There has been a lot of talk, and great deal more speculation, recently about The Hour; cycling’s supposed Blue Riband event, which has lain dormant for a few years, bogged down by anachronistic rules and the weight of history. The record has been bettered once since Chris Boardman’s definitive ride of 2000, but by such a large margin (and by a rider with more doping positives than wins on his palmares) that there is a tangible level of discomfort to be felt when it is discussed. Cycling is well versed in the arts of cynicism these days and the general feeling is that The Hour is in need of new life and a new, credible record holder.
Fabian Cancellara’s claim last month that he will make an attempt on The Hour in 2014 potentially supplies both those needs. His talent and credibility are enough to appease even the most strident of cynics that his is a name worthy of the event and it’s undoubtedly glittering history. More intriguingly perhaps, his confirmation of an attempt at this stage in the season is creating ripples of interest across the sport, with other big names quickly being linked to making a challenge next year. The record has traditionally seen flurries of attempts followed by years of inactivity so the hope (and, in some quarters, the expectation) is that Cancellara will kickstart a new cycle of competition. Bradley Wiggins and World Time Trial champion Tony Martin are the two names at the head of everyone’s fantasy Battle for the Hour. Each has the capability and the stature required but do either have Cancellara’s cojones to publicly commit to an attempt at this early stage?
Martin has said he could be tempted, whilst Wiggins’ camp has not made a firm denial – which coming from Sky’s media-controlled world is being taken as a tacit “possibly”. Martin’s attempt seems to hinge on both Cancellara and Wiggins having a crack. It’s almost as though he wants them to get their attempts out of the way before he wipes the floor with both of them and puts the whole shooting match back to bed for another couple of decades.
2014 would look to be the perfect time for a challenge by one of these three. Midway through the Olympic cycle, and with all three men looking for fresh challenges to adorn already exceptional careers it makes sense in terms of both timing and motivation. With Grand Tour victories out of reach for two of the riders, The Hour represents the best chance for Cancellara and Martin to most fully place their names alongside those of Coppi, Anquetil and Merckx. Wiggins may instead see a third defining moment – a bringing together of his track experience and road endurance to cement his place as the most successfully diverse rider of the last 40 years.
At 28, Martin has more time on his side – Cancellara is 4 years his senior with Wiggins another year older again. He has publicly said that a fourth Time Trial title and Rio 2016 are bigger priorities but he can afford to wait. His mammoth solo break at the Vuelta and the fact that his solo ride at the Time Trial World Championship would have placed him in 6th place in the Team standing shows the sheer strength and speed that the German can find and maintain.
Wiggins has been as characteristically silent on this subject as he has been on everything else this year. Were the record not shackled to the Merckx era technologies, having the combined weight and expertise of Sky and British Cycling behind him would surely make him the clear favourite. But not being able to do it ‘on his terms’ may count against the most outwardly emotionally fragile of the three.
And this is maybe where Cancellara finds some level of advantage over the others who, on paper at least, would appear to have an edge over the Swiss rider. A winner of numerous brutal Classics and Monuments he clearly has a drive and constitution that can cope with adversity better than the others. He can dig hellishly deep and in the dying laps of The Hour that may count for far more than leg speed or position if (and it’s a huge ‘if’) the previous 58 minutes have gone to plan.
Merckx’s 1972 benchmark was set at altitude in the open air velodrome of Mexico City. Boardman and Sosenka bettered that indoors at sea level tracks. Given the hugely constraining rules now placed on the record by the UCI it seems likely that new attempts by the weel-funded superstars of the sport will seek every advantage that they can muster. Given the incredible times seen at the Track World Cup meeting in Aguacalientes recently, it seems logical that at least one of the three possible attempts would seek to a return to Mexico but, for now, Manchester and London are being talked about more as more likely venues due to the extended period needed to acclimatise to the high altitude for such a massive effort. This week Cancellara has ruled out an attempt at altitude for this very reason but one suspects that Wiggins, if he commits to it, would clear his schedule in order to allow six weeks in the thin air.
My prediction? Cancellara to just pip the current record in his attempt this coming year. Wiggins to pass over the chance and Martin to extend it by some distance a year in 2015. I think the real ‘battle’ will start afterwards to get the UCI to drop the ridiculous charade of chaining the attempt to classic technology and to get the race back where it belongs. At the heart of current cycle racing, supported by leading teams, federations and technologists. Now that would really create some interest.