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The Race Against Time, by Edward Pickering

Edward Pickering's The Race Against Time is the story of the rivalry between two British cyclists, Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman. At the heart of that rivalry is the story of the Hour record.

Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman
Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman
Getty Images
The Race Against Times, by Edward Pickering

Title: The Race Against Time
Author: Edward Pickering
Publisher: Bantam Press
Year: 2013
Pages: 314
Order: Random House
What it is: The story of the rivalry between Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman and of a glorious period in the history of the Hour record.
Strengths: Pickering brings a fresh perspective to the telling of the tale and strips away some of the myths that surround two riders who have become, in Britain, living legends.
Weaknesses: The early years of the rivalry, when the two are time trialling up and down anonymous drag strips, is a bit of a slog but once it clicks into gear the rest of the tale flies past.

The Hour record is something we've talked about before here on the Café Bookshelf. The brief version of that story is that it's a record that falls in and out of favour over the generations but is always hanging over the sport as one of the real measures of a true champion. Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil have both left their mark on the record. In 1972 Eddy Merckx pushed the distance out to 49.431 kilometres, 560 metres further than Ole Ritter had travelled four years earlier. Ritter came back two years after Merckx to try and take his record back but - as Jørgen Leth's documentary The Impossible Hour shows - that attempt failed. Ritter's failure - and Leth's film of it - added to the myth of Merckx's ride and, as the seventies ticked into the eighties, the Hour became an ever more distant and seemingly impossible target.

Then, in 1983, Francesco Conconi and Francesco Moser hatched an audacious plan to make the impossible possible. Putting together a group of sponsors and a fifty strong team they wiped the slate clean and started from scratch in working out how to beat Merckx's record. Some of this required turning conventional wisdom on its head: whereas Merckx's bike was a product of cycling's size zero obsession - super-lightweight with drilled-out components - Moser's was heavy, the rigidity of the frame considered to be more important than weight. Moser's bike was also at what was then the cutting edge of aerodynamics, low-profile with disc-wheels and bull-horn handlebars. And then, of course, there was the blood: the as-yet-not-banned process of transfusions was used to dial Moser's blood-oxygen levels up to eleven.

Moser didn't just break Merckx's record, he pulverised it: in his first attempt, on Thursday January 19 1984, the Italian pushed the record out to 50.808 metres. Then, four days later, on the Monday, Moser came back and stuffed another 343 metres onto the distance, adding a total of seventeen hundred and twenty metres across the two rides. The Hour had been well and truly put on the shelf, out of reach of all. Or so it seemed.

In the years that followed the Hour sort of just sat there. Bernard Hinault never even considered tackling it. Greg LeMond talked about thinking about tackling it. Stephen Roche has said that he was going to give it a try, before he ruined his knee. But, despite the talk, Moser's record stood firm. As the years passed Moser's record - like Merckx's before it - took on that aura of impossibility.

Then, almost a decade after Moser's ride, out of the cycling backwater that was then Great Britain, Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman used to Hour as their entrée into cycling society. In one week in 1993 the two Britons added 1,119 metres to Moser's record. Between Obree's first successful attempt in July 1993 and Boardman's last in September 1996 the Hour record grew by 5,224 metres.

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Obree and Boardman had come of age in that quaint and strangely British world of time trialling up and down anonymous drag strips. Boardman had the more solid history, rising up through the ranks of schoolboys and juniors, but at senior level the two were close to equal, the one winning championships in England and Wales, the other in Scotland. And, the first time the two went head to head, in the Clash of the Champions twenty-five mile time trial in 1990, it was Obree who got the upper hand and took the victory.

Time trialling on anonymous drag strips, though, was just a means to an end, for both riders. Neither had a long term goal, as such. In some regards you could say the two were very much alike, process orientated personalities. (Where their personalities radically differed was in their approach to the process. Both challenged conventional thinking but Obree was self-reliant, seemed at times to be working on intuition. Boardman was a team player who took a very scientific approach to problem solving.) As process orientated individuals, both Obree and Boardman still needed short term goals. And, after going about as far as they could with national titles and records, each set their eyes on the Hour.

