By Ryan Miu. Photos by Ryan Miu except where indicated.
Roger Cull wins gold at the Gran Fondo National Championships. Photo: Con Chronis
Roger Cull stood on a podium in Ballarat, smiling widely. Creases stretched from ear to ear as he gazed down at the photographers, beaming with pride.
The lustrous medal around his neck and green-and-gold bands across his chest complemented his smile: the 66-year-old had just become a gran fondo Australian champion.
But inside his head, new plans were already hatching.
Each freckle on his face betrayed years of riding under the sun on the open road, conquering race after race, checking off goal after goal – including multiple Masters World Championships. Now, Cull the road cyclist was setting himself a new challenge – one that would bring him indoors.
Cull tunes up on the track.
The hour record is the purest expression of endurance in modern cycling. One rider, from a standing start, in a controlled indoor environment, riding as far as they can in 60 minutes.
It’s a test of willpower and determination, of pushing one’s body to the physical limit as fatigue threatens to overwhelm. One writer called it “cycling’s most masochistic race.” Former world record holder Jens Voigt said that after his attempt, “Everything I could physically feel was in pain.”
On a whim, Cull now decided to target the Masters hour record for his age group. He wouldn't be the first New South Welshman to do so: his Sydney CC clubmate Steve Berveling set an Australian MMAS7 record last year.
Why do it? Simply put, Cull was looking for a challenge.
“I did so well in Buninyong [at the Gran Fondo National Championships] that I thought, I really must have a stellar level of fitness at the moment,” said Cull, “so why waste it and just let it run down? I had no other racing in mind, so I thought, why not have a crack at the world hour?”
To make the most of his good form, he needed to set an ambitious timeline. Giving himself only six weeks to prepare, Cull threw himself to the task.
Cull (right) gets some tips at the NSW Masters Track Championships. Photo: Morgan Ho / St George Cycling Club
He booked training sessions at the velodrome. Set up his track bicycle. Organised a support team. He even entered the Masters state championships as practice.
Prior track experience? Minimal.
“I did a couple of seasons of RAW with Paul Craft about five or six years ago. But they were short and not very successful,” said Cull. “I wouldn’t call myself in any sense a track rider.”
With time not on his side, Cull’s training would consist of sub-30 minute efforts, focusing on maintaining an aerodynamic position, holding an efficient line, and putting out consistent power.
“I’m a strong climber, and that’s all out of the saddle – I can stay out of the saddle for kilometres and kilometres,” said Cull. “I’m just not used to sitting in the saddle, in that one position, for such a long time. That was what was hard.”
Cycling NSW staff setting up for Cull’s attempt.
Next, he needed to organise a date for the record attempt. Cull spoke to staff at Cycling NSW, who offered him a 90-minute window during the Elite state championships. In a gesture of support, the track hire, timing, officials and administration would all be provided free of charge.
Six weeks after Ballarat, Cull’s idea was about to become reality.
Cull, moments before his Masters hour record attempt.
First things first: what would he wear? Cull showed up to Dunc Gray Velodrome in a loose-fitting club jersey and plain shorts. Surely not?
“I don’t think an hour record’s been set in anything but a skinsuit for the last 30 years,” remarked the event announcer.
Thankfully, no. On cue, with the blessing of the chief commissaire, Cull changed into a skinsuit emblazoned with Australian livery.
Speaking of commissaires, there were dozens of official protocols to be observed. As soon as the track was clear, staff began busily flitting around like bees.
Timing strips — laid. Start gate — tested. Bicycle – weighed and measured.
Three stopwatches for manual timing, just in case. The timekeepers took their position at the pursuit line, where they’d remain, unmoving, for the entire hour.
After a few warm-up laps, it was time. By now, a modest but substantial crowd of friends and supporters had filtered into the stands.
Cull hadn’t brought a handler to lock his bike into the starting gate. A Cycling NSW staff member stepped in to help.
Bike — in. Rider — ready. Thirty seconds to start. A few snaps with the photographer, then Cull braced for launch.
Three. Two. One.
Not a confident start; indeed, one would be forgiven for thinking Cull had never used a start gate before. He hovered for a moment, stationary, almost forgetting to pedal. A wobble or two, a dip down the banking, but then – a breath of relief. He was upright, away, and winding up the speed.
