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The Hour, by Michael Hutchinson

Thehourmichaelhutchinson_mediumTitle: The Hour: Sporting Immortality The Hard Way
Author: Michael Hutchinson
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Year: 2006
Pages: 282
Order: Random House
What it is: A story of true grit from a plucky Brit who decides he has the right stuff and can crack the Hour record.
Strengths: An entertaining overview of the history of the Hour record. Hutchinson has a wry sense of humour, refusing to take things too seriously and the story of his own first attempt at the record is told with a good sense for the ridiculous.
Weaknesses: It's very hard to take the author's own attempt on the Hour record seriously. But I think that that's partly intentional.

Ask a cyclist what the sport's Blue Riband event is and you'll get all sort of silly answers. The individual pursuit. The altitude kilometre. The Ronde. Ask a non-cyclist and you'll get the only race they ever hear about: the Tour. Ask Michael Hutchinson and he'll probably tell you it's the Hour record. Here's a quick and simple way of testing that one: how many of you can name the current holder of the Hour record? Or even hazard a guess as to what the record stands at?

The Hour then is probably not the sport's Blue Riband event. But is the Hour record even important? Realistically, it should matter. It's one man, one bike and one hour of effort. Mental as well as physical effort. But ... well it's a record that's been devalued down the years by doping, calling into question the purity of the physical and mental effort required. Fausto Coppi dosed up on Stimul for his ride. Jacques Anquetil, well just his name is enough. Roger Rivière, he admitted he used amphetamines. Francesco Moser, we didn't need to wait fifteen years for him to confess to blood doping, we only had to look at his medical team, lead by Francesco Conconi. Tony Rominger, well he had Conconi's protégé Michele Ferrari pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Nor has the Hour's status been helped much by the UCI. In 2000 it decided to do a Dallas on the Hour record. Hein Verbruugen stepped out of the shower one morning (now there's a thought you don't want to be thinking) and pressed the reset button. As far as the Hour record was concerned, all tilts at it after 1972 simply didn't happen. Nine rides which, between them, had added nearly seven kilometres to the record, were air-brushed from history. It was the Hour's Year Zero.

How about we look at the people who've held the record - shouldn't the Hour only be achievable by the best of the best? You'd think so, but consider this: only seven Grand Tour winners have ever held the record. If you want to be Tour-centric about things, only five men who have stood on the top step of Tour de France's podium have ever held the Hour record: Lucian Petit-Breton; Fausto Coppi; Jacques Anquetil; Eddy Merckx; and Miguel Induráin. Before you think that's a roll-call of honour, remember there's another twenty names on the roll with them. Yes, some of the best of the best have held the Hour. But there's an awful lot of journeymen riders who've held it too. Jules Dubois, Jan Van Hout, Ole Ritter, would we even remember them if they hadn't once held the Hour record?

So why is the Hour considered to be important then? Well, consider who the first man to set it was: none other than the master mythologiser himself,  Henri Desgrange. Well, actually, as you might expect where Desgrange is concerned, he wasn't actually the first. His ride - 1893, thirty-five kilometres odd - was simply the first to be recognised by the sport's international governing body (the International Cycling Association, which only came into being in 1893, and became the UCI in 1900). There are Hour rides from before Desgrange's - such as James Moore's 1873 ride in Wolverhampton, in which he rode twenty-three kilometres on a high-wheeler - but, well, as far as the keepers of the stats are concerned, they simply didn't happen. Cycling's history is more air-brushed than your typical cover of Cosmo.

With Desgrange having set the 'first' Hour record, cycling media like L'Equipe (and its spiritual predecessor, L'Auto) have obviously had a stake in keeping the Hour's status alive down through the years (there was also a stake in the form of the Buffalo track in Paris, where all the pre-1933 records had been set - that was owned by Desgrange). And - if you'll excuse my cynicism - the Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree years mean the British media also has some investment in burnishing the Hour's status. If only there'd been an American Hour-man Sports Illustrated might have taken an interest in it. Hang on a mo, there was one, wasn't there? Back in '98. Oh, hang on, that's 1898. It's no wonder you've never heard of William Hamilton.

So that's the Hour record for you. Set by dopers and journeymen, messed about with by the UCI and kept alive only by those with a stake in it. It really is a load of old rubbish, isn't? Well, no, it's not. You see, despite all the criticism I can heap on the Hour, I'm still a bit impressed by it. The Hour is part of our sport's history. The stories that have grown up around it are what makes it matter even today. For sure, maybe not as much as it used to matter. But we still hold an affection for it, an affection that's hard to shake.

Consider what happened when the UCI pressed the reset button. They may have wanted us to forget those nine rides from five men in twelve years, but we don't forget. We still talk of Francesco Moser beating Eddy Merckx's record twice in one weekend in 1984. We still talk of the ding-dong battles between Obree and Boardman and the different approaches they had to taking on the challenge. Occasionally someone will even talk of the rides put in by Miguel Induráin (Indy was press-ganged into tackling the record) or Tony Rominger (in the space of a fortnight, Swiss Tony added more than two-and-a-quarter kilometres to the record). Air-brushing history simply doesn't work.

