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The story behind American cyclist Ashton Lambie’s 4000m Individual Pursuit world record

The story behind American cyclist Ashton Lambie’s 4000m Individual Pursuit world record

A rugged grass velodrome in Kansas, a beaten-up RV in constant need of repair and a makeshift gym in a lean-to shed on a ranch in Montana.

These are just some of the elements that went in to American cyclist Ashton Lambie’s stunning 4000m Individual Pursuit world record.

On August 18 at a velodrome in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Lambie became the first person in history to break the mythical four-minute barrier for the 4000m pursuit, clocking a time of 3:59.93.

To put those numbers in some kind of context, Lambie averaged 62km/hr, which would have broken the speed limit on most city streets, and his feat has been likened to Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile.

In setting the record, he beat Italian superstar Filippo Ganna’s world record of 4:01.93 set at the World Championships in Berlin in 2020.

Lambie and Ganna are the two fastest pursuit riders on the planet at the moment, and they’ve been breaking each other’s world records for the better part of three years.

Ganna is the reigning time trial world champion, races for the multi-million-dollar INEOS Grenadiers team, is an Olympic games gold medallist and has the backing of an entire country.

Lambie prepared for his world record attempt in a gym he built under a lean-to shed, which is on the property of his partner, Dr. Christina Brich’s parent’s ranch in Montana. Birch, in addition to being an incredibly well-accomplished cyclist, is a bioengineer and is on NASA’s shortlist to become the first woman to step foot on the moon.

Ganna is the prototypical cyclist, while Lambie is the freewheeling maverick who’s always done things a little differently.

RANDONNEURING

Lambie was on the velodrome for less than four minutes when he set his new world record.

The all-out effort, which saw him peak at around 800-1000 watts at the start and average around 450 watts, left him spent. He was barely able to dismount afterwards.

His first foray into cycling, with what’s known as randonneuring, could scarcely be more different.

Also known as ultra-cycling or bike-packing, randonneuring is a form of self-supported extra long-distance bike racing.

Think a short Tour de France without the team busses, support cars, mechanics and transfers between host cities – much like what Aussie Lachlan Morton completed around France in July.

Ultracyclists must carry everything they need, including food, spare inner tubes and sleeping gear. They often camp on the side of the road, and knowledge of local cafes and petrol stations is a plus when planning nutrition and hydration.

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Apart from the bike, randonneuring and the 4000m pursuit have little in common.

One can go on for days across varying terrains and requires a slow and judicious use of energy. The other is done in minutes, is limited to a track, and necessitates 100 per cent output at all times.

It’s literally a marathon versus a sprint.

But what randonneurring offered Lambie was freedom.

“I really love the adventure. I love exploring new places, seeing new things, getting lost and finding your way back,” he tells Sporting News.

“When I was living in Nebraska, the whole Eastern half of the state is split up in a one mile by one mile grid of gravel roads that just go dead straight either north-south or east-west for hundreds of miles.

“I rode all 1400 miles of gravel roads in the county. It took all summer.”

A GRASS VELODROME?

After a few years of ultras and gravel cycling, he realised he was stockier than most of his string bean rivals and started thinking there must be something out there better suited to his body type.

There is: track cycling.

Lambie’s introduction to the track was at a grass velodrome in Kansas.

Yeah, grass.

The Lawrence Velodrome was literally mown into a farmer’s pasture after harvest one year. The farmer liked it and the racers kept coming back, so it’s grown into something of an institution in the mid-West.

It hosts regular races, attracts some decent names and has been ratified as an official track by US Cycling.

There are no embankments on the turns like nearly every other velodrome in the world, and a deep rut has formed on the inside line.

“If you’ve got a lawnmower and a piece of string, you can have a velodrome. And that’s pretty much it,” Lambie says of the track in Lawrence.

“It’s flat – dead flat – which is also terrifying. And because it’s a USA Cycling sanctioned track, you have to have a fixed-gear bike with no brakes, no gears – the whole shebang.

“That was the first track race I ever did.”

GLOBE TROTTING

Having found his calling, Lambie began travelling the country, racing and setting fast times. Soon enough he was heading overseas in search of more competition.

