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A brief history of the women's hour record

I recently watched the last part of Ellen van Dijk’s hour record ride (thanks to GCN for showing it live), and it inspired me to look up some of the history of the women’s hour record. I’ve compiled, as best I can from internet sources, a list of women’s hour record holders and distances, and graphed the distances they rode alongside the men’s hour record.

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Understanding improvements in the hour record is complicated; rule changes and the use of different types of equipment, not to mention different tracks and altitudes, make it somewhat difficult to compare rides across generations. I’ve chosen to completely ignore the "Best Human Effort" era that had no limits on technology and position (think of Obree and Boardman purpose-build bikes and the superman position), which leaves a big hole between 1980 and 2000. The first record holders after the UCI set new rules in 2000 were Chris Boardman and Jeannie Longo, who also held "Best Human Effort" records, so that provides some continuity. The rule change in 2014 (track bikes were allowed) triggered an increase in attempts at the record and a gain of over 5 km in the men’s record and more than 3 km in the women’s record. It will be interesting to see what happens with then men’s record when Filippo Ganna, Wout Van Aert, and Remco Evenepoel take it on. And that’s where I stop discussing the men’s hour record; I’ve included its progression for the purpose of context, but I want to concentrate on the women’s hour record here.

Where to start: Feargal McKay wrote a wonderful and comprehensive history of the first decade of the women’s world hour record right here on PodiumCafe, and anything I added would be superfluous; read his article!

I’m not going to cover all of the incremental improvements in the record since then, but rather try to hit some of the high points.

Louise Roger took the record to 34.684 km (an increase of 5.906 km!) in 1897. The next unpaced hour record wasn’t set until 1911, when Alfonsina Strada (whose nickname was "The Devil in a Dress") took it to 37.192 km. Strada rode bicycles all of her life, regularly raced against men and finished ahead of several of them in the 1918 Giro di Lombardia. She famously rode the Giro d’Italia in 1924, having entered as "Alfonsin". She is the subject of many articles, including two on PodiumCafe: one by Chris Fontecchio, and a review of Ilona Kamps’ book by Feargal McKay.

There were no known successful attempts on the hour record by women cyclists between 1911 and the end of World War II. Lack of interest? The economic situation? But in the late 1940s and early 1950s two French women took things in hand. I’ve included the best ride for each of them on the graph. Éliane Bonneau weighed only 47 kilos. But she was tough; she rode on a flat tire for the last two minutes of her record-setting ride. She became a world champion at the age of 20, and turned her room (in her father’s garage) into a bike shop. I couldn’t find out much about her but there is a nice (though short) article in French. Jeannine Lemaire was a nurse working for the national telephone and mail company. She rode a bicycle to work, and Émile "Mimile" Georger, the man who took care of the post office bicycle, fleet spotted her and invited her on a club ride. After 50 km, the men were worn out, and she was still going strong. Mimile said it was a shame she wasn’t a man; she could be a racer. She answered that you didn’t have to be a man to compete on bicycles, citing Éliane Bonneau’s recent hour record. Mimile took her up on it, and signed Jeannine up for a track event; she won three races that day, and kept on racing and winning. Her palmarès includes the 1952 and 1953 French road championships (there was no women’s time trial championship until 1995) and she held the hour record at least twice. (Here’s a link to a French newspaper article.)

The next record holder was Elsy Jacobs of Luxembourg; that name is familiar to many of us because of the pro women’s stage race named after her and held in Luxembourg every year. Elsy grew up in a farming family, and her older brothers rode and raced bikes (one, Edmond, rode in the Tour de France). After a hard morning’s work, she would borrow a racing bike and go for a 100 km ride in the Ardennes. But there were no races for women in Luxembourg, and the powers that be weren’t about to let her race with men. Elsy started riding to races across the border in France, racing, and riding home again. Soon she was able to get club support and a French racing license. If the race was long and hard, she was likely to win it (she didn’t have a sprint or much sense of strategy, but she was very strong, so long-range attacks were her specialty). She feistiness and charm made her very popular with cycling fans, and as a consequence got appearance money that was previously unheard of in women’s cycling. That popularity was a big factor in driving the UCI to start holding a road world championship event for women; Elsy won the first ever women’s road race champion in 1958 by riding away from the rest of the field on a hilly circuit. The hour record she set that same year under the new UCI rules, 41.347 km, beat Lemaire’s record by 1.6 km and stood for the next 14 years. She won the Luxembourg road race championship every year from 1959 to 1974. There’s an article by Herbie Sykes in Procycling about her cycling career.

Keetie van Oosten advanced the hour record by 1.6 km (almost 4%) in 1978 in Munich. She was the Marianne Vos of her era: a Dutch cyclist who won everything, including two world championships on the road and four on the track (pursuit). The yearly award for the best woman cyclist in the Netherlands is named after her. During the same ride when she set the hour record, she also set world records for 5 km, 10 km, and 20 km on the way to riding 43.082 km. The Wikipedia page about her includes several quotations that the editors say should be streamlined or removed; that would be shame, because the quotes give a good sense of the kind of personality that was often needed to be a successful female athlete before the modern era: the same kind of competitive determination and grit that comes through in the accounts of many of the earlier hour record holders.

