A closer look at New 'Hour' Challenger Counts on Cervélo


Approaches to UCI record may differ, but latest women’s attempts share the same bike: A Cervélo T4


The last 16 months have seen eight men and two women take aim at cycling the longest distance in 60 minutes from a stationary start. The most recent successful attempt, by American Molly Shaffer Van Houweling last September, established a unified women’s mark of 46.273 km on a Cervélo T4. Until then, the previous record had been in place for more than 12 years.

The UCI’s recent modernization and simplification of bike-design and equipment rules appears to have opened the metaphorical floodgates. Indeed, if Bridie O’Donnell achieves her goal on Jan. 22 — also on a T4 — Van Houweling’s mark will have stood for less than five months.

Speaking over the phone from her home base in Melbourne, O’Donnell, 41, describes her recently announced attempt as “a big metaphor for the whole idea of doing something exceptional, and that the process is more important than the day itself.”

She is certainly familiar with preparing for rigorous tests of all kinds. The seven-time Australian rowing champion and Ironman triathlete is also a licensed medical doctor, who at the age of 35 decided to focus her considerable energies on elite road cycling.

Success followed yet again, with O’Donnell earning Australian and Oceanian time-trial championships, as well as an Oceania road title. “As an athlete I’ve been so fixated on preparing myself. That’s what road cycling does, particularly time-trials. You’re constantly measuring yourself against the best women riders.” 

With her Hour attempt, however, O’Donnell is focused less on measuring up and more on “enjoying and appreciating the process of getting better.”

After completing the litany of costly paperwork required to make an UCI-endorsed Hour attempt, O’Donnell hit the boards at the DISC velodrome in Melbourne. The first thing she learned: “I have a lot to learn.” Beyond riding the line and mastering a single-speed machine, an intimate understanding her “functional threshold” — that is, her ability to sustain her highest possible power output over 60 minutes — will be essential to riding at least 46.274 km.

With coaching from HPTek sport scientists Dr. Stephen Lane and Ken Ballhause, O’Donnell is working hard to tailor her physical limits to the task at hand. “I do five minutes at my functional threshold power, and then one minute of recovery. And I do eight of these in a row. The first five feel OK, but then six, seven and eight make me ask: ‘How often can I do this?’”

Beyond their bike of choice, O’Donnell and Van Houweling are attacking the record quite differently. “She’s taken a more step-by-step route by saying she wanted to break the masters record, and then progressively improving her performance. I’ve done a little more racing on the road and more time-trialing and specific testing on the track.”

Another key difference: The venue. The Adelaide Super-Drome is within walking distance of the Indian Ocean; Van Houweling set her mark nearly two kilometres above sea level at the Aguascalientes velodrome in Mexico. “It’s a double-edged sword,” O’Donnell says. “On one hand, thinner air means higher speeds, but greater physiological demands due to a lower partial pressure of oxygen.”

Then there’s the fact that the current record was set in a near-empty venue, while O’Donnell’s attempt will take place right after Stage 4 of Australia’s only UCI WorldTour event, the hugely popular Santos Tour Down Under. “We need UCI and Cycling Australia officials there anyway, along with tech people and official timing, so we decided do it at the same time to cut down on costs. We’re saying: ‘Come watch a stage of the tour, and then pay $20 to see some of the best female cyclists in the world,’ including Australian track sprint team members Anna Meares and Stephanie Morton, who will race prior to O’Donnell’s attempt as part of their preparation for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

The spotlight, however, will belong to O’Donnell. “My objective is to break the record, but I’m secretly planning for it to be by more than a metre.”

After all, no Hour record is safe these days.