17 Oct 2003
“A helluva start!”… Monday, 17 October, 1994. After only about 60 meters of pedaling, an unsteady Tony Rominger fell and slid ungracefully down the Bordeaux track, his speed too low to stay up on the velodrome’s banked curve.
No one who witnessed that fall could have imagined that it would lead to one of the most sensational sports records of the 90s.
Despite this embarrassing debut, that day’s initial “Conconi test” result caught my attention. Tony’s anaerobic level showed a higher level (albeit only barely higher) than was recorded during the record set by Miguel Indurain on the second of September of the same year (53,040 km). The ‘deflection velocity’ (1;2;3) works out to about 53.4 km/h, using a 57x15 ratio which, developing 8.00 meters, required 111 RPM to reach that velocity.
Rominger used the two following days to get accustomed to the velodrome’s steep curves. I used those days to take direct measurements of lactic acid concentration to see if Tony could realistically hope to better the one hour record.
Wednesday evening we were convinced that it could be done, on this same track, at sea level, without needing the advantage of altitude.
That afternoon in fact, Tony covered 25 km from a standing start in 28’11”, at an average of 53.220 km/h, with an average pulse rate of 172 beats/minute and a final lactic acid concentration of 3.0 mM/l. Using a 59x14 ratio (8.86 meters) he maintained an average pedal rate of 101 RPM.
I was very surprised at the rider’s speed on the track, even though I knew very well that the specific road training work he had undertaken in August had been an excellent technical choice in view of an eventual record attempt.
Faithful to the dictum “carpe diem”, we decided to go ahead on the following Saturday with an official closed door (no spectators) attempt that we looked at as a kind of second verification of collected data.
On October 22, in a calm and discrete atmosphere in the semi-deserted velodrome, using a bicycle similar to the one he used in road time-trials, Rominger easily bettered Miguel Indurain’s one-hour record, covering 53,832 km, with a pulse rate of 178 beats/minute and 102 RPM.
The rider’s freshness after the attempt, and the ease with which he obtained his result made us feel there was a chance to do even better.
On the following Monday I was in Milan in Ernesto Colnago’s office to coordinate a few aerodynamic changes in the bike. By the Friday, a new aerodynamic frame, futuristic handle bars and two lighter lenticular wheels were ready.
Here is a picture of the particular handlebar, conceived and designed personally by myself for Rominger's Hour bike, and realized by ITM and Colnago.
On Sunday we were all back in Bordeaux to run tests of the new technical elements: longer crank arms (175 mm) and a harder ratio (60x14; 9.02 meters). Tony flew. On Wednesday, November 2nd he covered 25 km from a standing start at an average of
54.622 km/h, without really giving his ‘all’. His lactic acid at the end of the trial was 2.6 mM/l; his average pulse rate: 171 beats/minute.
At that point we were all convinced that Rominger’s legs were ready to perform at a level that would have been inconceivable two weeks earlier. Of course, training isn’t a race, and all days aren’t the same. But nonetheless we cautiously aimed at breaking the 54 km barrier during the second official trial.
Thursday and Friday were dedicated to recovery and concentration.
It was raining on Saturday morning. At 10, Rominger put in a 40 minute pre-warm-up session on the trainer then a bit of stretching.
At 11:30 he had a plate of pasta, some apple pie and coffee.
Two hours later we left the hotel for the velodrome. We went in. Tony was a bit tense, nervous. The crowd’s applause encouraged us all.
Thirty minutes of warm-up, a short pause, another few laps of the track to set concentration.
At 13:33, he took off.
The rest is part of cycling history:
Rominger shattered his previous record, covering the incredible distance of 55.291 km (103 average rpm). After a couple of laps to cool down, he got off his bike visibly more worn out than after the previous trial. This time he had obviously given 100%.
While Tony was answering questions from the press, the rest of us celebrated with a dip in the (freezing!) lake in front of the hotel, and several happy toasts.
How is it possible that Tony Rominger beat Miguel Indurain by more than 2 km? This was the most frequently asked question in the days after the performance.
For one thing, it’s likely that Indurain, only 5 weeks after the finish of the Tour de France, was not at his peak form when he set his record. Also, the Spanish rider’s position on the bike didn’t seem to be optimal. Tony appeared more aerodynamic and compact.
In fact, it was calculted (4;6) that Rominger’s corporal surface exposed to air drag was about 13% less than Indurain’s.
The difference in efficiency (aerodynamic and other) was far higher. At 53.04 km/h, Indurain developed 509.5 Watts, while at the same speed Rominger put out 413 Watts—a difference of 23%.
It is also important to note that the rider’s track speed is anything but constant, presenting continued accelerations and decelerations corresponding to curves and straight-aways (5). There is even a significant variation in average speed per lap (6).
A heavy rider pays dearly for these accelerations—far more than a light-weight.
Finally, at these speeds the one-hour record, with the 442 curves Tony had to negotiate, became a kind of a ride through a ‘centrifuge’. Carrying 15 kg in weight and 13 cm in height more than his rival, Indurain clearly suffered more from the centrifugal force in the curves. This would have been due to the increased rolling friction (which is directly proportional to weight, and through the curves at these speeds the combined weight of bike plus rider virtually doubles), as well as to a more difficult vein blood return from the legs to the heart due to Indurain’s greater height.
1) Medical and Scientific Aspects of Cycling. Human Kinetics, 1988: 79-91
2) Med. Sci. Sports Exerc.; 1999, 31: 1478-83
3) J. Appl. Physiol.; 1985, 53: 299-303
4) Sport e Medicina; Nov-Dic 2001: 15-19
5) Road Cycling. Blackwell Science Ltd.; 2000: 43-45
6) J. Appl. Physiol.; 2000, 89: 1522-1527