How far can you go in an hour?

How far can you cycle in an hour? It sounds a simple question, but one that took me 12 months of training to find the answer. As requested, by a grand total of one person (thanks Sonja!), I will give you all an insight into my journey to find out how far a 47 year old can go in one hour.

To be honest, I am not even sure when the idea took hold. I do remember that after training last year on an outdoor velodrome I looked at my average speed (around 44kmh) and wondered how this compared to the world record. The answer is… did not! The record of 49.5km on an hour totally eclipsed what I could do. As far as I could tell, this was set by an Australian athletic god who clearly had no place messing around on a trike!

However, the seed was planted and for some unknown reason this unreachable target acted as fertilizer to this obscene goal. So off I went to do some research into how the previous record was obtained. My findings gave me some hope. Firstly, it was set on a wooden velodrome, a surface known to be quicker than the bumpy British tarmac I was used to. Secondly, the trike used was clearly a lot more specialised than the racing trikes used on the British circuit.

Armed with this information, I contacted my local velodrome in Newport. 250m long with 42 degree banking, this was exactly the same setup as the velodrome the record was set on. However, at first the response was not positive. There was much teeth sucking and tales of previous attempts by trikes leading to capsizes and broken bones. However, after being reassured by others that it was indeed possible and, more importantly, a change in management at the velodrome, the venue was confirmed.

Now to the trike. To this end I contacted, or as many would describe it, harassed, the maker of the existing world hour record trike, Tim Corbett. The initial conversation was promising. After describing my power levels over one hour, Tim thought I was in the ballpark to get the record. Having ignited Tim’s interest, we began discussing how to build a record-breaking trike. Take it away Tim…

The Trike

Believe it or not, the Phantom Mini-T was never originally intended, nor designed for, unfaired shenanigans.  The Mini-T began as a chassis for my own fully faired 24hr solo aspirations.  Only later did it occur to me that the chassis, sans fairing, might be quite fast.  I had the good fortune of watching Guenther Brockmann set the 24hr solo unfaired trike record in 2016 at Aldenhoven, only a few short months after learning that I’m actually only a mediocre long-distance rider.  A quick review of the WRRA honour board after Dekra, and it occurs to me the 1hr unfaired trike world record was quite low hanging fruit, so I took the chance to submit an early mark to WRRA before truly talented and exceptional peers cottoned on. 

I think the cat must have gotten out of the bag, as the very next day the Trisled people had bettered my mark.  Anyway, the mark swung back and forth a few times with pretty much the same trike (as a side mission mind you!) while I focussed heavily on preparing fully faired trikes for the solo 24hr faired record.  Most of this time I wondered and pondered ways to improve it; how much better the unfaired version could be if I focussed on its development?

That is, until some guy from Wales contacts me out of the blue wanting to know if his IceVTX might be up to the task?  As you will gather from James’ debrief, the answer is quite clearly no.  I shared the approximate power vs speed data with James from Kyle’s attempt and offered to build one for him out of the same moulds if he’s keen.  A very short pause (in messenger timeframes), followed by Yes, and now I’m locked in and excited by the prospect of building my first trike for a customer!

For the most part, the Phantom T2 is a close clone of the Mini-T, but with an improved driveline and some tacked-on fairings to improve the airflow around bluff parts of the trike, namely the bottom bracket and the cross member.  The pedal boom was a bit of an afterthought on the Mini-T, so the leading edge of the pedal boom also become rounded on the T2.

For the driveline on he T2, I eliminated the mid-drive that is needed on the Mini-T to gear up and reach 80kph. This almost halved the driveline loss compared to the Mini-T.  The driveline on the T2 is still a compromise to aerodynamics, with the rear derailleur for instance tucked up and forward of the rear cassette to keep the airflow coming off the back of the trike as clean as possible.  This had the unfortunate result of reducing the usable gear range down to a 25-12 cassette ☹.  I have a clear pathway to get this back up to a more reasonable 11-36 for the next prototype.  I’m still quite amazed that James chose to ride it up the 10% climbs at the worlds – kudos to you, James!