That journeymen riders have beaten the Hour hardly seems to matter, not really, not when you consider the legacy they left: stories. Consider Marcel Berthet and Oscar Egg. Between 1912 and 1914 they traded Hours and, with l'Auto fanning the polemica, packed out the Buffalo for their various rides. Berthet had pushed Petit-Breton's record out to just over forty-one-and-a-half kilometres in 1907. Egg came along in 1912 and added eighty-four metres to record. Through 1913 the pair traded the record three times, adding another fourteen-hundred metres to the distance, with Berthet holding the record at the end of the year. Egg came back in 1914, sticking another forty-seven metres onto the record. War stopped Berthet getting a response in.

Egg and Berthet's fun was almost spoiled by a wise-guy called Richard Weise, who seemed to set a new record in 1913 riding in Berlin. Egg's response was to prove that the Buffalo track was longer than people thought and therefore his and Berthet's rides had been underestimated. It may not be cricket, resorting to a measuring tape, but it was enough to wipe the smile off Weise's face.

After the war, there wasn't as much interest in the Hour. Alfredo Binda tried and failed in 1929. Maurice Archambaud set a new record in Algeria in 1932, but he didn't have enough blazers in attendance for it to be ratified. The following year, Jan Van Hout beat Egg's record at a track in the Netherlands. Egg's response? To take out his tape measure again and try to prove that the Dutch track was short. Talk about pedantry. It took a long time for the UCI to decide whether Van Hout had or hadn't beaten Egg's record but the argument was rendered academic when a friend of Egg's, Maurice Richard, set a new record, just four days after Van Hout's ride.

You see, this is something about the Hour: just about every ride comes with a story. You've got Coppi setting his record in the Vigorelli in between attempts by the RAF to flatten Milan. You've Roger Riviére riding to a new record in 1958 on a deflating tyre. You've got Merckx's ride in 1972, which he said was so hard on him he hadn't been able to sit down for four days.

And a story is just what The Hour is. It's the story of Michael Hutchinson, a journeyman British time trialist, a big fish in the small pond of the British cycling scene, who got it into his head one day that he had what it took to add his name to the Hour's roll of honour. Does that offend you in any way, that a guy whose only claim to fame was going fast on some of Britain's code-named dragstrip time trial courses could think he was up there with Coppi and Anquetil and Merckx? If it does, then you too have bought into the magic of the Hour.

Hutchinson describes his attempt on the record in 2003 thus:

"It was pretty much, despite my best intentions, an exercise in how not to do it. In fact, with suitable allowances, it was an exercise in how not to do pretty much anything. A failure to make sure things wouldn't go wrong, followed by the inability to cope when they did, and the inability to learn from the experience. Lack of foresight, followed by panic, followed almost immediately by lack of hindsight."

There was something almost whimsical about the whole thing. The bike he was due to ride his record attempt on arrived just a week before his ride: it didn't conform to the UCI's frame guidelines. Not the complicated ones about angles and the like, we're talking the obvious one about round tubing, the sort you can spot whether you're complying with or not without even putting your glasses on. Someone in Roberts knocked him up a new frame over a weekend, which he received two days before his ride. Trying to assemble the bike, the forks wouldn't fit. On the night of his ride, the UCI commissaire pointed out that the rules don't allow the power-cranks he had fitted.

They're just some of the technological mis-steps. Hutchinson's other preparation was a little haphazard too. He didn't even get as far as riding twenty minutes at record pace in the build up to his attempt. His whole belief that he was up to the task seems to be based on his status as a UK time trial champion and faith in numbers, particularly wattage. He knew what wattage he could put out and calculated he could hit the magic number needed to ride forty-nine-plus kilometres in an hour, which is where the record stood in 2003. But being able to beat the Hour on paper is one thing. Being able to beat it on the track is something else altogether.

The Hour then is a book which - as well as being as history of the Hour itself - is about failure. It's a comedy of errors, a celebration of amateurism. I don't know why, but I tend to think there's something quintessentially British about that. It's that whole Eddie the Eagle thing. But there's a certain falseness to this story also. You see, Hutchinson actually had two tilts at the Hour, about ten months apart.

This second ride we only discover two pages before The Hour's close. Preparation for this seems to have been less chaotic than the first but it's only the chaos of the first attempt Hutchinson writes about. The second attempt also ends in failure but was clearly much more professional - in preparation he actually rode three quarters of an hour at record pace. No Eddie the Eagle he. Something in me feels disappointed that Hutchinson buried this story the way he did.

As for the telling of the tale, well, Hutchinson is an entertaining writer, quick with a quip, and takes a pretty light tone throughout the book. The Hour is more in the mould of John Deering's Team On The Run than the Bradley Wiggins autobiography or either of Richard Moore's two takes on the Chris Hoy story. It's mostly a fun and enjoyable read, with Hutchinson's own travails being off-set by journeys through the history of the Hour. On the whole, it's more French Revolutions than The Flying Scotsman.

* * * * *

You'll find an interview with Michael Hutchinson on the Cafe Bookshelf.