The Insane Numbers Behind Biking’s Most Masochistic Race

I straddle my bike, clip into my pedals, and take a gradual, deep breath. What I am about to do will not take lengthy, nevertheless it’s going to harm and I do know it. Actually, it is all I can take into consideration.

My bike is connected to a stationary coach that controls how exhausting I need to pedal to show the cranks. Controlling the coach is Evelyn Stevens, an Olympic bicycle owner who, in 2016, set a world document in considered one of her sport’s most celebrated—and most masochistic—occasions: the hour document.

The hour is extensively thought of to be biking’s purest document, albeit an uncommon one: As an alternative of requiring them to traverse a set distance, this occasion allots cyclists a set time of 60 minutes to pedal as many laps as they’ll round a velodrome. And whereas different aggressive pursuits sometimes pit a number of athletes in opposition to each other, the hour is a solo affair. The race, when you can name it that, is in opposition to the clock.

And in opposition to your self.

“The entire level is to push your physique and your thoughts to a spot they’ve by no means been earlier than,” says Stevens, who lately visited WIRED’s places of work in San Francisco to present me a style of what it is wish to pedal one’s ever-living brains out. That is what the bike and coach are for: to see how lengthy I can preserve the facility output of a world-class hour-record bicycle owner.

Athletically talking, I am not a world-class something—however I am no slouch, both: I have been a runner all my life, raced triathlons in school, and have accomplished a number of marathons. Nonetheless, as I start pedaling, I am unable to assist pondering how unprepared I’m for the duty at hand. Not simply bodily, however mentally.

Stevens spent years making ready her mind and physique for a go on the hour document. She labored on cultivating mindfulness with a sports activities psychologist. She floated for hours inside sensory deprivation tanks, to follow untethering her ideas from the passage of time. She skilled with out music, and, extra importantly, with out biometric suggestions: The Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing physique of the biking world, mandates that hour-record athletes fly by really feel, with out information of metrics like coronary heart fee, velocity, cadence, or energy output. The purpose of Stevens’ psychological coaching was to follow decoupling her consideration from all the pieces however the current second. To focus her consideration not on the ache, her thirst, or how lengthy she had ridden, however particular person pedal strokes. “My mantra was pull, pull, push. Pull, pull, push. Pull, pull, push,” she says.

Regardless of her preparation, Stevens’ hour try almost broke her. Throughout minutes 50 by means of 55, “I was physically in the most painful place I had ever been,” she says. She remembers sounds fading away, her imaginative and prescient going darkish, and her ideas turning to all of the mistaken issues. “You want oxygen, you want water, your body is screaming: Stop, stop, stop.” Across the 55th minute, the thought of letting down her coach introduced her again. “I just thought, oh gosh, he’d be so disappointed. His family, who sacrificed so much of their time with him so he could coach me, would be so disappointed!” The guilt returned her consideration to her breath, to her mantra, to the way of thinking she wanted to traverse a then-unprecedented 47.98 km—29.81 miles—in 60 minutes flat.

A couple of minutes into my warmup, my shirt already sopping with sweat, it happens to me: I haven’t got a mantra. Although if I did, it might most likely be one thing like “don’t hurt yourself.” Or quite, as a result of the ache element of this little stunt is non-negotiable, “do not vomit.”

To face a shot on the hour document, an athlete should preserve for 60 minutes an influence output that most individuals would battle to carry for 60 seconds. Stevens averaged simply over 300 watts throughout her try. British bicycle owner Bradley Wiggins, who, in 2015, pedaled 54.526 kilometers (33.881 miles) to set the present males’s document, is estimated to have averaged 440 watts. In case you’ve ever paid consideration to your numbers throughout spin class, these figures will little doubt astound you. If spinning’s not your factor, think about this: 440 watts is the vitality it takes a 150-pound individual to climb a flight of stairs in about 5.5 seconds. Now think about climbing 655 flights at that tempo. That is an hour.

To maintain that form of energy output for an hour takes extra than simply intense bodily coaching. It additionally requires severe physiological items. Arguably the best reward of elite cyclists is an innately excessive capability for pulling oxygen out of the air and delivering it to their tissues. Sport scientists name this measurement VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake, and categorical it in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of physique weight per minute. The common individual has a VO2 max within the 30s or 40s. Stevens’ VO2 max? “Seventy-two, seventy-three,” says sport scientist Neal Henderson, who coached Stevens to her hour document. That quantity is astonishing. Most well-trained athletes rating within the 50s or low 60s. “Women in the 70s is like men in the 80s,” Henderson says. “There’s a handful in the world.”

