretty much off the bike this weekend so here’s another book review for you..
Racing against the clock in any form of time trial is a Race of Truth. How far? How fast? Nothing else matters. Time trialling on the track is an even purer Test. Stripped bare of all the issues of weather, terrain and surface it reduces the contest to just Man and Machine. And there is no greater test of Man and Machine than The Hour – a increasingly mythologised undertaking that pits each new challenger against the greats of the sport who have held the record through the decades. Michael Hutchinson, in his 2007 book (Yellow Jersey Press. £8.99) detailing his own own attempt at the record notes that, in this way, he able to race against Coppi, even from beyond the grave.
The Hour holds a special place in the history of British cycling for though no Brit troubled the record for the first 100 years of its existence, two men (who became heavyweights of the sport because of their endeavours in The Hour) fought both Time and each other over a series of races in the 1990’s to take the record to a place no other seemingly could touch. Relatively unknown amateurs, Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman, first resurrected worldwide interest in The Hour and then alternately elevated it by such degrees and by such innovatively ground-breaking means that the governing body drastically redrew the contest rules, effectively wiping off 30 years of progress, in order to restore the title to a more becoming cyclist. Of course, a few years later, Boardman turned back the clock those 30 years and capped a by then glittering career by breaking the record under the new hyper restrictive rules. It required such an extreme effort that, like Steve Redgrave after his fourth rowing gold, he got off his bike and immediately announced his retirement. Unlike Sir Steve, Boardman stuck to his decision, as his work was undeniably done.
Hutchinson does not take on The Hour as some kind of Louis Theroux style challenge in order to write a funny book. He takes it on to beat Boardman’s 2000 ‘Athelete’s Record’ of 49.441km and he is eminently qualified to try. A multiple national time trial champion at 25 and 50 miles he has the body and mind for riding very far, very fast. His tale of his quest to train for and organise the attempt on the record is very funny though, which only adds to the book’s appeal. He mixes rich cycling history with the banal details of power-metered track sessions in equal measure. He contrasts the outrageousness of Coppi and Anquetil’s private lives with his own tales of traffic jams on the M6 and dodgy chicken sandwiches. He highlights the difference in Merckx’s Pelligotti built machine and the frame he has to have knocked up over a weekend in Croydon. And yet he remains resolutely on course. He records each triumph and disaster of his own personal journey alongside the highs and lows of the great figures who have gone before him. It makes for a balanced read that is, unlike the aforementioned chicken sandwich, eminently digestible.
Like Boardman, Obree is extensively documented in the book and the coolness of Boardman’s scientific outlook is set against the outwardly chaotic, inwardly intuitive approach of the man who built his record breaking bike at home from washing machine parts. (Please note that all descriptions of Obree are required by the weight of tradition to include specific mention of this). His free thinking was ultimately the catalyst for both the men to go further than they (and anyone else) had gone before and, though it is Boardman who holds the outright record (the one which is no longer contested), Obree remains the most enigmatic character in the story. At 50 years old now, he is still building unusual bikes and breaking records with them.
Hutchinson came to cycling late. He trained as a lawyer and got his PhD before falling into professional cycling almost by accident, when the father of a new girlfriend lent him one. He quickly realised that he was better than most and, having become disillusioned with his original career, turned pro on the basis of a well timed phone call. His time in academia shows in his writing though – not through the use of big words or unnecessary theorising but by being a very considered piece of work that gets right to heart of the matter whilst acknowledging and including all the other relevant surrounding material. He also knows the value of including the odd joke or two amongst the drier parts. A similar contextual mix of the historical and the personal would be beneficial to many sporting biographies which have a tendency to get too immersed in the principal character, making them sadly one dimensional. So whilst much of this is Hutch’s story it is so much more than that. It is the story of The Hour in all its forms and this particular rendering, though a few years old now, is definitely worth 3 or 4 of your own spent reading it.
One gripe – no photos! Come on – this subject is well documented and the next edition deserves a few at the very least.