While it was Boardman who first publicly said he was going to target the Hour, Obree had already been breaking the British record, pushing it out to 46.289 kilometres in 1989 and 46.390 in 1990 (about where the Hour record stood in 1956 after Ercole Baldini's ride in the Vigorelli). Fate having thrown the two British would-be Hour-men together in the same era, it was only natural that they would tackle the Hour just one week apart, in July 1993.

Boardman's date (Friday, July 23) and location (Bordeaux) had been chosen to cash in on the Tour de France, which was travelling north to Bordeaux from Orthez, having just exited the Pyrénées: he would be guaranteed to have media interest. Obree, announcing his ride after Boardman, chose to get his retaliation in first and the Scot scheduled his ride for the week before his Scouse rival's record attempt. After a bit of searching for a suitable venue Obree and his backers settled on a newly-built velodrome in Hamar, Norway and set the date for Friday, July 16.

The Race Against Time, by Edward Pickering - Chris Boardman

Part of the public perception of the two rides is that Obree's was somewhat spur of the moment whereas Boardman's was meticulously planned. As Pickering - the ghost in the machine of Robbie McEwen's autobiography - explains in The Race Against Time, things couldn't have been further from the truth. Having ridden to gold and glory at the Barcelona Olympics on a monocoque frame built by Lotus and designed by Mike Burrows, Boardman was perceived to be well endowed financially, but in actual fact ended up funding much of the record attempt out of his own back pocket. Obree, the man who built his bike using bits and bobs and survived on jam sandwiches, was actually the man with the money, his Hour bid backed by a London-based recruitment consultant who liked the sport. And - more evidence of the manner in which fate seemed to be toying with the two - Obree also had a bike built by Mike Burrows whereas Boardman and Lotus were no longer on speaking terms and he ended up riding a French-built Corima Cougar.

The Race Against Time, by Edward Pickering - Graeme Obree

Obree's July 16 record attempt failed. In an earlier test ride Obree had put either 124 or 374 metres onto Moser's record - there may or may not have been a miss-counted lap - but on the day the Scot was 461 metres short of Moser's distance. The blame for that was given to the bike: rather than his own ‘washing machine bike' - Old Faithful, as L'Équipe's Pierre Ballester dubbed it - Obree had been riding a replica of it built by Mike Burrows to satisfy the UCI rules which required there be two of the same bikes. But there were subtle differences between the original and the replica, particularly with regard to the width of the bottom bracket (which, if you recall Lance Armstrong's woes with his F1 project, you'll know is not as minor as it sounds). Obree decided he'd take a Mulligan and come back for another try on the Saturday. This time, riding Old Faithful, he comfortably added 445 metres to Moser's record and carved his name into the record books.

Six days later, riding his French bike and in front of members of the Tour de France's media caravanne in Bordeaux, Boardman put another 674 metres onto Obree's record and his own name on the Hour's roll of honour. After having lain dormant for nine and a half years, the Hour was suddenly alive again.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of his own ride - and, if some are to be believed, to see just how far medical science had evolved - Moser took a new tilt at the Hour in January 1994 (he beat his own record but was short of the new distance). Obree returned in April and took the record back from Boardman, adding 443 metres. Miguel Induráin turned up in September on a beautiful bike built by Pinarello and added 327 metres to the distance. Toni Rominger came along in October and first added 792 metres to the record and then, a fortnight later, stuffed on another 1,459 metres. Induráin tried again in October 1995 and failed, as did Niko Emonds in November and Koen de Kokker in May the following year. Then, come the Autumn, Boardman came back and added an incredible 1,084 metres to Rominger's record, pushing the record out to 56.375 kilometres.

