Monday, 9 March 2009

The Hour, Michael Hutchinson (2006)

Yellow Jersey 9780224075190 paperback 278pp £11.99

An engaging account of Hutchinson’s preparation for, and attempt on, the hour record, taking in much of the history and mythology of the record along the way

Bookshop shelves groan under the weight of accounts of contrived ‘quests’. It is an effective, if well-worn format. Picking this up casually one might assume that it was another such outing. It takes precious few pages to dispel such misapprehensions.

Hutchinson still is a top flight British tester (technically he is from Northern Ireland, but he has been based in England during the entirety of his cycling career). His decision to attack Chris Boardman’s ‘athletes’ hour’ record was far from the goofy pie-in-the sky ambition that he occasionally implies. Nonetheless, his account of how he went about trying to put his name in the record books is a rich, well-researched and revelatory page turner.

Interspersing in his account of his own efforts, Hutch tells a lot of cycling’s less-well-known tales: the NCU/BLRC split, Francesco Moser’s many, many attempts at hour titles (and Mick Jagger’s witnessing of at least one of them), and Roger Riviere’s drug fuelled trip around the track.
The book – and indeed, his attempt on the record – work because of the curious place that ‘the hour’ occupies in the cycling firmament. For long periods of its history, the record has been ignored. Both the Mercyx and the Moser records of 1972 and 1984 endured for close on a decade, or longer. At other times there has been frenetic activity in pursuit of the prize – most notably the Oscar Egg/Marcel Berthet rivalry in the 1910s and the many successful challenges to the record during the mid 1990s.

Since the establishment of the ‘athlete’s hour’ in 2000, however, cycling’s blue ribbon has been all but forgotten. So, its a real record, that has been contested by many of cycling’s biggest names, but it is not quite outside the bounds of possibility that a hapless unknown, as Hutch paints himself, could be seriously in contention.

His narrative is aided significantly by the extraordinary behaviour of the UCI towards those interested in trying to add their names to the record books. Making up rules on the hoof is patently unfair, and did much to hamper our have-a-go hero – but they provide the story with a comedy subtext that it would otherwise lack.

Those who don’t read the British cycling press might not know how this story concludes, so I won’t spoil the ending. If I have one complaint, however, it is that there is not rather more Nick Hornbyesque self-discovery – particularly at the end of the book. Did the endeavour change him? Is his girlfriend still at his side? Is he now applying himself to some more mundane challenge? Having wheeled along beside him from the byways of Antrim to the Manchester velodrome, I would have enjoyed a little more narrative resolution.

PS Mar 09

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