Although he was restricted to laps of a track rather than long, empty roads through the cornfields of Nebraska, the spirit of adventure never left him.

“I raced in Bangkok in Thailand, then in New Delhi in India a week later to get these UCI points to be able to go to the World Cup,” he says.

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“It was really interesting. I was getting to experience different riding styles and exploring the towns and meeting people from different teams and places.

“It’s that exploration and taking on a big challenge that excites me. I’ve been to Belarus twice and Poland three times so you get to see a lot of cool places.”

WORLD RECORDS AND MISSING OUT ON THE OLYMPICS

Considering his unconventional cycling trajectory, Lambie was a nobody in the track world in 2018. But he made people stand up and take notice when he shattered his first world record that August.

Lambie became the first person to break the four minutes and 10 seconds barrier when he took a ludicrous three seconds of Australian Jack Bobridge’s 4:10.534. In a sport where records are traditionally lowered by tenths or hundredths of a second, Lambie’s demolition of Bobridge’s long-standing record was ground-breaking.

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Almost as impressive was that he lowered his own mark another two times a year later, before Ganna entered the picture and became the first person to go under 4:05. The Italian gradually closed the gap to the magical four-minute mark, clocking 4:01.934 in the 2020 World Championships, where he beat Lambie in the final.

While the individual pursuit remains one of the most prestigious events in track cycling, it’s no longer at the Olympics, so a Ganna vs Lambie showdown in Tokyo would be limited to the team event.

Except the USA didn’t make it, missing out on qualifying by the barest of margins.

Despite being one of the fastest people on the planet on two wheels, Lambie wasn’t going to the Olympics.

FOUR MINUTES AND THE RV

Missing out on Tokyo was a bitter pill to swallow, but after coming to terms with his disappointment, Lambie channelled all his attention on the bold mission of breaking the four-minute mark.

He did his preparation his own way, moving into an RV on his partner Dr. Christina Birch’s parent’s ranch.

When I spoke with Lambie, Dr. Birch was preparing to fly to Houston for the next round of interviews with NASA as the organisation prepares its next mission to the moon and Mars. If successful, she could become the first woman to ever step foot on the moon.

Space travel and superhuman cycling times aren’t normally associated with their living arrangement.

“We’re living at her family’s ranch in central Montana in an RV we bought,” Lambie says.

“We’re working on refinishing it. It’s always a work in progress. It had some water damage, so we did some structural work on it, then the door flew off when we were hauling it up here, so I built a new door.”

The RV is parked right next to his gym, which has a similar vibe.

“There’s a lean-to steel shed where we have a gym set up with bikes and everything I need,” he says.

“It’s gorgeous, man. I’ve got everything need but I can also tune out and not have to worry about bikes for a little bit. It’s awesome.”

The long-distance background, extensive travel and unique training camp all led to an extremely rapid time on the velodrome in the Mexican city of Aguascalientes in August.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Considering their wildly different set-ups and approaches, Lambie says he pinches himself when he lines up opposite Ganna on the track.

And he knows the Italian will be hellbent on getting the world record back.

“I saw an article with him saying ‘I’m still really hungry’ and that he’s still going super hard,” he says.

“I was like ‘yeah, dude, I would be too!’

“I have an incredible respect for him, and I was thinking the other day – we’ve raced several times – and every time I go to the line with him I’m just like ‘what in the whole wide world am I doing here?

“Like, I’m this hayseed from Nebraska who lives in an RV, and I’m lining up against this guy that’s got an entire country behind him.

“He’s such an accomplished rider, and for me to be in the same sentence, I’m absolutely floored.”

They’ll likely meet again at the World Championships in France in October. The event will give both men the chance to take more time off the 4000m record, while Dr Birch might be one step closer to going to outer space.

“Hopefully we can line-up in the final at Worlds, but before that, Christina is actually going to Houston for her second and final astronaut candidate interview,” Lambie says.

“She’s already been down there once for a three-day interview and she got called back.

“It’s the NASA Artemis mission, and the whole plan is to send people back to the moon, so hopefully she’ll know over the next few months, then it’s two years of training.

“It’s pretty intense, but, that’s her…I don’t really know how we got here.”

The story behind American cyclist Ashton Lambie’s 4000m Individual Pursuit world record