How Ellen van Dijk and Trek prepared for her hour record attempt

Trek-Segafredo head of performance Josu Larrazabal explains the fine details that make up a record-breaking ride

In some ways, Ellen van Dijk’s preparation for her hour record attempt is just like any other big event in her career. She’s coming off a year in which she was crowned European champion in the women’s road race and World Champion in the women’s time trial. She knows what it takes to achieve peak physical condition and perform under immense pressure. She’s done it many times before.

That said, van Dijk has never undertaken anything quite like this. It has taken a small army to help her modify and optimize her Speed Concept into an ultra-aerodynamic, record-smashing machine. And the specifics of the UCI’s hour record requirements necessitate intense training and focus that are mentally and physically draining in equal measure.

Josu Larrazabal, Trek-Segafredo’s head of performance, has been right by van Dijk’s side, helping her perfect the minute details that make every hour record attempt a mind-blowing spectacle. He spoke with the Trek Race Shop, and helped explain the profound depths of van Dijk’s preparations.

Ellen testing in a wind tunnel.

Aerodynamics are everything

Throughout preparations for the hour record, van Dijk and Larrazabal have been keeping a close eye on her CdA, which is an abbreviation for the drag coefficient that she faces on her bike. It’s a unit-less measure that takes into account a host of factors — her position, bike setup, bike and kit material, rolling resistance of the track and tires, and more — and helps determine how fast she can go on the big day, in addition to raw power numbers.

Determining the CdA requires copious amounts of testing, including riding in a wind tunnel. Basically, the less drag, the better. And in the days right before van Dijk’s hour record attempt, Larrazabal is happy with what he is seeing.

“Today we had a little exam. We put it all together and we checked the CdA, and it was even better than before,” Larrazabal says. “If everything is right, we think we can put the record over 49 kilometers.”

Between the air density, your position on the bike, your shape, your frontal area, that combination gives you a number that is the CdA.

- Josu Larrazabal

Aerodynamics are a fascinating aspect of cycling. In many ways, they make up the crux of the sport. In road races, drafting behind other riders, whether teammates or rivals, is key to saving energy for winning attacks. And in time trialing, being able to hold a compact, wind-sheering position means a greater proportion of your power goes to propelling your bike forward.

“Between the air density, your position on the bike, your shape, your frontal area, that combination gives you a number that is the CdA,” Larrazabal says. “In the end, it’s all about this number. And even if you have everything under control — position, material, bike, rolling resistance, everything — there is one last bit that is depending on the weather, which we will know only on the day of the race.”

Ellen tucking her way to a world championship.

Indeed, the environment matters a lot when trying to set a record by a mere matter of meters. Van Dijk’s team specifically chose the velodrome in Grenchen, Switzerland, because its surface has a particularly low rolling resistance. And even though she’ll be attempting the hour record indoors, weather will still be a factor because of barometric pressure. If the pressure that day is high, then van Dijk and her team will have an important last minute decision to make.

“You can help a little bit by putting the temperature higher,” Larrazabal says. “But the higher you put the temperature, you also have to deal with the heat stress. So you have to find a good compromise there, because otherwise, you can win aerodynamically but then you are losing physiologically.”

Striking a delicate balance between optimal physical and aerodynamic conditions could mean the difference between smashing the hour record and not.

Why van Dijk is the perfect rider for the job

Time trialing is essentially a high speed high-wire act; one false move, and the attempt collapses. Fortunately, Ellen is not only adept at racing against the clock, she enjoys it. After winning a world championship in Flanders last year, she called time trialing a discipline that “I love with all my heart.” She explained further:

“It’s kind of weird to say because of course I also do not look forward to putting the most ever pain on myself. … I just really like the process of doing everything in your own world. I don’t have to take others into account, I don’t have to ride in a peloton, I don’t have to fight for position. I just think it’s such a pure discipline.”

I don’t have to take others into account, I don’t have to ride in a peloton, I don’t have to fight for position. I just think it’s such a pure discipline.

- Ellen van Dijk

According to Larrazabal, van Dijk has been eyeing the record since at least 2019, when she joined Trek-Segafredo. After she won her second world championship, eight years after her first, she decided the time was right to focus on the hour. The team effort was put in motion at December team camp, when discussions began with Trek about the resources needed to set up van Dijk for success. After a encouraging test event on the Grenchen track in February, trainers, engineers and mechanics began dedicating full-time effort to making sure no detail went overlooked.

The blood, sweat and tears have been worth it because van Dijk is a special athlete. 

“She has shown in her career that she is a specialist,” Larrazabal says. “Being a specialist is not only being strong, or being good at something. Being a specialist is also liking to do it and having that patience for it. Having that special focus, special care on TT bikes, the details, the little things that can improve the CdA.”

Ellen atop the World Championship podium.

The process of preparing for the hour record can be frustrating, but van Dijk is used to the grind. She’s a process-oriented veteran who, at 35 years old, has seen just about everything in her cycling career. She knows that progress can feel like one step backwards for every two steps forwards.

There are days where the session goes well, and you feel that everything is more in control, and you feel more confident about it. And then there are days where maybe you have some fatigue, and you don’t feel so good, and then you say, ‘This will be challenging,'” Larrazabal says. “But I think those are emotions that athletes are used to dealing with, because in the end, I don’t think anyone is preparing for their goals with the idea that every session is going to be better than the previous one.”

