UCI Hour Record Report: Practice Makes Perfect!

The riders who have attempted the hour record seem to fall into two categories: those who try it once and swear “never again” and those who can’t resist attempt after attempt. The great Eddy Merckx, who held the record from 1972 to 1984, fell in the first category. He called it the hardest ride he had ever done and vowed to never try it again. His rival Francesco Moser, by contrast, made several attempts over the course of a decade. Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree famously battled back and forth for years—breaking and re-breaking each other’s records again and again. On the women’s side, Jeanie Longo set several records over the course of nearly three decades.

After my first hour record in December, 2014—when I rode 44.173km at the VELO Sports Center in Carson, CA, to break the U.S. record, I claimed to fall within the first category. I told a reporter “never again.” But time has revealed my true attitude toward the hour: practice makes perfect.

Since then I’ve made three more record attempts. In February, 2015, I went to the famously fast track in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and rode 45.637km. That was a new U.S. women’s record (and a world record for women in my 40-44 year-old age group). But I knew I could do better. My pacing was bad: I went out to fast and started slowing down dramatically after only 15 minutes. And I had fallen short of a goal that was so audacious I had barely admitted it: I wanted the ultimate record. Not just the U.S. record. Not my age group record. The women’s world record. Officially the “UCI Hour Record.” Leontin Van Moorsel’s record that had stood since 2003.

To even be eligible to make an attempt on that record, I fist had to enroll in the “biological passport” blood testing program, and then wait at least five months while the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation collected and analyzed my samples. I completed the enrollment paperwork in late March, which meant the earliest possible attempt on Van Moorsel’s record would be late August.

By this point my attitude toward the hour had changed. Although my February attempt was imperfect and secretly disappointing, it was better in several ways than my first attempt. And I knew the second I finished it how I could improve even more next time. So what better way to prepare for an attempt on the UCI Hour Record in August or September than to try to break my own U.S. record again in July?

As it happened, friends from the Hellyer Velodrome in San Jose were planning a July trip to Aguascalientes to make attempts on shorter records. So I signed up to join them and planned my spring around preparing for another hour—officially an attempt on the U.S. record, unofficially a trial run for the UCI record. Now fully devoted to the practice makes perfect philosophy, my spring preparation included two hour-long dress rehearsals at the VELO Sports Center. The first of these was my initial experiment with negative pacing—trying to pick up the pace in the second half instead of fading as I had done in both of my previous attempts. Alex Dowsett had proven how successful negative pacing could be with his May attempt on the men’s record, which he dubbed “the Perfect Hour.” I wasn’t sure I was capable of negative pacing, much less perfection. In my first experiment I started very conservatively. I succeeded in executing a negative split hour, but it wasn’t very fast. At my next hour session at the VELO Sports Center I tried an initial pace that was faster but still under control. It got hard during the second half, and I thought maybe I had blown it by going out a little too fast. But with my Coach Dave Jordaan yelling at me to “pick it up,” I overcame the pain and managed to achieve the negative split and go farther than I had gone before on that track. I felt like I was finally getting the feel for my perfect pace.

So I was ready to return to Aguascalientes in July for the ultimate practice session. As usual, my husband Rob was there to mastermind the whole thing and—most critically—to stand trackside flashing me lap times and yelling feedback: “pick it up,” “ease up,” or “perfect.” My goal was to prove I could break the UCI mark, and so we devised a pacing plan that would achieve that—no more, no less. Rob was the enforcer. Early on in the effort, full of excitement and adrenaline, I put in a few fast laps. One would trigger a calm “ease up” from him. Two in a row a more alarmed “ease UP.” Three earned a harsh EASE UP! After a few laps I found my rhythm. For a while I thought I might be able to achieve the perfect pace with relative ease. I kept gaining bit by bit on my goal through 45 minutes. But then all of the sudden the effort that had kept me on pace was instead leading to “pick it up” from Rob. And then “pick it UP.” And then PICK IT UP! By suffering like I had never suffered before for the last ten minutes I managed to go 46.088km—23 meters beyond Van Moorsel’s mark.

So the good news from July was that I proved I could execute an improved pacing plan and go the UCI Hour Record distance. The bad news: it was hard. Really hard. I wasn’t sure I could do it again. I wasn’t sure I wanted to! But it was summertime. My work schedule was more flexible than it had been in the Spring. We could live at altitude in beautiful Mammoth Lakes to acclimatize. I could practice some more in L.A. I could improve my start, and my line, and perhaps eek out some aerodynamic gains somehow. I now knew I could do it. I couldn’t let this adventure end without trying to make it official.