Cull was aiming for the 65-69 age group record set in 2016 by Britain’s Robert Gilmour, who rode 44.271km in Wales.
Actually, he was aiming for more: Cull's personal target was 45 kilometres, or 180 laps of the Sydney Olympic velodrome. For that, the maths was simple: he needed to average 20 seconds per lap.
To communicate to Cull, his trainer stood along the finish straight, holding up a coloured card at the end of each lap. A green card would mean that lap was fast enough. Red would mean it was too slow.
The first 30 laps were all green. Cull had settled into a good, but hard, rhythm.
Fifteen minutes in, and Cull was holding pace. A few red cards had started to appear, but he maintained the 180-lap tempo.
By the halfway point, he was slowing slightly. His lap times had begun nudging over 20 seconds per lap, yet thanks to his fast start, he remained on schedule.
But now, he was in uncharted territory.
“All my training sessions were at 30 minutes or less,” he said. “It made me realise that once you get past 30, that’s when the going gets tough.”
The fatigue – and lack of track experience – were beginning to show.
He was drifting extraordinarily high in the bends, adding unnecessary metres to each lap. That’s because the hour record doesn’t count the actual number of metres ridden: it counts the number of laps completed and multiplies that by 250 metres.
Optimally, Cull should have been hugging the inner black line. Instead, he was sailing up to the red sprinter’s line – even approaching the blue stayer’s line at times.
After 45 minutes, he was visibly starting to lose control.
His laps were consistently above 20 seconds, approaching 21. He fell behind the 180-lap pace, and kept slipping.
In one moment of frustration, he yelled loudly after receiving consecutive red cards. The hour was getting to his head.
It was a mental game now. Cull had to mute the voices telling him to stop. He just had to keep pushing the pedals, even as his legs screamed for sweet relief.
Now, more than ever, he needed support. The announcer took up the microphone and rallied the crowd.
Until now, there had been mild applause once every few minutes, with long stretches of silence in between. Now, they were cheering every single lap.
Five minutes to go. Green. The record was in reach.
Cull’s friends stood in the front row. They were up on their feet, banging on the side boards, screaming and shouting as if to thrust their energy towards Cull, hoping it would flow down to his pedals.
For the world record, he needed 177 laps plus 22 metres.
With half a minute left, the lap board flashed: 177. Around the next two bends, and that was it: the record, done.
The crowd didn’t seem to notice. They were fixated on Cull. The number didn’t matter now. There would just be cheering and noise, all the way to the finish.
178. The bell rang for the final lap. The roaring intensified.
Cull kept pushing, as far as he could go. The gun fired—crack! And it was done.
An eruption of applause. After a lap to slow down, Cull could barely summon the energy to lift a wave towards the stands.
Another lap to compose himself, then he could ride up to the barriers to exchange high-fives. Ecstatic.
For Cull, the ordeal was over – but not the paperwork.
It would take another 20 minutes to confirm the new record. An hour’s worth of lap splits had to be printed and recorded for later ratification by Cycling Australia and the UCI.
Interestingly, according to the rules, the distance of his last part-lap was not decided by his actual position on the track when the hour ended. Instead, the timekeepers had to extrapolate his position based on his speed on the second-to-last lap.
After an hour, the timing tape grows rather long.
By the time the official distance was announced, Cull was back down in the infield, out of his skinsuit and packing up his equipment.
His friends were hanging around, and a chaperone kept an eye on him until the drug testers arrived.
Finally, the new record appeared on the scoreboard: 44.620 kilometres.
Cull wasn’t completely satisfied: “I was disappointed not to get the 45 kilometres,” he said. “But, you know, I’ve got the record, which his what I set out to do.”
By Cull’s admission, there was room for improvement, literally. A back-of-the-napkin calculation says that drifting away from the black line cost him about a kilometre over the hour.
But for now, it was time to savour the achievement. His six-week, whirlwind journey had been a success.
From a podium in Ballarat to a velodrome in Sydney, the new Masters hour record holder had yet another reason to smile. We daren't ask him what's next.