Francesco Moser wasn’t a particularly gifted track rider or time triallist in so far as he made an obvious candidate to become an Hour specialist. At least, not in the sense that a rider like Bradley Wiggins was.
But he must have become a bit obsessed with the Hour when he was enlisted as Ole Ritter’s training partner prior to the Dane’s ill-fated attempt to break Eddy Merckx’s Hour record in 1974.
The two travelled to Mexico City, where the thinner air at altitude was believed to provide reduced drag on the struggling rider. There, Moser observed as Ole underwent specialized training designed specifically to help the rider sustain a constant, crucifying effort for 60 minutes.
It was a venue he’d return to almost 20 years later on this day, January 15, in 1994 for his final Hour.
Science and technology have always played an important factor in Hour riding, and both Eddy and Ole used state-of-the-art track bikes for their efforts. A decade later, Moser’s first attempt to break the record leveraged technology similarly and then-modern aerodynamics played a critical role; Moser used a radical low-profile bike with airfoil tubes, bull-horn handlebars, and innovative disc wheels in order to slice through the already thin air.
To tune his body from that of a powerful road racer capable of winning three back-to-back Paris-Roubaixses into an Hour-hauling locomotive, Moser was coached by Francesco Conconi who, as it turned out, was the godfather of modern blood doping practices.
This isn’t to say he wasn’t a brilliant scientist; using doping practices to their maximum effect requires a mastery of physiology, biochemistry, and an innovative mind. The sad fact is that just because it also involves cheating doesn’t make the science any less difficult or impressive.
Irrespective of that, cycling is a fiercely traditional sport and this was the first time that modern science, technology, and training were brought together to expert effect to achieve a specific objective. Moser broke Merckx’s record by nearly two kilometers.
The science and technology was pointed to as a pivotal factor in helping Moser break the record, to which he famously responded that those items were not capable of ‘making a race horse out of an ass’ (I note with some irony that this is a variation of the same phrase we use today to describe what modern blood-doping practices can do to the average cyclist).
The early nineties saw a flurry of Hour Record attempts as another jump in aerodynamics and sports science saw the record creep ever upwards, highlighted by the rivalry between the UK’s Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman.
Obree was an independent and a maverick, and was free to invent the most harebrained but effective riding position ever seen without having to bother with a load of scientists telling him his ideas wouldn’t work. Boardman, on the other hand, was forced to tolerate a well-funded program, heaps of scientists, and enough food to feed his family.
Moser, being especially Italian – which is a synonym for being especially stylish – inexplicably found Obree’s unorthodox position so irresistible he emerged from retirement to put it to the test himself, naturally with the help of his old friend Conconi who by this time was revolutionizing the use of EPO in professional cycling.
On this day in January 1994, with grey hairs peeping out of his aero fairing, Moser deployed ‘The Obree Tuck’ together with the most offensive shades ever designed and the shadiest coach of a generation to reattempt the Hour.
He didn’t quite set a new Hour record, but he did best his own personal records from the eighties.
We should all hope to be faster a decade later than we were at our prime, irrespective of the technology and science involved. For this alone, Moser is a legend among legends.