The History of Cycling's Greatest Record

It used to be magic. The record rubbed elbows with the 100-meter dash and the mile run. People watched on television and marveled at the super-human feat. And if you saw the record broken—and the pain and suffering that it took to accomplish it—you were left certain that no one would ever break it again.

The Hour record for cycling is simple. Ride yourself into the ground for one hour and see how much pain you can tolerate. When it's over, measure the distance.

American Frank Dodds, who rode 16.47 miles on a penny-farthing, recorded the first record in 1876. While that might not sound too impressive today, consider that a penny-farthing is a silly looking high-wheeled bicycle equipped with a gigantic front wheel and a rear wheel the size of a basketball.

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Since 1920, each of the sport's greats attempted their hand at becoming the fastest cyclist in the world. From Jacques Anquetil to Fausto Coppi, you were not a true champion until you put a fixed-gear track bike in the velodrome and suffered for 60 minutes.

The height of the record's popularity came in 1972 when Eddy Merckx, the most accomplished cyclist in history, set a record of 30.71 miles that stood for 12 years. When asked about the effort, Merckx, known for his confidence and brashness, spoke with the humility of a man who'd been to war.

"The hour record demands total effort, permanent and intense, one that's not possible to compare to any other. I will never try it again," he said.

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But somewhere along the line, the truth of the Hour record was lost.

In 1984, Francesco Moser of Italy broke the record with a ride of 31.78 miles with the help of a rear disc wheel, beating Merckx by over a mile. The new record was met with controversy.

Much of the debate centered around Merckx and Moser as competitors. Merckx pummeled Moser in nearly every head-to-head race they'd competed in. For many, it was the aerodynamic bike and the disc wheel that set the record, not the efforts of the man himself. Of those disgusted, Merckx was at the top of the list.

"For the first time in the history of the Hour record," Merckx said, "The weaker man has beaten the stronger."

The invention of time trial bars and aero helmets, all of which were unavailable to Merckx, gave competitors an advantage. The argument was that the record should reflect skill, strength and stamina—not aerodynamic innovations.

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