That, in brief, is the story of the Hour. But the Hour is only part of the story of The Race Against Time for Pickering is equally concerned with telling us where Obree and Boardman came from and where their Hour rides took them. Both stories are reasonably well known, from the autobiography Obree wrote, The Flying Scotsman, and from Boardman's training manual, Chris Boardman - The Complete Book of Cycling. (In another quirk of timing, Obree is back with a training manual, The Obree Way, while this time round it's Boardman's turn with the autobiography, his scheduled for a soon-ish release.) But no matter how much you think you know, in cycling there's always more to know and - not being an officially sanctioned version of the tale - Pickering is able to bring distance and perspective to the story, create a version of it that's well worth reading regardless of how much or how little you already think you know.

Given the different post-Hour careers of the two The Race Against Time naturally seems to have more to say about Boardman than about Obree. Obree's bid at a road career fell at the first hurdle (Le Groupement fired him as soon as they realised he wouldn't fit in) while Boardman's time with Roger Legeay at GAN and Crédit Agricole saw him becoming a prologue specialist at tours major and minor. There is simply more to say about Boardman. But it's also true to say, I think, that there is more to know about Boardman than there is about Obree at this stage. The Scot has already laid himself bare in The Flying Scotsman and, rather than simply repeating tales from that, Pickering has sought to expand elements of that story by talking to people who worked with Obree, particularly Vic Haines and Kelvin Trott, two important parts of Obree's entourage in the first Hour bid. Boardman, though, is still something of an unknown, even despite the countless interviews and profiles. Through interviewing Boardman - who, like Obree, spoke to Pickering for the book - and people like Peter Keen, Pickering offers a take on the Englishman that challenges the common perception.

Equally important to note is that Boardman is one of the key links between what happened in British cycling in the 1990s and what is happening in British cycling today. His partner in the pursuit of the Hour, Keen, helped revolutionise cycling in the UK - both at Olympic level and, through the trickle down effect, on the streets too - and Boardman himself was part of the backroom staff in the bangle and bauble winning Olympic set-up. All books about the past are simultaneously also about the present and The Race Against Time is, as well as being about the two individuals and their cycling careers, also a book about the renaissance in the fortunes of the sport in the UK.

Obree is not overlooked in this part of the story. Boardman would have achieved some of his successes even without a Scottish rival spurring him on (Pickering suggests that Obree probably needed a rival like Boardman more than Boardman needed a rival like Obree). But Boardman's lasting triumph, the final Hour record before the UCI hit the reset button, was set using a position pioneered by Obree. That stretched out Superman position was the secret of Boardman's stuffing more than a kilometre onto a record that seemed to have been put on the shelf by a Michele Ferrari-prepared Rominger.

Or was it? This is an area where The Race Against Time surprises by actually daring to ask if was possible for Boardman to add more than a kilometre to Rominger's record - and more than four kilometres to his own distance - simply by a change in venue (Manchester versus Bordeaux) and a change in riding position (Obree's Superman position versus Boardman's original tri-bars).

It is well known at this stage that Hour records have sometimes (often) been achieved with the assistance of banned substances. Given the role of Sabino Padilla in Induráin's successful attempt and Ferrari in Rominger's - and knowing what we now know about cycling in those years - it's hard not to wonder whether (or what) drugs were used by those two. But when it comes to Boardman and Obree that question has always been off the table. Pickering, here, dares to query Boardman's ride, going into the science and using relevant comparisons to try and work out just how much of an advantage the Briton gained from the changes in position and venue. As to the result he gets, let's just say it whets the appetite for Boardman's forthcoming autobiography.

Overall The Race Against Time is a great read about a wonderful episode not just in British cycling, but in world cycling too. Obree and Boardman may have more in common with Hour men of old like Ole Ritter, Ferdinand Bracke or Maurice Achambaud than they do with Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, or Eddy Merckx, but that does not take anything away from what they achieved or the impact the pair had. You only have to look at the riders who succeeded and failed in attempts to emulate them to see that. You only have to look at the way the UCI raced to change the rules governing bicycle technology to see it. You only have to read Pickering's book to see it.

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You'll find an interview with Edward Pickering on the Café Bookshelf.