First came paperwork. You can hear Rob give a long explanation of everything required to set up an attempt on the UCI Hour Record in this episode of the Cycling Time Trial Podcast. Suffice it to say: it takes a lot longer than an hour, even with the help of staff at USA Cycling, the Mexican Cycling Federation, the Instituto de Deportes de Aguascalientes, and the UCI.

Then came training, nutrition, and acclimatization. Coach Dave Jordaan, nutritionist Anne Guzman, and hydration and acclimatization expert Stacy Sims put plans in place for all of that. The training plan seemed like an especially delicate challenge. This would be my fourth attempt nine months. (My 7th if you count my hour-long practice sessions at the VELO Sports Center.) I needed to keep training hard while avoiding exhaustion—both from riding and from a work projects that required long days of grading, research, writing, and conference calls. As usual, I put my faith in Dave and did my best to follow his plan to the letter—sometimes by doing my work projects on my laptop in the car while Rob drove me down to the start of my climbing interval sessions.

Those climbing sessions on the road bike were key to training my sustained power. But that’s not all I would need to go fast on the track. I also needed to improve my start and my line. So we headed back to the VELO Sports Center to work with Andy Lakatosh on those track riding skills.

We also used a session at the VELO Sports Center to experiment with my aerodynamic position. As all time trialists know, there is often a trade off between aerodynamics and power. A lower position is faster in theory, but can be slower in practice if the athlete can’t produce as much power while riding so low. I’ve worked on perfecting my time trial position for years, but I’m always tweaking it (as I describe in more detail here). This time I wondered whether I might be able to go faster in a slightly higher and more powerful position. (Ok, Rob the mastermind wondered that and I was willing to give it a shot.) One half of a disastrously slow and difficult practice session was all I needed to determine the answer was “no.” Rob saw the writing on the wall and waved me off of the track after only 30 minutes so he could adjust my handlebars back to the lower position. I immediately found it easier to maintain my goal lap times—and to take a good line through the corners too. Practice makes perfect even when the practice goes horribly and reveals what NOT to do.

We got to confirm the aerodynamics of my position and equipment—including my sleak Specialized S-Works TT helmet–with a special session in the “Win Tunnel” at Specialized headquarters in Morgan Hill. My Metromint Cycling teammate Chris Yu is one of the aero gurus there and we got to fine tune my entire setup with him and his colleagues Cameron Piper and Anna Asnis.

In my final hour-long practice session at the VELO Sports Center I felt like I was putting it all together. My power was good. My start and line were better. My position and equipment felt fast and comfortable. Coach Dave was there and he declared I was ready. He knew I could do it so long as I avoided getting sick or injured.

Dave meant those as words of encouragement. And I appreciated his confidence in me. But over the next three weeks his caveat about injury or illness haunted me. I could control my training and nutrition; my pacing and position; my start and my line. But germs?! An unfortunate ankle twist while out for a walk?! Suddenly I was hesitating to greet my friends with a hug. I was rudely introducing myself to new people without shaking hands. We started going for recovery day walks on a gentle paved path instead of the beautiful hiking trails of Mammoth Lakes. Ultimately, I knew it was possible that my months of practice and preparation would be derailed by something out of my control. But I was determined to obsessively control everything I could!

I was feeling more pressure this time because what had been a secret goal was no longer a secret. The UCI had issued a press release in early August announcing my upcoming attempt. We made a video teaser and launched a Kickstarter campaign in to raise money to share the event live online with friends, family, and other spectators. We called ourselves “Team Tortuga” in honor of my mascot animal (and its aerodynamic shape). We convinced our friends Ellen Sherrill and Jim Turner to come to Mexico to provide play-by-play commentary for the broadcast; friends Sarah Lightfoot and Adam Tracy volunteered to come down to help with other logistics, including the complicated electronic timing for the broadcast. Juan Esparza, our incredible host from the Instituto de Deportes de Aguascalientes was having custom commemorative t-shirts made! Who would want to wear those custom t-shirts if I didn’t set the record? Jim ordered custom commemorative M&Ms with my face printed on them! Who would want to eat an M&M with a failure’s face on it?!?

With 24 hours to go before race day I felt prepared but very uncertain. In some training sessions race pace felt easy. And my line was continuing to improve thanks to Sarah’s watchful eye and feedback. But in other sessions race pace felt much too hard to sustain for an hour and my line didn’t feel smooth. How would I feel on race day? Was that cough the first sign of the flu? Is that itchy feeling in my nose the start of a cold? Did my knee just feel funny as I walked down the stairs? Would it be too hot in the Velodrome on race day? Too cold? What would Jim and Ellen say in the commentary booth if I blew it like I did in February? What would my friends and family think as they watched back home? How disappointed would they be?

