Hour record

Most successful attempts

Best British Performances


One glance at the palmarès presented below should convince anyone that a discssion of the Hour record belongs on a site primarily concerned with road racing. For of track events, the hour record uniquely seems always to fascinate the best riders of each generation: and I am sure that for everyone who knows the current holder of the world 4km record, there are ten who could name the holder of the hour - though in fact they are both the same rider.

The record falls neatly into four stages:

Henri Desgrange, a legal clerk from Paris, was the first holder of the record, giving, so he said, something for the others to aim at. Of course, Desgrange was to go on to greater fame as the originator of the Tour de France, but his record held for just over a year until improved by Jules Dubois. Thereafter it rose in fits and starts; sometimes leaping ahead (as during the great rivalry between Marcel Berthet and Oscar Egg); at other times stagnating for years at a time (Egg's final record stood for 19 years). Of these early holders there is only one truly great name, that of Lucien Petit-Breton, though many of the other holders had some success on the road also.

Phase two of the record began during the height of the war when Fausto Coppi broke the record of Maurice Archambaud by a scant 31 metres - the smallest breaking of the record until the year 2000 - of which more anon. News of Coppi's record - which can hardly have been achieved under ideal circumstances, with air raids over Milan a frequent occurrence - only leaked out slowly. Moreover, in 1942 Coppi was relatively unknown outside Italy, and at that stage of his career had neither won a classic nor even raced in France. Thus there were those who initially doubted that Archambaud's record had been taken. Yet despite this miniscule beating, it was to be 14 years before Coppi's record was beaten. By the early 'fifties, such was Coppi's reputation that it was said that the record was unbeatable: not because of the distance, but because of the holder. As it was, it took another rider on the verge of greatness to break the record: Jacques Anquetil. Thereafter the spell was lifted, and another flurry of record breaking ensued. Anquetil himself "broke" the record again in 1967, but in the confusion at the end of the hour, the correct drug-testing protocols were not followed and the record was never ratified. Fortunately, his distance was soon bettered, and then taken to a new level again by Ole Ritter, the first rider to take the record at altitude since Willie Hamilton in 1898. Finally, this second phase of record breaking was capped by the great Eddy Merckx, who broke the record at the end of his magnificent 1972 season, and promptly said that it had been the hardest event he had ever ridden.

Once again the record went into abeyance. A lesser rider could surely not hope to beat Merckx at his peak, whereas for the great riders, there was too much at stake to attempt the record and fail. Thus it was not until 1984 that the record was successfully broken. The rider was Francesco Moser, benefitting from all that modern science could bring in terms of aerodynamics and modern training methods. Not only did Moser succeed in pushing the record past 50 kilometres for the first time, but he found it so easy that he attacked the record - successfully - again four days later. The modern technological era of record breaking had arrived, making comparisons between holders even more fraught than usual.

Somewhat surprisingly, Moser's record also had the effect of scaring off the opposition - names like Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon are notable by their absence from this list - and it took the Scottish maverick Graeme Obree to beat the record on a bike with a revolutionary position of his own devising. Remarkably, Obree had tried - and failed - to break the record on the previous day, falling less than 1kilometre short. "A good effort" thought the assembled hacks, as they packed up to leave, and Obree practically had to beg the officials to stay in order to witness his attempt the next day - which was successful! He was an instant megastar, fêted across Europe for his weird ideas. (What is a little sad, however, is that in the euphoria over his home-built bike, his athletic prowess got somehow ignored).

One rider who wasn't cheering Obree on was Chris Boardman, destined to be one of the great names in the hour record, for Obree's ride must have distracted Boardman's concentration. A lot was at stake, for Boardman had planned his record at Bordeaux to coincide with a Tour de France stage finish. In front of a few hundred French schoolchildren (and your intrepid scribe, on the way back from a cycling holiday in the Pyrenees!), Boardman broke Obree's record: later in the day he shared a podium with a frankly rather bemused Miguel Indurain. Another flurry of record breaking took place: Obree again, then a conservative ride from Indurain to pass 53 kilometres, then two rides in almost total secrecy from Toni Rominger. Indurain tried - and failed - to break the record again in Colombia after the 1995 Worlds: pressure from his manager to perform seems likely to have driven him to retire the next year. Finally the "technological" records were culminated by the quite extraordinary ride of Chris Boardman in Manchester, 1996: 56.375 kilometres, or about 35 miles per hour. This record came a few days after he had beaten the 4 kilometre record - and won the world title - with a ride of 4'11.114". At that stage in his career, Boardman was on fire.

