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Alex Dowsett’s Perfect Hour

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Photographs: Timothy John

Faster and faster he goes. Louder and louder roars the crowd. Remorseless is the counting down of the clock, relentless the rising tide of lactic acid in the rider’s legs. Still the laps mount up.
He has been down on the pace required for a new record for much of the ride, then on par, and now he is faster – much faster. The crowd wills him on, straining to pass every ounce of its energy to the man on the track, who rides solo, but is far from alone.

Ten minutes to go. History is being made, if the rider can only maintain his pace. Helpers are stationed either side of the track: a laptop on one side, hand signals on the other. All bases are covered, but only the rider can deliver.
And how. He reaches the 50km mark some 17 seconds faster than the existing record. The handbrake comes off. He is free to ride, to absorb every last atom of support inside the velodrome, to suck in the noise of the crowd like oxygen. This what they have come to see.
Finally, the bell. One more lap. The goal is accomplished, but still he pushes to the line. An explosion of noise from the crowd. The rider rips off his helmet and punches the air. Alex Dowsett is the new world hour record holder. He has delivered, as promised, the Perfect Hour.

Commence countdown
It’s a clear, bright winter’s morning in Trafalgar Square, but it is in the darkened confines of a sports bar a stone’s throw away that Dowsett announces his intention to attempt the Hour Record. The project has a code name: Perfect Hour. The statement is simple, and effective. To better Matthias Brändle’s mark of 51.852 – or any set in the expected flurry of attempts before Dowsett rides on February 27, 2015 – everything must be perfect.

Continuing the theme, Canyon unveils a prototype of the Speedmax WHR – the modified road time trial machine on which Dowsett will make his attempt. Canyon’s engineers are among the most respected in the industry and have grown accustomed to success.
The angular and gleaming machine is striking even by their standards, and based on a simple, unflinchingly precise calculation: Dowsett must ride above 52kmh for an hour. To do so, he will need to produce 400 watts. Air resistance will account for 360 watts. “Setting a new Hour Record is above all else a fight against aerodynamic drag,” Canyon declare. Every watt will count. It is not only the rider who must be perfect.
The stakes for Dowsett, however, are higher still. He announces that his attempt will be made to inspire the haemophiliac community. Dowsett was born with the condition and at the press conference describes the “gloomy outlook” presented to his parents: one clouded further by talk of wheelchairs, crutches and fusing joints. He has spent the off-season meeting families faced with the same situation and is clearly moved by the response.

January 13 brings bad news. Dowsett has fallen, in training, on open roads. He is in hospital with a fractured right collarbone. Uncertainty follows. The rider updates the world from his hospital bed via Twitter. He is playing it cool, putting a brave face on it. Nandos chicken is uppermost in his thoughts, according to his Tweets, at least. But there is a resolution to continue as planned, and to attempt the record on February 27, if at all possible.

February will become a busy month for Hour Record attempts. Jack Bobridge gets things underway on the 1st, with a cripplingly unsuccessful attempt in Melbourne. If Dowsett needs reminding that the Hour is not a given, the Australian – a track rider of real pedigree – provides it. He starts too fast, records a distance a 51.852km, and has to be lifted from his bike. The pain is as close to death as can be imagined, Bobridge quips.
A week later, in Grenchen, Switzerland, it is the turn of another Australian, Rohan Dennis. Now it is serious. Dennis won the Tour Down Under the previous month, and is a rider of similar profile to Dowsett: a classy time-trialist with WorldTour and track pedigree. Dennis does not disappoint, adding a further 600m to the record established by Matthias Brändle last October. A new mark is established: 52.491km. A gauntlet is thrown, but Dowsett has not recovered in time to keep his original date.

Show time
The National Cycling Centre, Manchester, England. February 27, 2015. The time is now. The Perfect Hour, assuming such a thing is attainable, awaits.
The crowds have come in from under a typically grey Mancunian sky to bask in the pool of light that is the 250 metres of Siberian pine on which Dowsett will attempt to produce a perfect hour’s work.

The atmosphere is soaked with nervous anticipation and an underlying current of goodwill sweeps Dowsett onto the track when the time to ride arrives. The noise is impressive, but muted by comparison with the deafening crescendo that will follow.
Coach Mark Walker sits just past the start-finish line, his eyes glued to the glowing screen of the laptop in front of him. Behind, sits Eusebio Unzué, Dowsett’s boss at Movistar, a grandee of cycling’s elite WorldTour. Dowsett’s return to Manchester in such company represents a perfect circle: it was here that he learned much of his trade as a bike rider as one of the early cohort of British Cycling Academy riders.

Steady wins the race
“Steady wins the race,” Walker has told Dowsett. The coach knows his man, that Dowsett is at once the master of the controlled effort and the crowd pleasing showman. Which will show up? In the last moments of the warm-up, he has reminded Dowsett that while the schedule can be gradually increased, there is no room for recovery should he start too fast.

Dowsett’s team has done its sums, made its calculations, generated models of the attempt by computer. Now it is down to Dowsett to deliver. The tension is fast becoming unbearable, though the man at the centre of affairs seems calm. He swigs from a bottle of mineral water, reaches a hand over his shoulder to adjust the zip at the back of his skinsuit, and makes his way past an army of photographers onto the track.

Perfect Hour
The white bike is held in a red jig. Somewhere between the forest of helpers, Dowsett can be glimpsed climbing aboard. There is silence and then the beeps of the electronic countdown. Dowsett rises from the saddle, positions himself behind it, and at the fifth beep, slings his hips forward and sets out on a journey in search of the Perfect Hour.

The noise is immediate. The crowds who have travelled to Manchester to watch Dowsett rather than witness the Tour de Yorkshire on the other side of the Pennines roar their appreciation. There is quality among the interested observers, too. Four-time Milano-Sanremo winner Erick Zabel and Olympic gold medallist Andreas Walzer are among Canyon’s entourage. And Michael Hutchinson has joined the assembled hacks on the press bench.
Hutchinson knows more than a little about the Hour Record, having attempted it twice and published a book on the subject. He is also a road time-trialist of a pedigree almost to match Dowsett. He has noted Dowsett’s gear, discussed his intended cadence, and concluded that the record is within his grasp, if only he remains calm.
The biggest danger is starting too quickly, Hutchinson warns. Against that, must be set the fact that the first 10 minutes should feel easy. If it doesn’t, he shrugs, you won’t be breaking any records, but therein lies the danger, and the temptation to ride harder.

Ride on time
With nearly 40 minutes of the Hour used, Dowsett is nearly 6.5 seconds behind Dennis’s record-setting pace, but – critically – he is not behind the schedule that Walker has planned. There is scope to go faster. And with 50 minutes complete, he does exactly that. The crowd, which has to this point been merely supportive, responds accordingly. The faster Dowsett goes, the louder they become. It is a virtuous circle – perfect, you might say.

Now it is time for Dowsett the blood-and-guts warrior to emerge. For the opening half-an-hour, he has shown us the time-trialist: the Grand Tour stage winner and Commonwealth champion; the old school ‘tester’ who obliterated the record for that most revered of British time trialling disciplines, the ‘10’. Now he revises his performance from the 2011 London Nocturne, where he lapped the field, or from stage five of the 2014 Tour of Britain, where he rode into yellow from a three-man break that survived for a 153km.
Faster and faster. Louder and louder. The clock counts down remorselessly. He has matched Dennis’ record. Now he has passed it. A deafening roar. Then joy, tears, but not collapse – Dowsett raises his bike over his head in triumph. Above all else, there is the sense that he could go further, faster. The Perfect Hour might just be the beginning, not the end.

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