Holding the line

The hour record is a peculiar one. In theory, the best way to conduct it would be to stick a GPS on Van Dijk’s bike, and have her gun it for 60 minutes and let the computer reveal how far she went.

The hour record is overseen by the UCI, however, and they have very specific rules governing how attempts are conducted and measured. Riders aren’t allowed to have a computer that’s visible to them. Instead, distance is measured by how many laps they can complete around a velodrome. Further, riders must use a fixed gear bike; no shifting possible.

Because the record is measured by laps, van Dijk’s biggest focus for 60 minutes will be “holding the line” — i.e., making sure her front wheel is following the inside line of the track as closely as possible. Any movement deviating right or left of that line is a waste of energy.

In the end this challenge is about trying to optimize absolutely everything.

- Josu Larrazabal

“You need to invest time on the track riding because you have to hold the line. Because the record is not about real distance and real speed that you can measure with a Wahoo,” Larrazabal says. “You don’t put a speed sensor on your bike and go. It’s about counting laps. … In the end, technique has a big say.”

Training-wise, holding the line has been van Dijk’s biggest focus. Building her engine is relatively easy; van Dijk is in great physical shape just by preparing for the racing season as she regularly does every year.  

She and Larrazabal have made only slight modifications to her schedule. She did a personal training camp in February, then raced the classics as usual. Then after a rest, she put her focus squarely on the hour record, undergoing a training block to rebuild her endurance, then spending time on the track over the past month, becoming accustomed to the velodrome.

Ellen cruising in her rainbow stripes.

The track sessions tend to be short and intense because they are more technique-focused than the longer base-building rides van Dijk might do on the road. Larrazabal compares training for the track to a sprinter preparing for a 100-meter dash. Though their motions look easy to the naked eye, they must be meticulous with their technique to extract every ounce of speed possible from their bodies. 

“They have to do a lot of sessions taking care of the technique, and those sessions are short and demanding because they are exercising their neuromuscular side and that is fatiguing to the brain,” Larrazabal says. “If you need to improve the line, you can’t just do six hours on the track, because if you get tired, then you are not going to be riding the line. You have to do everything with quality.”

We all need that adrenaline, we all need that pressure to pull out the best of ourselves.

- Josu Larrazabal

Holding the line requires intense positioning. Van Dijk’s field of vision will be limited, centered almost exclusively on her front wheel and the track so that she isn’t wasting any movement or altering her CdA by moving her head. Riding the velodrome itself also isn’t as easy as many people might assume. Each 250-meter lap consists of two banked turns that riders have to fight against so that their inertia doesn’t take them away from the inside line.

“When you are talking about the hour record, those little movements left or right that you can naturally have, those are extra meters that you are giving away for free,” Larrazabal says. “In the end this challenge is about trying to optimize absolutely everything.”

Putting it all together

In the week leading up to the record attempt, van Dijk trained each day by simulating the Monday of her record attempt. She did an easy session in the morning and a harder session in the afternoon that closely aligned with her 5 p.m. local start time. 

“We are trying to set up in those ranges to make sure that the day of the record, physically, will be something that we know, something that the body will recognize, something that will help the body to deliver at the best level,” Larrazabal says.

Van Dijk and Larrazabal also practiced a non-verbal system of communication that will help van Dijk know how well she’s doing during her attempt. Not only will she not have a computer for reference, she could also have trouble hearing any time checks. The record attempt will be open to anyone who wants to go to the velodrome and watch, but though a crowd could help create an electric atmosphere, it could also be detrimental.

Cool as a cucumber.

To combat any noise, Larrazabal will be able to update van Dijk by where he is standing on the track. He’ll initially be at the start line, and he’ll step in front of or behind the line depending on whether Van Dijk is ahead of or behind record pace, respectively. If van Dijk is well ahead of pace, he can communicate that, too. For example, if van Dijk is on pace to beat the hour record by 50 meters after 10 minutes, he’ll move to a point 50 meters ahead of the line to let her know.

The day of the race is sure to be stressful, but again, pressure is exactly what van Dijk signed up for. Larrazabal says her focus is similar to what it was ahead of World Championships. The biggest difference between then and now, perhaps, is how many more people and resources have been deployed to make sure she cracks the record. Larrazabal admits that even he isn’t immune to nervousness.

“For sure the pressure is starting to go up in everyone, myself included,” Larrazabal says. “But that’s the nice thing. We all need that adrenaline, we all need that pressure to pull out the best of ourselves. In the end, our work is about dealing with it. Because we are always preparing goals. And we don’t prepare goals that we have already reached 10 times. When you reach a goal, then you try the next goal that’s a little bit higher. You are always dealing with being out of your comfort zone.”

This is the extreme example of optimizing a process.

- Josu Larrazabal

If van Dijk breaks the record, no one will be happier than her. She’s a bona fide champion who could cement a lasting legacy on Monday. But nearly as proud will be dozens of people who helped make van Dijk’s finest hour possible. That may be the most special aspect of the hour record: The focused effort. Van Dijk’s hour record attempt will represent Trek’s very best foot forward as she tries to push the boundaries of human limits.   

“Sometimes a rider can win a race almost without help. And yes, they are using your bike and they are part of the team and you still enjoy that. But this is the extreme example of optimizing a process,” Larrazabal says. “And it is so optimized that everyone is adding something in some way, in every moment. That’s the most special thing.”