The next major thing/s that people who ride the Phantom trikes notice is how exceptionally stiff, but yet still comfortable and ergonomic the trike is.  The Mini-T and T2 have only a 3mm EVA foam pad adhered to the seat. This is to minimise compliance which eats up the rider’s effort – big thick spongy seat cushions might be comfy, but they really eat up your power!  The shape has been refined and iterated at least 7 times over 20years, I’ve found having an ergonomic seat really helps to maximise the amount of power getting to the pedals for the same rider output.  We’ve seen time and again the rider’s power output lift at the same heart rate, when moving from a more compliant chassis.  On this note, I estimate the Phantom family of trikes to be about 8-10times stiffer than traditional crucifix tadpole trikes.  This is mostly due to having frame members twice as deep, and stiffness is a cubic function of depth. There are also some extra gains from the unified/monocoque structure.

I’ll try not to overstay my self-promotional welcome, and finish with a few words on mass.  Many people are keen to know how much it weights.  They are surprised to learn that it is ~17kg.  Carbon fibre things are meant to be light, right?  Well, yes, but I’m not optimising for light! Roughly in order, I’m optimising for:

  1. Aerodynamics – 80% of your power is used moving air out of the way at 30kph,
  2. CRR – build your bike around the fastest tyre you can find,
  3. Ergonomics – help the rider make more power,
  4. Stiffness – help the rider make more power and retain more of it,
  5. Driveline efficiency – minimise how much power is lost between the pedals and the rear wheel

8)    Mass.  FWIW, I do expect to drop the overall mass down to sub 15kg over the next few builds.

If you’d like to know more, find me at Phantom Speedbikes on FB.  There’s plenty of build pics of the T2 shown there, and in much deeper detail than I could ever hope to cover in a magazine!

And now, back to James, for the very important engine details.

The training

Refining the engine was going to take a bit of work! The previous year I had trained in a haphazard manner, with a lot of time spent on the turbo trainer in the winter followed by some longer rides on the road in the summer. My only goal had been to beat my friend John Greed (until he left me for the faired community!). Now I had a target in mind I approached Youcef Cummings, from Handsling Coaching, to see if he could help me.

His assessment of my previous training files was stark. I had zero sprinting ability! However, lucky enough for me I was not too bad at long sustained efforts. So, physiologically I was suited to an hour record attempt.

We started the training gradually in October. As well as some easy rides, this took the form of some gym work. I had not stepped into a weights room since I finished competing internationally at dinghy sailing and I was a different shape then and a lot younger.  Youcef’s rationale was that we needed to prepare the body for the upcoming strain. Squats and deadlifts were duly completed and became gradually easier, despite my red-faced appearance! Multiple abdominal exercises were also prescribed, which seemed to vary in their description  but all left me feeling nauseous. After a few months of these there was even a slight hint at a six pack, although only in the strong morning downlight of the bathroom velux window while breathing in.

Come spring and the intervals began. This took the form of short intervals (say over 7 mins) which gradually lengthened until I was completing two sets of one hour at just under my threshold heart rate with 5 mins rest between. Part of this was physiological, pushing the body to adapt. The other part was psychological, teaching my mind to cope with the sensations of one hour of flat-out effort.

Aside from the intervals, the rest of the training took the form of long rides. These started off at 2 hours but quickly progressed to 4 hours, often going up and down the same quiet costal roads. I can still shut my eyes and remember every pothole. I found these rides the hardest, struggling with an inner dialogue that even I did not find very entertaining. Riding partners for a trike rider are hard to come by and 99% of the time it was just me. However, these sessions worked. By the spring I could hold over 280 watts for four hours without breaking the prescribed 150 bpm on the heart rate monitor. The coach was duly proud of the increased mitochondrial density. I was feeling ready for some sessions down the velodrome.

My first session “on the boards” was nerve racking. Bryan, the track coach, told me with a worrying smile he had never seen a trike go around the 42 degree banking without tipping over but I was welcome to try. I knew it was possible but my faith in physics was tested as I built up speed and steered up onto the track. When I unclenched my eyes I realised the banking was easier to handle than the straights, with the trike shooting around the wall of death.

It was all great fun. However, the ICE VTX, although a truly great road racing machine, was just not fast enough to get to record pace. 360w was only giving me 46kmh. To be fair, Bryan did not laugh too much when he asked what the existing record was. It came as a huge relief when the Phantom trike arrived, and I was managing to break the magical 18 second lap barrier with comparative ease.

These track sessions were of vital importance. I learned to hold myself on the black line that dictated the 250m track length. Any higher up the track and I would be giving away hundreds of meters. I also learned the minimal speed I could go to stay stuck to the banking on the first lap. No one wants to go off too hard for an hour attempt, but equally no one wants to end up balancing upside down on their head if they hit the banking too slow. Especially in front of all the handpicked people you deeply want to impress.

