'The maximum expression of pain' - Vittoria Bussi on the Hour Record
Victor Campenaerts takes on the men's UCI Hour Record today in the same velodrome as Italy's Vittoria Bussi set a new women's mark last September. She exclusively tells The Bradley Wiggins Show that to beat the clock, he'll have to push through the pain barrier...
Today at 4.30pm (UK time), Lotto Soudal time trial specialist Victor Campenaerts will have his crack at the Hour Record, taking on Bradley Wiggins' distance of 54.526km. Just the 219 laps of the Aguascalientes Bicentenary Velodrome in Mexico will do it.
The Belgian will be the seventh man to shoot for Wiggins' mark. He has sacrificed the winter and the first part of his 2019 season for his attempt, spending two months training at altitude in Namibia and then working on his endurance at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he won the final stage 10km time trial.
Aguascalientes is at an altitude of 1,800m, the reduced air pressure meaning the velodrome has one of the fastest tracks in the world. Vittoria Bussi set the women's Hour Record there in September 2018, covering 48.007km to better the mark of 47.980km set by the USA's Evelyn Stevens in Colorado in 2016.
Bussi came to cycling late, having previously been a runner. But she quickly found an affinity with the time trial discipline, finishing third in the ITT Italian National Championships in 2014, fifth in 2016 and second last October.
"But I love the time trial because it's very similar to running. So when people said to me: 'Okay, maybe the Hour is good for you because you don't have to change the gear, you don't have to worry about descending, cornering, staying in the peloton. I started to Google it, read the stories and it was such an epic story, so fascinating that I decided to start training for that."
Bussi has a doctorate in Pure Mathematics from Oxford. Perhaps the science of the Hour Record appealed to her – she knew if she could sustain a certain power output over a certain period of time, the record was hers. But she has described it in possibly the most romantic way we can think of, saying:
" It’s like falling in love with someone. You don’t rationalise anymore, and just say ‘I want to do that.'"
So, is the 32-year-old a mathematician or a romantic?
"I think I'm both, because science needs a bit of romanticism also. Great ideas come from passion, so when you see a theorem, it can be so emotional sometimes – it's not only logic."
The mathematician in Bussi and her clinical eye for detail meant that Brad was a small but important part of her Hour Record attempt.
"He was really inspiring for me," she explains. "I really looked at him, the position, the way he rode on the track. I was really studying carefully everything that I could see on the video on the web. But I think also you need some kind of inspiration that is out of sport.
" Inspiration you can find from your real life outside cycling. That, for me, was when I lost my father. That was my main motivation to do something big in my life and live for two people – for me and my father. When I was doing athletics, he was really close to me, and so coming back to sport was a way to come back close to him in another way."
"I'm not religious, so I couldn't pray for [his] soul or anything – it was just like a sensation that I felt stronger because I was thinking about him. When you do the Hour, you suffer. When you train for the Hour, you suffer because every moment you need to be out of your comfort zone. That's the point.
"So every day you wake up and you need to find a motivation: 'Why should I suffer so much?' You need to ride the furthest a human being has ever ridden, so you need to go to your limits and you need strong motivation for that.
"For me it was like: when I feel pain, I feel alive, and I am in the pain. I don't quit because there is pain. And I think this is the key. Because even if you have good legs, your brain says 'stop, quit' because it's too much. You will start to slow down."
A love story for her times
Bussi speaks from good and bad experience. She first took on the Hour in Aguascalientes in 2017, but fell short. She then climbed off her bike after 44 minutes because of pain in her side during her second attempt last September, but returned to the velodrome the following day to write her name in the history books.
"It was two very long days,” she says. “The first day I was very unlucky – as we said before, it's very scientific, the Hour. You need to calculate the air density. Especially at altitude, air density changes a lot and that day there was heavy rain, no sun, so the velodrome was really cold. There was no advantage of lower air density. Then at some point, the sun came out so I decided to have a go, but I wasn't mentally prepared for that – I had already decided to do it the day after. Then I changed my mind, everything happened so fast, and I wasn't prepared for that. I was almost on pace, but it wasn't enough to break the record."
Being psychologically prepared to deal with the Hour is just as important, says Bussi, as having the strength and conditioning in your legs. But what does she remember of her time on the track in Mexico?
"You think about everything except cycling. If you think you are pedaling at 48kmp/h, you need to do almost 200 laps – it's too much. Your mind cannot support that. I just remember the voice of my boyfriend shouting to me the lap time, loud music, because I had a playlist in the velodrome... the sensation of pain in my leg, neck – pain everywhere, actually. Then most obviously the last minute, because [at that point] I understood I was bringing a world record, so it was really: 'Wow! Exciting!'"
Bradley Wiggins celebrates with his wife Catherine and son Ben after breaking cycling's hour record at the Olympic velodrome in East LondonReuters
Bussi says the main thing for her Hour Record success was containing that excitement and not going out too quickly, staying on pace. She recommends Campenaerts adopts the same mindset:
"You feel easy at the beginning, so the first 10 minutes, 15 minutes, you want just to go... It's difficult, because you're excited: you're trying to break a record!”
The Hour can be a difficult habit to break – never mind the record. Dane Martin Toft Madsen has had three attempts since Brad set his mark in 2015, while his compatriot Mikkel Bjerg has had two. Bussi is no different, despite her success.
"I'm actually thinking about trying to break my Hour Record again,” she says. “You just fall in love with the Hour... maybe next year. But now I'd like to focus more on the road TT."
A different perspective on pain
Bussi has previously talked about how finding a reason for doing the Hour beyond herself helped her to break through what she previously thought her limits were. That, she says now, changed her perception of pain and how she deals with it.
"I remember there was an evolution in my relationship with pain. In the beginning, When you start training for something so big, so far from your limit, at some point you feel pain – and when you feel pain, your mind wants to protect your body: 'Let's quit, this is too hard.' Because it's not just physically but also emotionally painful. When you do something big, you don't want to be embarrassed when you fail. So it's kind of protection from your brain. I remember that sensation. At the beginning, I was listening to my mind, and I was scared: 'Oh my god, the pain is going to arrive. What am I going to do? I'll have to stay with it for so long.'
"Then I changed my point of view: 'Okay, I'm preparing for a world record, so it's normal that I'll feel pain. And it's good if I do, because then I know I'm overriding my limits. So I was searching for pain, actually. It's a change of perspective. But it really changes your relationship with pain, because you're searching for him. It's not him who comes to you and you're scared... Don't be scared of pain."
On that note, Bussi's question for Brad was in a similar vein:
"I was wondering how Bradley's relationship with pain evolved throughout his career," she says. "For me, the Hour was my maximum expression of pain. So: how did the Hour change his relationship with pain? And did he have some motivation beyond himself that enabled him to push through his limits?"
You can hear Brad's response on The Bradley Wiggins Show here: