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The science behind wheeled sports
The science behind wheeled sports

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4.3 Removing the technology

Although the effect of individual technologies can be hard to see, there is, fortunately, a way to observe the effect of technological improvements on cycling.

For this, we need to look at the so-called 'hour record' event, in which an individual cyclist rides for exactly one hour on a track attempting to ride as far as possible. While this is not an Olympic or a World Championship event, the hour record in cycling is quite prestigious and dates back to 1893, when it was set by Henri Desgrange (the man responsible for organising the first Tour de France long-distance road race).

Figure 12 shows the progression of the men's record from 1950 to 2000. Like the women's individual pursuit record in Figure 11 this graph shows continuous improvement, though there is a clear, sharp increase in the 1990s. Is this increase due to better trained, more professional athletes, or is it due to technological improvements?

Figure 12 Progression of the hour distance record in track cycling (1950-2000).

In the late 1990s the organisations that govern international cycling felt that reliance on technology was affecting international cycling by preventing proper comparison of cyclists from different eras. So, while they allowed technology to be part of competitive races such as the Olympics, the cycling authorities decided, in 2000, that the hour record will now only be valid if the cyclist uses technology available in 1972, when the celebrated Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx set the record. Hence, the hour record now must be attempted using a bicycle with 1970s technology.

This decision gives us the opportunity to see the true effect of technological advances on this record. In 1996, before the rule change, the British cyclist Chris Boardman set a new record using modern equipment, riding slightly more than 56 km in the one-hour period. Then, in 2000, he set it again under the new rules using 1970s equipment, this time riding only slightly more than 49 km. The difference in technology can be seen in the photographs in Figure 13, and the difference in performance was about 10 per cent! In fact, Boardman's one-hour distance in 2000 was only 10 m further than that set by Eddy Merckx almost 30 years earlier.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to AFP/Getty Images (Figure 13a) and Getty Images (Figure 13b).
Figure 13 Chris Boardman setting the hour-distance record: (a) in 1996, using all available technology; (b) in 2000, using technology available in 1972.

Hence, you can conclude that although the effect of individual technologies on cycling cannot always be seen in world records, overall advances in modern technology affect performance greatly, especially in long-distance races.