Every four years, I watch the Olympics, and every four years, I watch sports such as diving, swimming, and gymnastics, and question my life decisions.
An Australian holds the UCI record for the Hour. Let me just repeat that: an Australian holds the UCI world record for the Hour.
That Australian is, of course, Rohan Dennis of BMC Racing, champion of the Tour Down Under and undoubtedly the sensation of season 2015 to date.
Breaking the Hour record is a big deal, always has been.
In fact, I was hoping to write this piece last week, after Jack Bobridge’s attempt in Melbourne. I was at DISC to witness Bobridge’s suffering, and the experience left me with a new understanding of what was at stake.
For me, Bobridge’s failure added spice to Dennis’ attempt.
The awkward silence at DISC as Bobridge completed his hour, two laps shy of Mattias Brändle’s mark of 51.8km, was quite unsettling. It was a shock: Bobridge was the first of the current string of challengers to fail.
His painful defeat broke the illusion that the record is simply there for the taking as soon as a rider with any talent and a bit of swagger steps up. I fully expected Bobridge to succeed, and then for Dennis to surpass his mark in turn, but any lingering complacency evaporated as soon as Bobridge stepped off the velodrome with every muscle cramping and a face the colour of chalk.
Bobridge failed, unequivocally. It was one of the gutsiest sporting performances I have seen, but in the Hour record the line between absolute success and absolute failure is razor sharp. You break the record, or you fail, there is no middle ground.
For an hour at DISC, the capacity crowd had cheered, stomped its feet and beaten its hands together, willing Bobridge around the banking.
For an hour, Bobridge had hummed across the boards in total isolation, first smoothly and effortlessly, gradually beginning to rock slightly, tension creeping into his back. By the final minutes his pedal stroke was brittle and his head was dropping, the screaming pain taking its toll.
In sport, we relish the contest, the battle. This was no contest, just a self-imposed torture with a stopwatch and a cheering crowd. There are no tactics, no surprise attacks. It’s just willpower, physiology and an opponent that could not be less indifferent. It must’ve been lonely out there, an empty track and the black line.
I realised how brutally unsympathetic the Hour truly is.
The vivid experience of seeing Bobridge’s failure up close made Dennis’ attempt more real for me, and his success stands out more than it might have if Bobridge had succeeded.
But why did Dennis succeed where Bobridge failed?
Superficially, they seemed equally well placed to break the record.
Both came through Australia’s elite track team pursuit programme: they rode together in the World Champion team pursuit teams of 2010 and 2011, and won silver in the event together at the London Olympics.
Both rode superbly at the national time trial championships, Dennis finishing second and Bobridge third.
Both had outstanding form at the Tour Down Under: Dennis grabbed the biggest professional win of his career taking the general classification and a stage; Bobridge also won a stage and led the race for two days.
And yet one is now the toast of world cycling, and the other is licking his wounds and tossing up whether he can face another attempt.
For one, Dennis got his pacing right. Bobridge went out hard from the gun, averaging over 55 kilometres an hour for his first few laps; Dennis worked his way into the ride, starting just below the required speed and working up into his rhythm as the nerves settled.
Dennis also appeared to be pushing a slightly lower gear, which kept his pedal stroke soft and meant he didn’t get bogged down later in his ride when fatigue set in.
Bobridge’s lap times blew out dramatically in the final third of his attempt, as that early intensity hit him like a metabolic debt collector with a particular enthusiasm for violent payback. He couldn’t stay on top of his gear, and he started pedalling in squares.
That’s a major lesson for any future attempts.
Dennis also had an extra week to recover after his big Tour Down Under. Bobridge had only six days because he shoehorned his attempt into the final night of the Australian Track Championships, perhaps to guarantee a crowd. DISC was packed to capacity, but perhaps his legs needed a few more days.
Dennis looked incredibly relaxed in the lead-up to his attempt, giving calm and confident interviews and not seeming over-awed.
As Bobridge walked out to his bike, he looked like a rabbit in the headlights. I stood directly opposite him on the edge of the track, and saw the whites of his eyes, the thousand-yard stare.
Perhaps those were enough to make the difference. Dennis started his attempt fresher, calmer. He rode an even pace, with a gear he knew he could spin all day.
It was an intelligent and mature attempt from a rider who seems on the brink of a break-out season. Influential people are now talking about Rohan Dennis as the heir apparent to Cadel Evans.
That’s the prestige of the Hour. Only a handful of men have held it, and several of them have been discredited.
Dennis has been fortunate that the UCI’s rule changes have reinvigorated the Hour record just at the right moment to capitalise on his track background and road development. But his achievement still deserves to be counted among the greats of Australian cycling. He’s done something that no other Australian ever has.
Next to step up is Thomas Dekker, at altitude in Mexico, on February 25.