When he lowers his lean frame onto his 3D-printed titanium handlebars on Sunday evening, Sir Bradley Wiggins will focus only on the black line ahead of him and the following 60 minutes. But if he and his hi-tech track bike succeed in riding further than 52.937km (32.89 miles), he will pedal into one of the richest and most romantic record books in sport.
The Hour is as old as cycling itself, and has tempted and tortured the world’s greatest cyclists, while captivating and inspiring generations of fans and amateurs. The earliest known attempt came in 1873, when James Moore – the Wiggins of his day and winner of the first bike race – managed 23.2km (14.4 miles) in Wolverhampton on a penny farthing.
In 1893, on a modern bicycle, Henri Desgrange, a French sports journalist, completed the first official hour record, with 35.325km (22 miles), a decade before he founded the Tour de France. Later, crowds flocked to watch Oscar Egg and Marcel Berthet do battle in Paris, in a rivalry that ended in 1914 when Egg rode 44.25km (27.5 miles).
But it was later feats and fights that inspired the current crop of hour challengers. Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx all broke the record. And in the 1990s, a young Wiggins watched in awe as Miguel Indurain of Spain and Brits Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree lit up the track with epic displays of endurance.
“I love the history of it,” Wiggins said after a training session this week. “Miguel’s coming on Sunday. My childhood hero will be in the centre and I’ll probably think about it at some point during the ride, and wonder what he’s thinking. That’s partly why I’m doing it – to put my name up with the likes of these people. It kind of puts you in a different bracket. It’s a special club.”
While Wiggins talked to journalists in the middle of the Olympic Velodrome, a trio of young racers about 12 years old rode laps, occasionally catching a glimpse of today’s hero. “The old home straight of the Eastway circuit used to be about there,” he said, pointing to the start line of the new track. “I started racing there in 1992 and now this place is here. It’s just incredible what has happened to cycling.
“If they’d had Chris Boardman doing his hour here, on my doorstep when I was a kid, it would have been… well, I probably would have afforded a ticket.”
Wiggins is capitalising on the history and simplicity of the record to inspire cyclists of all speeds. At Herne Hill Velodrome in South London, where he raced as a boy, a local school group recently had a go at the hour, and Lee Valley VeloPark, site of the Olympic venue, has hosted several amateur attempts. Last September Sidney Schuman, 84, of Lewisham set an age-group hour record, clocking 28.388km (17.64 miles).
“It’s great for cycling,” Wiggins said. “It really catches people’s imaginations because it’s something everyone can do – everyone can go and test themselves against the world’s best.”
On a personal level, training for the hour has come as a relief for Wiggins, weeks after he left Team Sky. “I’ve been my own boss; it’s been a hell of a lot easier,” he said.
He welcomes the crowds who will roar his every lap tomorrow but will have to block out the noise to focus on his rigid programme of 16.2-second laps.
“In some ways I wish I could do it behind closed doors. It’s a bit like a wedding – you know there’s people you don’t want to invite but you have to and you get into the last few days thinking, ‘I can’t have him next to him because they won’t get on…’ and you have to deal with it.”
Any honeymoon will be brief. Wiggins, 35 and already a world, Olympic and Tour de France champion, will not be separated from the love of his life quite yet. “There are three big objectives left,” he said. “This, the World Championships here in march, then the Rio Olympics. And then that’ll be me.”