Finally, to the modern era of the "Athlete's Hour". Worried that the athletic aspects of cycling were being overshadowed by the technological, the UCI - prompted by Boardman - suggested a new set of rules for bicyles, equating roughly to a "Merckx-era" bike. Tubes had to be round; rims shallower than a 2cm depth; at least 16 spoke wheels; no aero helmets, or tribars. Boardman himself also wanted all rides to be at less than 600 metres of altitude, but this was not written into the final rules. Thus it was that in the twilight of his career, Chris Boardman set off one more time on the "ride to nowehere", this time during an afternoon session of the 2000 World Championships. The pressure to succeed was immense, as he set off in front of several thousand partisan spectators. Initially, all went well as he steadily gained time on his schedule, to reach a maximum advance of around 200 metres after 25 minutes. Thereafter, he started to fall back, until with just three minutes to go, he was a full 40 metres behind Merckx. Meanwhile, the crowd was close to hysteria, as Boardman dragged every last morsel of energy from his body. When the gun fired, the distance was revealed to be 49.441 kilomtres: just 10 metres up on Merckx, but 10 metres that had erased the memories of Boardman's troubled final years of his career - and even, for once, put cycling's troubled present into the background for a little while.

Next stop 50 kilomtres: perhaps Lance Armstrong ...


The Hour Record 1893 - 2000

Date Holder Venue Distance
11 May 1893 Henri Desgrange Buffalo, Paris 35.325 kilometres
31 Oct 1894 Jules Dubois Buffalo, Paris 38.220
30 Jul 1897 Oscar Van Den Eynde Vincennes, Paris 39.240
03 Jul 1898 Willie Hamilton Denver, USA 40.781
24 Aug 1905 Lucien Petit-Breton Buffalo, Paris 41.110
20 Jun 1907 Marcel Berthet Paris 41.520
22 Aug 1912 Oscar Egg Paris 42.122
07 Aug 1913 Marcel Berthet Paris 42.741
21 Aug 1913 Oscar Egg Paris 43.525
20 Sep 1913 Marcel Berthet Paris 43.775
18 Aug 1914 Oscar Egg Paris 44.247
25 Aug 1933 Jan Van Hout Roermond 44.588
28 Sep 1933 Maurice Richard St. Trond, Belgium 44.777
31 Oct 1935 Giuseppe Olmo Vigorelli, Milan 45.090
14 Oct 1936 Maurice Richard Vigorelli, Milan 45.325
29 Sep 1937 Frans Slaats Vigorelli, Milan 45.485
03 Nov 1937 Maurice Archambaud Vigorelli, Milan 45.767
07 Nov 1942 Fausto Coppi Vigorelli, Milan 45.798
29 Jun 1956 Jacques Anquetil Vigorelli, Milan 46.159
19 Sep 1956 Ercole Baldini Vigorelli, Milan 46.394
18 Sep 1957 Roger Rivière Vigorelli, Milan 46.923
23 Sep 1959 Roger Rivière Vigorelli, Milan 47.347
30 Oct 1967 Ferdi Bracke Olympic Velodrome, Rome 48.093
10 Oct 1968 Ole Ritter Mexico City 48.653
25 Oct 1972 Eddy Merckx Mexico City 49.431
19 Jan 1984 Francesco Moser Mexico City 50.808
23 Jan 1984 Francesco Moser Mexico City 51.151
17 Jul 1993 Graeme Obree Hamar, Norway 51.596
23 Jul 1993 Chris Boardman Velodrome du Lac, Bordeaux 52.270
27 Apr 1994 Graeme Obree Velodrome du Lac, Bordeaux 52.713
02 Sep 1994 Miguel Indurain Velodrome du Lac, Bordeaux 53.040
22 Oct 1994 Toni Rominger Velodrome du Lac, Bordeaux 53.832
05 Nov 1994 Toni Rominger Velodrome du Lac, Bordeaux 55.291
07 Sep 1996 Chris Boardman Manchester, UK 56.375

The "Athlete's" Hour Record 2000 - date

27 Oct 2000 Chris Boardman Manchester, UK 49.441 (See notes)

Notes: The apparent decline between Boardman's 1996 and 2000 records is caused by a major rule change which saw the UCI revert to "Merckx era" bikes, creating the so-called "Athlete's Hour" in the process. Thus Boardman's 3rd record is comparable with Merckx's, though Merckx rode at altitude while Boardman rode at sea level.