Just as I was starting to worry myself into a tizzy, I received an email from a long-time teammate and friend. She wrote: “We are confident that you will give us many more reasons to be proud of you in the near future. But I thought you should know that we are very very proud of you today on September 11, 2015.” She was proud that I had set, announced, and done everything in my control to achieve this goal the day before race day. It was as if she had read my mind from back home in California, and knew exactly what I needed to hear to calm my nerves and lift my anxiety. From that instant my preoccupation turned from worrying about disappointing my friends and family to wanting to deliver to them the thrill of the adventure that I had already been enjoying for months.  Race day arrived and I didn’t have the flu or even a cold. My knee didn’t hurt. I was calm enough to sit at my computer and get some work tasks accomplished while I waited for race time. The weather was perfect—sunny to get the air in the Velodrome hot and fast but then turning cloudy and rainy so I wouldn’t overheat. The livestream team was ready and coordinated in their Team Tortuga t-shirts. The timing system was working and Adam had mastered its intricacies so Rob could concentrate on helping me with last-minute preparations and getting ready to yell his pacing cues.  The most stressful part of the day happened as I changed from my warmup kit into my custom Pearl Izumi skinsuit. Per Stacy Sims’ excellent advice, I got the top of the skinsuit wet in order to help with cooling. The only problem is that a wet skinsuit is extremely difficult to get onto a warmed up and sweaty body. In my nervous rush to pull the wet sleeves up I yanked too hard and ripped a tiny hole in the seam. I hollered at Rob, who was standing in the hallway, to come help me in the women’s room. I turned to him in a panic: Look what I did! That hole does not look aerodynamic! But it was nearly race time and everything was ready to go except for me. Rob eye-balled the tear carefully with his wind-tunnel trained eyes. “I think in your riding position that will be hidden. You’re ok.”

So we walked together up to the track where my bike was waiting for me. I rode a few practice laps to get into the grove of the black line. And then it was race time.

I don’t have a lot to report about the next 60 minutes. I’ve now watched the video and know that Jim and Ellen’s commentary was expert and entertaining. What I was doing, on the other hand, was pretty boring. Practice-makes-perfectly boring. Lap after lap of 19.4 second laps, give or take a tenth of a second. When Rob yelled “ease up,” I did ease up and kept my pace under control. When my pace slipped a bit I was able to accelerate back to goal speed. By 15 minutes in, the effort wasn’t feeling easy. But it wasn’t the excruciating pain of an out-too-fast effort. It was the sustainable pain I had already experienced in good practice sessions. I knew from experience, however, that things could go south at any minute. So I tried not to get ahead of myself. I just focused on getting through the next thirty laps or so, trying to do as many perfectly paced laps as I could. Rob gave told me every ten minutes how much ahead of goal pace I was, and I hoped to inch that number up by just a second or two every time.

Xavier Disley's analysis of my pacing
Xavier Disley’s analysis of my pacing. Arrow marks where flaming spider monkeys were released from cage.

From time to time my concentration wavered from my pace and the black line and I thought of the friends and family who were watching and cheering for me in person and online. In my mind they were a troop of turtles and flaming spider monkeys (which you would have to have read my December, 2014, race report to appreciate). I could sense them urging me on but I had to resist the temptation to harness their power and go above pace. “Stay in your cage for now,” I told the flaming spider monkeys. I’ll need you at the end!

With a few minutes to go I was clear-headed enough to do a little math and figure out that even if I started to lose a second per lap I would still break the record. I was no longer afraid of blowing up, so I relaxed and let the turtles and spider monkeys power me to a few above-pace laps. I don’t remember the effort. I just remember focusing on not somehow crashing before it was over. And then I really let the menagerie loose for the final bell lap—my fastest lap of the hour.

There was on more special lap to do that I hadn’t practiced: a lap near the rail so I could wave and smile at the small crowd of in-person supporters—including Jim, Ellen, Sarah, Adam; Alex and Arturo of our livestream team; and Juan and his family—and at the livestream viewers watching at home. “We did it,” I thought. And I really did mean “we.” I was so grateful for all of the help I had received as I practiced for this pretty perfect day, and I hoped that everyone who played a part in it felt as thrilled (but not as tired) as I did. Instead of “never again,” I thought “what fun adventure can we all share next?”

Team Tortuga
Concentrating in the start gate
Sticking the black line
Happy Team VH
We did it!?!
We did it!?!
Greeting some of Team Tortuga right after my ride
My post-ride interview with expert commentator Ellen Sherrill
Happy rider and bike
Mission accomplished!
With UCI Commissaire Randy Shaffer
It’s official!