Jeannie Longo, although 9 years younger than van Oosten, was similar in many ways – she had a strong, competitive personality that allowed her to succeed in sports in an era when one needed grit and perseverance (and just plain stubbornness with a touch of aggression at times) to overcome the societal attitudes that made being a female athlete difficult. She started out as a downhill skier, but switched to cycling and became first the best French cyclist and then the dominant road cyclist between 1985 and 2001; her French championships span the years from 1979-2011. She also competed on the track, and in all won thirteen world championships (including 5 on the road and two in the time trial). Cycling was added to the list of women’s sports in the Olympics during her career, and she won four medals, including one gold. She is not free of the taint that affects many cyclists from the EPO era, but there is no doubt that she was the dominant female cyclist for the best part of two decades. During much of her Longo’s career, there were no restrictions on what equipment and technology could be used in attempting the world hour record; she owned the record during that "Best Human Effort" era. When the rules were changed in 2014 to make records more comparable across eras, she soon regained the record, stretching it to 45.094 km in Mexico City (at altitude).

The next record holder after Longo was Léontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel. Her career overlapped with that of Jeannie Longo (who is 12 years older) and ran from 1988 (when van Moorsel was 15) to 2004, with a three year interruption in the middle to overcome anorexia. She won a lot, on the track and on the road: stage races, one-day races, pursuit races, points races, national championships, world championships (two on the road, two road time trials, and three in the pursuit), and four Olympic gold medals, including three in 2000 (road, time trial, and pursuit). It was the EPO era, but the only whiff was an isolated accusation in 2017. She claimed the hour record in 2003 with a ride of 46.065 km in Mexico City, improving on Longo’s record by almost a kilometer. Van Moorsel’s record would last 11 years. Here is link to a feature article and interview dating back to 2001, from the original version of CyclingNews.

The 2014 rules changes, allowing the use of track bikes for the hour record, triggered a burst of new attempts. I’ve been following cycling on PodiumCafe since before then, and I was startled to find that the first women to break the record under the new rules was someone I had never heard of: Molly Shaffer Van Houweling. She is a professor of patent law and intellectual property at Berkeley (in other words, a big shot legal scholar). Only three years younger than van Moorsel, her cycling career began when she was in her 30s, when she started wining state time trial championships; in 2011, she started competing in the UCI Masters World Championships, and as of 2019 she had won 5 time trial, 2 road race, and 2 pursuit championships in her age category. She has also won the U.S. individual pursuit championship at least twice, in 2016 (when she was 43) and in 2018. She first surpassed van Moorsel’s record in July 2015 by only 23 meters, but that attempt did not count because she hadn’t been in the UCI biological passport system long enough (she’s an amateur and didn’t need to be in the system for her other races). She waited a couple of months and tried again (this time with a qualifying biological passport, and rode 46.273 km in Aguascalientes, Mexico. It’s inspiring to see what a 42-year old law professor amateur cyclist can do… (Clearly she is something special as an athlete as well.)

The new record didn’t last long as there was an onslaught of attempts. Bridie O’Donnell rode 46.882 km in January of 2016 at the age of 41 before becoming a medical doctor, commentator, and head of the Office for Sport and Recreation in the state of Victoria, Australia. Evelyn Stevens capped a professional career in which she won many time trials by breaking the hour record by over a kilometer with a ride of 47.98 km in Colorado in February of 2016. Vittoria Bussi rode 48.007 km in 2018 in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Joss Lowden stretched it out to 48.405 km at the low-altitude velodrome in Grenchen, Switzerland in 2021, before Ellen van Dijk took it to 49.254 km at the same velodrome last month.

Ellen van Dijk has arguably been the dominant time trialist in the women’s peloton for the past couple of years, and even though an hour record just consists of someone riding in circles over and over and over again, it was compelling to watch her keep stretching out her advantage as time went by. I’m ready to watch another one.

However, van Dijk’s record looks good to last a bit, though one can never tell. Who among the women might threaten that record? Looking back at past record holders, it seems that riders who are good at pursuit on the track and good time trialists on the road combine the ability to ride the track well and fast with the ability to do longer solitary efforts. How about Annemiek van Vleuten? She does very well at time trials (and at everything else on the road), and if she trained for the hour record it would be hard to bet against her. Chloe Dygert would have seemed like a good possibility, given her track experience and strong time trials on the road, before she was badly injured in a crash, imploded via social media, and contracted Epstein-Barr. Marlen Reusser has time trialing strength and the necessary grit, but apparently no track experience. Those four cyclists account for 14 of the 15 medals in the past five world championships. Lisa Brennauer has a first and two second places in the pursuit world championships in the past three years, and is usually in the top five in road time trials. There are likely to be others I’m not thinking of; feel free to pitch in!