Cycling news: Team Ineos cyclist Filippo Ganna of Italy attempting world record feat

Filippo Ganna of Team Ineos will attempt to break cycling’s hour record on Saturday. But to tell him how to do it, his aerodynamicist broke the record first.

Dan Bigham has spent three years pondering the fastest way to make 450 left turns on a bicycle.

As a trained aerodynamicist working for the Ineos pro cycling team, he has made it his mission to work out how to explode the hour record, the mark for the farthest distance traveled on a bike, on a track, in 60 minutes. His solution involves computational fluid dynamics, 3-D printed components, and, on Saturday, he’ll factor in one of the strongest riders in the world, Italy’s Filippo Ganna.

Bigham has never won any major races. But that’s not what he’s there for. In his year of preparation, Bigham went so far beyond routine testing that in order to set Ganna up to break the hour record, Bigham smashed the record first. Earlier this year, he covered 55,548 kilometers (34,516 miles), beating the previous distance by 459 meters, almost two full laps of the track.

“It’s very pure, as cycling goes,” says Bigham, who studied motorsport engineering at Oxford Brookes University and once spent a year with the Mercedes Formula One team. “A lot of cycling on the road is determined by things that are out of your control—other people’s decisions, the road conditions, the wind, whether you get a puncture or not…When it’s on the track, there are very few variables. “

Bigham has spent more than two years trying to master all of them. But before he could do that, Bigham had to measure them.

Back in 2020, while working for a different team, Bigham had been focusing on research for his former team to chase a whole slew of cycling records when the pandemic shut down the entire sport. At that point, Bigham had two things that could produce results: a mountain of data and more time than he knew what to do with.

Bigham decided to turn himself into his own hour record guinea pig. Experimenting with gear, training, and grueling practice runs, he studied more variables for this one 60-minute effort than possibly any cyclist in history. Some went well, leading him to think he might be able to take a shot. Others, not so much—during one practice, his entire right arm went numb.

“It’s scraping the barrel to find the extra 50 meters or 100 meters,” says Bigham, “but you really need to sweat those details.”

The hour record has only recently become fashionable again among top professionals. Once held by all-time great Eddy Merckx in the 1970s, it then lay dormant for a spell as disputes over regulations pushed it into obscurity. In one camp were the riders who felt that it should only count if the mark was set on a bike that would be allowed in competition on the road, or close to it. In the other were advocates of speed machines that looked about as street-legal as cruise missiles with handlebars. (When Britain’s Chris Boardman made his record-breaking attempt in 1996, he sat on his Lotus-designed contraption at such a crazy angle with his arms straight out that it became known as the Superman position.)

It took a major simplification of the rules by cycling’s world governing body in the 2010s to bring it back. Now, any bike that is permitted in endurance track events is kosher for the hour record. Even so, no one has tried it on anything quite like Ganna’s rig for this weekend.

For one, the frame of his Pinarello track bike was 3-D printed to keep it light and make it as close to Bigham’s aerodynamic specs as possible. Ineos has also plied Ganna with wheels and tires that boast the lowest rolling-resistance they could find.

Those improvements are mostly to maximize Ganna’s aerodynamic efficiency. Then there’s the piece of gear that’s purely about power: a 65-tooth chain ring that looks more like a frisbee than any part you’ve ever seen on a bike. Combined with a 14-tooth sprocket, it means that every rotation of the pedals causes more than 4.5 revolutions of the back wheel.

“It’s a big disk,” Ganna says, recognizing that most mortals would struggle to get the bike moving.

Starting it is one thing. Keeping it going without falling apart physically is another. And on that front, the team isn’t worried. Ganna is intimately familiar with pacing his effort and producing consistent power. The real risk, Bigham said, is a question of “thermal physiology.”

Bigham expects the temperature inside the velodrome to be in the range of 78 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit, which would be perfectly comfortable for most sporting endeavors. But the hour record is so peculiar that any movement that takes the rider outside of his aerodynamic tuck counts as a waste. That means no drinking and no eating during the ride, in a long-sleeved skinsuit, under the broadcast lights of the arena. Bigham estimates that over an hour of riding, Ganna’s core temperature will be above 104 degrees.

For that, cycling has a decidedly low-tech solution. Studies have found that a prerace slushie, not dissimilar from those sold at the beach, can keep endurance athletes cool for longer than just water. Team Ineos already put that knowledge to good use during this year’s scorching Tour de France, packing three slushie machines on the team bus.

“The hour record is in many respects a slush-eating competition,” Bigham said. “How much can you get down before you start?”

Bigham left no detail to chance for his own attempt, right down to the noise inside the velodrome. He wanted silence for the first 45 minutes and then music and cheering to bring him home for the final 15.

Ganna is less detail-oriented. He wants a long night’s sleep beforehand—”Sleep one hour more is more important than one hour in the track in the morning,” Ganna says—and then plenty of noise for the full 60 minutes of his ride. Ganna has even requested that the team hire a DJ. That’s the confidence that comes with being an Olympic gold medallist, a world champion, and a stage winner on Grand Tours.

Asked what his longest effort was in preparing to take on the hour, Ganna replied matter-of-factly, “One hour.”

“I do very well,” he added.

In other words, there won’t be much suspense on Saturday at the Velodrome Suisse in Grenchen, Switzerland. The real question for Ganna is just how far beyond the record he’ll go.

“For the head it’s easy,” he said. “It’s just for the legs.”

-The Wall Street Journal