Competing for a place in the cycling pantheon. The Belgian hour record holders

6min reading time   by Dries De Zaeytijd on 06 October 2022
The hour record exudes magic. More than that, whoever sets a record is immediately assured of a place in the history books. Exactly 50 years ago, Eddy Merckx set such a feat. However, the Cannibal was neither the first nor the last Belgian to achieve such a feat. Until now, five Belgians managed to set an hour record in their name. An overview.

Shortly after the introduction of the modern bicycle (around 1885), cycling definitely flourishes. Many long-distance races (Bordeaux-Paris, Paris-Brest-Paris,...) see the light of day. Soon various record attempts are also made on bicycles, with or without the help of mechanical or human pace-making.

The first officially recognised hour record without assistance dates from 11 May 1893. That day, Henri Desgrange - the man who would head the Tour de France for several decades from 1903 - covered 35 kilometres and 325 metres in 1 hour. It is not until 1897 that we see the first Belgian on the honours list.

1897: Oscar Van Den Eynden

Malinois Oscar Van Den Eyden is a renowned amateur cyclist when he launches his assault on the world endurance record on 30 July 1897. He performs well on the track as well as on the road. Yet breaking the hour record does not seem to be among his immediate possibilities.

The Frenchman Jules Dubois holds the record in 1897 with a distance of 38 kilometres and 240 metres, a record that is recorded as particularly strong. Therefore, if Van Den Eynden has covered more than 39 kilometres after his attempt, it is a feat. The press does not value this achievement. (Hour) records were still too common at the time. However, nobody could take away from the fact that the Belgian from Mechelen is the first Belgian ever to hold this record.

1967: Ferdinand Bracke

After top cyclists such as Fausto Coppi, Roger Rivière and Jacques Anquetil managed to break the hour record, interest in the phenomenon grew rapidly. When Belgian Ferdinand Bracke manages to break the 48-kilometre wall in one hour for the first time on 30 October 1967, his achievement receives international acclaim.

Today, the Flemish Walloon - Bracke was born in Hamme but has lived near Charleroi almost all his life - still cherishes a thick folder filled with newspaper clippings in which his achievement is praised by the national and international press. Equally precious souvenirs are his bike and clothing of the time, on display at KOERS. Museum of Cycling in Roeselare. In Bracke's own words, the hour record is his greatest achievement internationally.

1972: Eddy Merckx

Voor Eddy Merckx is 25 oktober 1972 één van de belangrijkste data uit zijn carrière. In Mexico City voegt de Eddy alweer een roemrijke pagina toe aan zijn dan al rijk gevuld Gulden Boek. Merckx is de eerste renner die er in slaagt om meer dan 49 kilometer in één uur tijd af te leggen. Uitgeput maar erg tevreden laat de Belg zich na afloop van zijn fiets hijsen.

Terugkijkend op die prestatie laat liet Merckx zijn biograaf optekenen dat zijn loopbaan niet volledig zou geweest zijn zonder het uurrecord aan te vallen. Maar evident was het allemaal niet, zelfs niet voor de Kannibaal zo blijkt in zijn biografie: “Ik denk dat het mijn zwaarste uur was. Op een col zie je af, maar kan je je rechtzetten. Op een piste moet je blijven zitten. Ik had ’s anderdaags niet op mijn fiets kunnen kruipen. Dat was onmogelijk.”

From Merckx to Moser and back

For more than 4,000 days, Merckx's record remains on the tables. In 1984, it is Italian Francesco Moser, on a futuristic-looking bike, who manages to cover more than 50 kilometres on a first attempt and more than 51 kilometres on a second attempt. A few years later, Scotsman Graeme Obree in turn breaks Moser's record on an atypical bike. Shortly afterwards, Briton Chris Boardman, among others, follows suit.

In 2000, the UCI intervenes and the cycling federation wants to limit the use of extreme seating positions and special aerodynamic frames and parts. Merckx's performance (and his use of an 'ordinary' racing bike) becomes the reference point again. Attempts with deviating bikes will now fall under the UCI Best Human Effort category. Until 2014, when the UCI makes another change and is now open to some aerodynamic modifications after all.

2019: Victor Campenaerts

In 2014, Jens Voigt rekindles interest in the hour record with his attempt. He takes the record to 51.110 metres. Multiple British Olympic champion and Tour winner Bradley Wiggins definitively gains eternal fame a year later when he manages to cover more than 54 kilometres after 1 hour.

A similar honour is bestowed on Belgian Victor Campenaerts when he manages to demolish the 55-kilometre wall for the first time in 2019, smashing Wiggins' record. Vocsnor set that feat in Mexico on a Belgian Ridley bike. For three years, Campenaerts can enjoy his status as hour record holder.

16 April 2019. Victor Campenaerts appears on the Aguascalientes cycling track with one goal in mind: to break Bradley Wiggins' hour record. He is the first rider ever to break the magic barrier of 55 kilometres in one hour.

Discover his secret

2022: Ewoud Vromant

In the summer of 2022, Campenaerts will see his record improved by British engineer-cyclist Dan Bigham. Just then, G-cyclist Ewoud Vromant writes history. On his left leg, the East Fleming covered 46.521 kilometres on 16 July after one hour of spinning laps on the Swiss Tissot Velodrome in Grenchen. This makes him the first Belgian to set a world endurance record in paracycling (MC 2 class).

Vromant drew inspiration for his attempt from his rival Colin Lynch. Lynch is the first paracyclist to set an official record in 2016. Ewoud testifies, "Little by little the realisation grew that I could do that too, especially as I developed further as a time trialist and pursuer. But it really was a tough hour. After just under 10 minutes, I was already at my limit, something I had only expected for the second half of my record attempt. I really had to hold on for an hour. Mentally, that was tough. I rode the last laps with tears in my eyes. I realised that my attempt was going to succeed and heard my family and friends in the background. And then emotions come off of course."

Who will be the next Belgian to add his or her name to the select company of world endurance record holders?

Hour record

The hour record is the record for the longest distance cycled in one hour on a bicycle from a stationary start. Cyclists attempt this record alone on the track without other competitors present. It is considered one of the most prestigious records in cycling. Since it was first set, cyclists ranging from unknown amateurs to well-known professionals have held the record, adding to its prestige, romance and allure. There is now one unified record for upright bicycles meeting the requirements of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). Hour-record attempts for UCI bikes are made in a velodrome.
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