My “Relentless Pursuit of Cycling Aerodynamics” articles chronicle my journey in recent years to beat the Masters World Record for the 3km pursuit event. I have come close to the record before; I missed by 0.7 seconds last fall at Masters Track Worlds. When I was recently invited to a special “record attempt” event at the velodrome in Aguascalientes, Mexico, they didn’t need to wait long for my answer. The velodrome in Aguascalientes is viewed by many as the fastest velodrome in the world when the conditions line up – the altitude is 6200 feet, typical hot weather, and fast wooden surface on the 250-meter track.
There were nine other cyclists who made the trip, so it was great to meet new faces as well and we even had professional photographer Craig Huffman taking incriminating late race “suffer-face” photos as part of the package. Rob Van Houweling did an impressive job arranging all the logistics from scheduling the required UCI and USAC officials, velodrome rental, drug testing, and many other logistics not even seen by the rest of us.
Rob’s wife is Molly Van Houweling. Molly set the UCI women’s professional Hour Record a couple years ago. During Molly’s record pursuit, Rob built impressive timing equipment that feeds electronic lap splits to a portable electronic display. Rob also has detailed track data and hourly air density logs for this velodrome and worked in detail with Molly aero testing equipment here. He knows how to set a record at this venue and has more data on it than just about anyone and I love data.
For the first time ever, I controlled the choice of when I’d race. I had two days at the track to schedule my attempt. The second day was clearly the better of the two with sunnier weather to heat the indoor velodrome up more. I scheduled my attempt for the late afternoon when Rob’s data showed that the indoor velodrome temperatures would peak.
I rode the track the day before and soon found myself warming up in the basement level with others on the day of the event. When my time came, I checked-in with the dozen or so officials and staff before lining up in the starting gate. Although I wasn’t racing anybody the way I had at World’s, I felt even more pressure given the focus, cost and time I’d invested in the next 12 laps of this 250-meter track. The 40-44 World Record, the one that I missed by 0.7 seconds, stood at 3:24.95. The 87 degree conditions and altitude pointed to a fast track. Now it was time to focus and execute.
Starting gate. 30-second countdown. A couple cheers from the three other cyclists making attempts right after me. Last five seconds beeping. 4, 3, 2, 1… the gun! I surged forward. A loud grind. My bike stopped. Not good.
I’d like to say my start was just too powerful but the reality was I hadn’t tightened the rear axle in the dropouts enough. I worried I’d broken something, putting my entire trip in jeopardy. Fortunately I was able to reinstall the wheel, tighten the rear dropout bolts extra tight, and confirmed I was good to go after an extra warm-up lap. I regrouped and
tried to relax. I climbed back in the starting gate – take two. While this was not the start I had in mind. I told myself it was a tension breaker as the countdown began again. 5,4,3,2,1… I was off clean this time!
I wound my 56×14 gear up and settled into the aerobars late on the backstretch. My equipment testing and analysis all said it should be within reach, but data and execution can be two different things. Focus.
I needed 16.4 second lap splits for the record but decided to target 16.2 – about 2 seconds faster than the record. Rob’s timing system gave me visual lap splits as soon as each lap registered on the timing strip. My first lap was 23.0 seconds. My fastest ever, by nearly a second. Perhaps too fast? It felt good though. Time to relax and spin for lap 2.
Lap 2 = 16.8. I’d backed off too much. I pushed my 112rpm cadence up a notch. Lap 3 = 16.4 seconds. Time to push up again to get on target pace. At this point of a pursuit I’m on auto-pilot, going through the checklist in my head of how I feel. Can I hold the pace? Will I blow up too early? Am I above or below target time? I even weigh risk-reward of going a little faster, yet knowing that doing so can risk everything if you go off your game plan and blow up early.
Lap 4 = 16.1. Lap 5 = 15.9. It’s easy to get excited when laps get fast. But then suffering invariably takes over. Breathing turns to frantic hyperventilating. My throat burned far more than usual. My legs were screaming. I wouldn’t make it at this pace. I backed off slightly.
16.1 and 16.4 for laps 6 and 7. Going into lap 8, I was still burning up. I was ahead of world record pace. I started my “all-out mode” – pedaling every stroke like it’s my last. I had to hang on and keep the bike rolling for a few more laps. The next two laps were 16.2. I could feel my body shutting down, but pushed on. 16.4, 16.5… The final lap bell sounded. I had to convince my now nearly useless lactate-packed legs that they could do one more lap. I pushed into the pain cave. “Bang!”. The finishing gun sounded.
Exhausted, I started to slow as I entered my roll down laps. The encouraging sound of clapping and cheering pierced my frantic breathing. I rolled a few laps to a stop. I needed help dismounting my bike. The judge said, “3:22.7”. A new UCI 40-44 World Record by more than two seconds!
I spent the next 30 minutes coughing and hacking in a heap on the floor. Doping control waited patiently. I was thrilled inside and I fumbled for my phone and texted home before going with the doping control for the required drug testing.
I can pick apart my early pacing, but I handled the second half of the race as well as I could and it paid off. While my quest for the Masters World Record is complete, the pursuit of speed gains will continue as long as they’re out there. I’m looking forward to some unstructured training and summer fun before ramping back up for Masters Track Worlds in Los Angeles this October – the first time the United States has hosted.
Thanks for reading!