Ellen van Dijk is the current time trial world champion and therefore the fastest woman in the peloton. The next challenge for the 35-year-old Dutchwoman is to confirm that title, by challenging the Hour Record currently held by Joss Lowden.
“That world title was one of my big goals,” Van Dijk tells me a week before her Hour Record attempt. “This Hour Record is the ultimate goal that’s next. Everything I did in cycling so far, I have done before, apart from this one. Everything is new which is both exciting and scary at the same time.”
Lowden set the current Hour Record on September 30, 2021, the then-33-year-old rider from Great Britain covering 48.405 km in one hour on the Velodrome Suisse in Grenchen, Switzerland. It’s the same track Ellen van Dijk will attempt to break the record on, on May 23.
“I considered doing this at altitude in Aguascalientes in Mexico [the location where the men’s record was set by Victor Campenaerts] but I usually don’t react well to altitude,” Van Dijk says. “The track is probably faster but logistically it would mean a completely different preparation. We would have to plan altitude camps for example. Now I only miss the Spanish races with Trek-Segafredo so this was the perfect moment.”
It’s thanks to the support of her Trek-Segafredo team that Van Dijk can attempt to break the hour record. The team will bring roughly 15 staff members to Grenchen to support her with Trek adding another handful. There will be two team managers, technical managers, mechanics, carers, a photographer and a videographer, her trainer, a press officer, plus Jens Voigt and Lizzie Deignan to commentate the livestream.
“I have wanted to do this for a while but I can’t do it alone,” Van Dijk explains. “You need support from your team and in previous teams I indicated I wanted this but didn’t get the support. With Trek-Segafredo I experience [that] they really want to go for this with me.
“For everyone it’s a huge project. Koen de Kort is one of the technical managers with the team and has done a lot of work. He is also the event manager for the hour record. I never imagined so much work went into it. Also, my trainer Josu Larazabal has been very actively involved. We have all never done this before so everything is new. It’s a discovery process for all of us.”
Van Dijk will ride a special track bike designed by Trek that will have the same specifications as her Speed Concept road time trial bike – her position will be the same. Despite the fact Van Dijk averaged 50.3 km/h at the 2021 Road World Championships in that position, that doesn’t automatically equate to beating the hour record on the track.
“I have never done a full hour in this position on the road,” she explains. Women’s time trials never exceed the 35 km mark. The 2021 World Championships time trial of 30.3 km took her 36 minutes and five seconds.
“Also, on the track you put the same amount of pressure on your legs all the time,” she explains. “There is never a moment where you can freewheel like you can on the road when you go into a corner, for example. There is also zero distraction; nothing or no one to ride towards. That makes this a hard challenge mentally as well as physically.”
Van Dijk has a background on the track, having done individual and team pursuits in the past. She takes a little bit of that experience with her but this Hour Record attempt is very different in many aspects.
“When I raced track in the past [I would] look forward and focus on the ideal line,” Van Dijk explains. “In the hour record I need to keep my head down all the time and that makes it so much harder to keep that ideal line. That has been a thing we focused on in the past weeks. Everything is about aerodynamics.
“Joss [Lowden] is not as broad-shouldered as I am and she is smaller which makes her more aerodynamic than me. She then may not have the same power but goes really fast. She played that advantage really well and I have huge respect for how she broke the record.”
It’s a hard physical challenge that awaits Van Dijk in Grenchen. She realizes it will be incredibly painful.
“I do a lot of shoulder exercises to be able to keep that position,” she explains. “I visit manual and physiotherapists to keep it as flexible as possible. There is a lot of tension in that shoulder area and we try our best to take that away but it will nevertheless become very painful. It’s maybe one of the hardest challenges: being aero and following that line and then do it for a whole hour.”
Given the mental challenge involved, Van Dijk isn’t only preparing her body for the task ahead. Despite her long list of wins – 60 as a professional – she still tends to doubt or underestimate her own abilities.
“I work with the sports psychologist of the team to visualize what might happen,” she explains. “What will go through my head when I am racing and what will my internal dialogue be like? I need to talk myself forward and not talk myself down. I have had moments where I didn’t have enough faith in my own abilities. This preparation is really good for me because it teaches me things for my road career as well. I hope to be as confident as possible.”
Some riders have music blaring from the speakers in the velodrome to keep them going during an Hour Record attempt, but Van Dijk doesn’t have a playlist ready.
“Maybe I want a song every 10 minutes so I know I am at that time in the hour but I think and hope to be so much in the zone that I don’t even hear music playing,” she says. “There will also be an audience and I do hope I hear them cheer me on. That always helps. I also asked for lap times to see how I am doing.”
Van Dijk is now 35 years old. She has an impressive list of race results with two world time trial titles, European road and time trial titles, the Tour of Flanders, and several stage race victories where she made the difference in the time trial. She is also a key rider on the Trek-Segafredo team and was vital in some of the team’s biggest wins this year, like Elisa Longo Borghini’s Paris-Roubaix and Elisa Balsamo’s Gent-Wevelgem and Trofeo Binda, to name a few.
Being the world champion means that many think Van Dijk will easily smash that Hour Record. She says it’s not that easy.
“When I decided to do this back in December it was still my little secret,” she says. “That was chill but I also wanted it to be out in the open. That was also the moment people started to have opinions. The pressure comes from outside because I am the world champion but the pressure is also within me. It’s logical because when you go for this record you kind of ask for it too.
“This is about proving things to myself. This is the ultimate challenge,” she continues. “This is the ultimate speed record in cycling and that’s a dream to achieve. I want to improve myself. That is intrinsically my own motivation. The Hour Record is an all-consuming project. It’s so big and you feel very much alive.”