VO2 max performs such an necessary position in biking efficiency that on uncommon events, an individual with anomalously excessive maximal oxygen uptake will go a long time with out absolutely realizing their athletic potential, solely to come upon it comparatively late in life. Stevens was such an individual. At 25, she was working full time on Wall Road when, on a go to to California within the fall of 2007, her older sister inspired her to attempt biking. She liked it. Lower than a yr later she raced Vermont’s Inexperienced Mountain girls’s race as an novice and completed 4 minutes sooner than the professionals. In 2009 she stop her job in finance and went professional. Six months later she positioned second within the US Nationwide Time Trial Championships. In 2010 she positioned first. In 2011, she did it once more. In 2012, she represented the US within the Olympics.

“I got to a point where I wanted something new, something different, something challenging,” she says. She discovered that one thing within the hour document.

To pursue the document in earnest, Stevens wanted greater than her freakish power and preternatural cardio skills. She additionally wanted a high-performance experience. She selected a modified model of Specialised’s Shiv. Like many fashionable time-trial and triathlon bikes, the carbon-fiber body’s bladelike form is optimized to slice the air with as little resistance from the wind as doable. Her wheels, too, had been designed to cut back drag, as was her helmet: a clean bubble of froth and plastic with a menacing rearward taper harking back to the xenomorph from Alien.

Becoming Stevens to her bike concerned lengthy hours in Specialised’s bespoke, human-sized wind tunnel. In 2014, the UCI modified the principles for the hour by permitting riders to interchange their conventional drop handlebars with drag-reducing “aero bars.” Cyclists might now lean far ahead by resting their forearms atop their handlebars, minimizing the realm uncovered to wind resistance as they experience. However the aero place has its drawbacks. Leaning too far ahead saps your energy; incline too far again, and also you’re preventing wind resistance. Discovering a bicycle owner’s goldilocks posture is hard. Discovering the pose they’ll really keep in is even tougher: The optimum aero place is often too uncomfortable to keep up for an hour, and often ends in shorter distances than a much less aggressive tuck that riders can maintain for the total 60 minutes. The aero place, in any case, is just aero while you’re in it.

Again in WIRED’s places of work, with Stevens controlling my stationary coach, I haven’t got to fret about steering my bike, or take note of the place of my physique. All I’ve to do is pedal. However when my warmup ends and Stevens begins growing the wattage on the coach in 50 watt increments, my thoughts rapidly turns to the searing in my quads. At 250 watts she asks the way it feels. “Hard,” I inform her between gasps. I am making an attempt to keep up my composure, however my physique’s already in overdrive.

We graduate to 300 watts, roughly the facility Stevens maintained for her hour document. I attempt to play it cool, maintain the trouble. The unique plan was to spend 30 seconds at every wattage, however I barely handle 15 earlier than Stevens notices me struggling and intervenes. “This looks like kind of an uncomfortable level,” she says, smiling. An understatement. If we do not ramp up now, I am going to by no means get to expertise Wiggins’ 440 watts. She will increase my resistance on to 400 watts, then jumps proper to 440. “So remember, he did this for 60 minutes,” she says. “What do you think, Robbie—can you do it for an hour?”

I can not. I final 45 brutal, sweat-drenched seconds.

Afterwards I’m totally wiped, and my legs are sore for the following a number of days. I am astonished to study that cyclists will sometimes make two hour-record makes an attempt roughly in sequence. Coincidentally, that is exactly what Vittoria Bussi does the day earlier than Stevens visits WIRED’s places of work: On her second try in as many days, the Italian bicycle owner set a brand new UCI girls’s hour document, driving 48.007 kilometers (29.83 miles), beating Stevens’ greatest by 27 meters.

It is anybody’s guess how lengthy Bussi’s document will stand. Stevens held the title for 2 and a half years, however Henderson, her coach, thinks that, underneath present UCI guidelines, the correct girl, astride the correct bike, circling the best observe on an excellent day, might greatest Bussi’s efficiency by two entire kilometers, breaking the 50 kilometer barrier for girls. Below equally optimum circumstances, he says, the correct man would possibly eke out 57.

Henderson bases these estimates on exhausting measurements: Rider weight. Energy output. Wind resistance. The elevation of the observe and the density of the air above it. “His approach is much more scientific than mine,” says Stevens, who retired from biking shortly after her go on the hour. “I feel like nothing is impossible. It only becomes possible.”

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