The training hurt!

The last session gave me confidence. I could hold the required speed to break 50km without feeling like the world would implode for thirty minutes. The question was how I would cope riding the track for one hour with the g force of the banking taking effect. Only one way to find out…the big day had arrived.

The Big Day

To some extent I was relieved that the day of the attempt had arrived. One way or the other it was going to over. I would soon be greeted by the burning shame of failure or warm embraces of success. Either way, beer was going to involved.

The attempt was not going to occur until 6:30pm, so I had all day to consider my prospects. I spent this time trying to save energy but realised I had failed when I found myself walking down a country footpath talking to myself about lap times and pacing.

Finally, the evening arrived. I headed down to the Geraint Thomas National Velodrome in Newport. The track was very quiet as I wheeled the Phantom in. My brother soon arrived, followed by Jonathan Woolrich and Dave Larrington, the witnesses to the event. They proceeded to photograph and document the trike and track timing mechanisms, one of which had been kindly supplied by Mike Mowett, from the WRRA. These individuals capture what is so great about the recumbent community. Time is given for free and support willingly handed out. The skin suit was pulled on and aero socks pulled up. The small crowd (whose main criteria for invitation involved my desire to impress them) arrived to witness the warmup laps. These 50 or so laps felt good as I pushed harder and harder to get to race pace. I eased the effort down, stopped for a gel and a drink and headed to the start line. The moment of reckoning had arrived.

The big moment! Welcome to one hour of pain

With Jonathan ready with the stopwatch and Bryan counting me down, I kept repeating to myself “Don’t start too fast”. With adrenaline pumping through your veins, 500w can feel like 100w, at least until reality and lactic acid hits 3 minutes later. The rather sadistic mantra was “let the pain come to you”.

To this end, my pacing strategy was to gradually reach racing pace at by the end of the third lap and then hold laps of 17.9 seconds for the next 200 laps. If I was on this schedule Bryan would give me thumbs up. If below I would receive a depressing thumbs down. I was therefore pleased when I saw Bryan’s upright thumb after 10 minutes. Even better, the sensations in the body felt great. Perceived effort was low (ish!) and my heart rate was under the critical number of 176bpm.

Hard to believe but on the track, at these speeds, the trike actually accelerates around the steep banking, while the straights required accurate steering against the camber of the track.

These good feelings continued until I reached 30 minutes, when I began to feel a slight cramping in my hamstrings. It always amazes me how your mood can fluctuate during an event like this. My previous exuberant state was collapsing into one of panic as I imagined pulling up short in front of my friends. Lucky enough, the preparation of the previous long interval sessions had taught me that it is possible to pedal through these cramps. More than that, my coach had told me just before I started that I should expect to have some very dark points in the hour attempt. Accept it will happen and get through it.

After 30 minutes the effort began to bite.

From my reclined position I could see the laps completed and the time on the massive scoreboard as I went around the banking. The object was 200 laps which even I could work out was 50 laps every 15 mins. By 30 minutes I had overcome the controlled starting effort and was 2 laps up on target. By 45 minutes I had slowed slightly but not yielded any laps to my virtual competitor. I always imagined time at this point would slow down with 10 minutes turning into 10 hours. However, the opposite seemed to occur. Bryan, in a stroke of genius, encouraged the crowd to bang the plastic hoarding. This noise every 17 seconds felt like someone had introduced a tailwind into the airless velodrome, lifting my lap times and boasting my moral.

23 laps to get the record and under 8 minutes to do them in!!
Is that a grin or look of pain?

As the clock hit 60 minutes the whistle blew and I cruised around the banking with genuine tears in my eyes. 50.491km distance covered. Being handed the Welsh flag and seeing the joy in my family and friend’s faces had truly made all the work and expense worthwhile. Even now I still feel the emotion well up when I remember that night in Newport, seeing how far I could pedal a (rather special) recumbent trike around a track in one hour. And yes, that beer tasted great after!

Record distance of 50.491 km!

2 thoughts on “How far can you go in an hour?

  1. Hi James,

    Fantastic, well done.

    Can I get one to go for an age related (65 as of now) attempt. The only thing I miss about riding an up-right is the training on the turbo and testing. I would love to have something to strive for on 3 wheels, I did think about a velomobile but the price put me off.




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