Ellen van Dijk has won a lot during her career, particularly as a time trialist, but she’s never done anything like the UCI hour record.
Last month, the Trek-Segafredo rider announced her intentions to tackle one of cycling’s toughest challenges and she will be setting off around the track in Grenchen, Switzerland in just two weeks’ time. When she does, she will be trying to beat the 48.405km set by Joss Lowden in the same velodrome, in September 2021.
For Van Dijk, the lone effort around those Swiss boards brings together some of the things she loves most about cycling. There’s no aim other than how far she can travel in the space of an hour.
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“For me as a time trialist, I love it because it’s a pure discipline. It’s just who can ride their bike the fastest and that’s something which really, really attracts me,” Van Dijk told VeloNews in a video call just before she traveled to Switzerland. “The hour record is the summit of the time trial and it’s the highest thing you can achieve as a time trialist.
“For me, it’s always been this top of the list thing, like one day I want to do it. It’s the ultimate test of how much you can suffer yourself or how much pain you can give yourself, I think, and not just that it’s technique and aerodynamics. But for me, it’s a very, very special record.”
When Van Dijk’s record attempt was announced, she spoke of how her second world time trial title made her feel that the time was finally right to do it. However, her dream of taking it on goes back way further than that, to around the time when she won her first time trial world title in 2013.
Try as she might, she couldn’t persuade any of her former teams to give her their blessing to do it. She could have tried to do it on her own, but it would have made it a far harder task than it already was.
“I think for almost 10 years already it’s something that I always thought, ‘one day, I’m going do it.’ I spoke about it with some teams already. I was at Boels Dolmans and at Sunweb. I said to them, ‘I really want to do it,’ and they were not really supportive,” she said.
“They didn’t want to bring me the support I needed. And now this year, Trek really came along and they said, ‘that’s great and we go for it.’ Because it’s a big project that you need a lot of people for and it’s not just me, of course, it’s a big team. This year I really got the resources to do the project.”
Van Dijk is still very much at the top of her game, but at 35 she’s in the latter part of her career rather than at the beginning. Given that she’s dreamt of doing it for such a long time, does she wish she had done it earlier?
“I think it’s a great time but I also think I could have done it earlier,” she said. “Things go the way they go, and you need to support for it because you can’t just make this project by yourself. I’m happy I can do it now. But five years ago, maybe it was also possible.
“In the meantime, I had some difficulties with my back, and I had some bad injuries and then I couldn’t really push the power I wanted so the last couple of years would have been great timing. Before that, I think it was also possible but then the circumstances were not completely right.”
Standing on the shoulders of giants
The women’s hour record has never had as much publicity as the men’s, but the effort has a rich history of well over 100 years, with the first recorded record set in 1893 by circus rider Mlle de Saint-Sauveur. Some of those who held the record are among cycling’s most venerated women, Hélène Dutrieu, Alfonsina Strada, and Elsy Jacobs.
“I looked up the history, and it still goes back for such a long time and that’s what makes this record so special as well,” Van Dijk said. “These women really broke down barriers for women in cycling. Those women, they have been really brave, because back then it’s it was super special to ride your bike as a woman. Now, fortunately, it’s kind of normal. We still have the benefits from their work right now.”
The number of women’s hour record attempts has dropped off in recent years after an initial surge following the unified rule change in 2016, which brought together the hour record with the “best human effort.”
When Lowden made her successful attempt last September, it had been three years since Vittoria Bussi had set a new benchmark of 48.007km and nobody had tried to beat it in the meantime. Lowden said in the buildup to her effort, that she wanted to encourage more women to have a go at it so she would have been quite pleased to see Van Dijk’s announcement.
The pair have met in the peloton since then and Lowden was sharing tips and hints with Van Dijk at Flèche Wallonne last month.
“I really like Joss and I have a lot of respect for what she did because she said a great record and she’s also a super nice person,” she said. “I also spoke to her earlier about the hour, because anyway, is my passion and I think it’s super cool what she did.
“In this conversation, she just said like, ‘hey, how’s it going with the preparation and everything?’ I asked her some questions about the start and how it was for her and she just told me that she did a pretty solid start, like didn’t go really on the edge. I think, to be honest, it’s also the way to go because if you really go on the edge from the beginning, it’s not going to be fun.”
Van Dijk’s buildup to her attempt has been very different from how Lowden prepared for her successful effort. Last year, Lowden squeezed her trip to Switzerland into the middle of a very busy period of racing, traveling straight from the road world championships to the velodrome and then onto the Women’s Tour.
Van Dijk has a much less intensive period after putting a stop to her road racing after Flèche Wallonne. Following three days off the bike, she began training on the track in the Netherlands before heading to Switzerland last Friday.
“I tried to take a couple of days off, but to be honest, in my head it’s difficult because it’s such a big goal that I can’t really shut off. It’s there all the time, I can’t ignore it,” Van Dijk said.
The finer details are still yet to be mapped out and Van Dijk will spend the next two weeks honing her equipment and her own physical efforts. However, she told VeloNews that she’s planning on riding a 58/14 gearing for the attempt, the same as she used in the time trial at the Flanders world championships last year.
No expense is being spared to give Van Dijk the best chance of beating Lowden’s benchmark. Trek built her a custom version of the SpeedConcept time trial bike that has been adapted for the track, and Trek-Segafredo’s kit sponsor Santini has created a new skinsuit for the effort.
“It looks quite simple, I just ride the track for an hour, but so much preparation goes into it, and I’m just super lucky to have such a great team that organizes this all for me,” Van Dijk said. “I feel very special. It’s not just the bike, when we first went to Grenchen and there was a team of I think 10 men I was there with me. They came from everywhere, just because we had testing to see how the track was and I went out for dinner with all these men, who were there for me. It’s definitely a big investment and a big thing from the team.”