In November, British time-trial specialist Jonathan Shubert set a new open-road hundred-mile road cycling record. Breaking the three-hour mark for the first time, Shubert’s accomplishment is a fascinating testament to his attention to the details. From custom-designed and his use of Santini’s VIPER TT suit to his hunt for ideal roads and favourable winds, Shubert left no detail to chance. We caught up with Shubert at his home in the UK for a conversation about the record and the path that led him to believe it was possible.
Santini: Your recent hundred-mile open-road cycling ride (2:57:58) was the fastest ever recorded. What’s the history of the record?
Jonathan Shubert: We've had an organisation in Britain since 1888 called the Road Records Association. They keep records of the fastest performances by bicycle across Britain. These records have been open to amateurs or professionals. To set the record, you're not allowed to draft, so everyone’s approach is to find favourable conditions. If everything goes your way - you've got the form, you've got the right roads, you've got the right weather - it comes down to how fast a human being can ride?
Santini: What drew you to the hundred-mile record (rather than the shorter distances, for example)?
Jonathan Shubert: A hundred miles is a distance that most cyclists know, especially in North America and Britain. I think people can relate. If you ask most cyclists, they can remember the first time they first rode 100 miles, or they have a benchmark for how long it takes them. If you look at the history of this record, there have been some phenomenal names in the past in British cycling who have held it. Ian Cammish, who held the record before me, was an Olympian and multiple British cycling champion, set in 1993 at 3:11:11. In 27 years, things have moved on an awful lot in terms of our understanding of aerodynamics. I’m one of only five people who'd ever averaged over 30 mph in an out and back 100-mile time trial course. I felt I could push the record a bit higher.
Santini: Is there a standard course or accepted road route? Did you have to attempt the record on specific roads to qualify?
Jonathan Shubert: There are really strict guidelines and rules you have to follow to make an attempt. They (the RRA) pride themselves on the quality of their time-keeping, but the one thing they don't stipulate is the course. You have to go out and find the route yourself. And you can do it anywhere across Britain. And that's part of the beauty of these records, because sometimes, for the shorter records, riders will start at the top of mountains to make it fast. For my attempt, a course in Scotland was suggested that comes off the hills for the first 25 miles, but it didn’t lead neatly to a following stretch of road that's nice and fast. So we went instead with a fairly flat and straight course.
Santini: For those familiar with Britain, what region of the country was your course?
Jonathan Shubert: We rode on the relatively flat roads across Norfolk and Cambridge. We are limited in the UK. to not riding on motorways (freeways or Interstate Highways in the US). And because we wanted to use the wind to help the record, we needed most of the course to line up in the same direction. So we chose to ride on dual carriageways, which are kind of like the sections of Interstate in the States that you can cycle on when there's no alternate road between places. The shoulder was nice and wide. We had a follow car. 80% of my course was on these dual-lane carriageways. The other 20% was on a single carriageway. Most of the roads were long and straight, and the visibility good. We had fast-rolling surfaces and not too many junctions in between.
Santini: You said that 27 years is a long time between records and technology has advanced. What equipment was critical to your performance?
Jonathan Shubert: The faster you go, the more aerodynamics becomes important. The reason I'm able to go so fast is because I have a good-enough understanding of aerodynamics to do this. I know what's essential, and what isn’t. Even though the bike is the most visible and obvious thing, manipulating the airflow around a person is actually the most critical. The suit (Santini VIPER TT suit) was very, very important to my attempt. As the rider, you are creating 80% of the overall drag in the system. We didn't evolve from fish and birds and things that are really good at slipping through the air. We've got these awkward-shaped limbs that make terrible shapes for aerodynamics. The fabric on the arms on the Viper suit, from what I understand, stops the air from stalling behind the limbs. It’s manipulating the air in such a clever way that it can really reduce drag coefficient.
Santini: How did you prepare for the variables you couldn’t control, like the direction and strength of the wind?
Jonathan Shubert: Because of the weather I was waiting for, I knew I needed to be watching what was going on in the U.S. Hurricanes during the peak season (typically June through November) can blow across the Atlantic. By the time these storms get to us, they’ve lost a lot of energy and impetus, but these were the winds I was looking to use. That gave me a time window for my record attempt. So I did my normal racing through the summer and medaled in a national championship. I just had to hold a bit of that form and hope a window came along. It turned out to be a quiet season, but I caught the tail of Hurricane Zeta. We calculated that we needed winds above 20 miles per hour. We got more like 27 or 28.
Santini: How did you get your start in cycling?
Jonathan Shubert: My grandfather was a British record holder. He won numerous 24 hour time trials. I'd walk into my grandparent's house and see all his medals and everything hanging on the wall, and it inspired me. He was also a touring cyclist, so I was lucky as a kid because I used to get taken out into the countryside and did all the bike rides with my parents. When I was about 12, I persuaded my dad to take me out on some racing club rides, and I just loved it from the moment I started doing it. Growing up in a very traditional cycling club meant that I was riding a lot of time trials. As part of my nature - I am a scientist - the time trial had a massive appeal because, you know, you can change a variable and see what - it's a science experiment every time you go out. I also did a lot of cycle touring. I cycled around the world back in 2013, 14. Three weeks off the back of that trip, I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and won the British 24 hour time trial. From there, I aimed at shorter goals and won a very prestigious competition called the British Best All-rounder (a three-event, season-long, long-distance time-trial competition) in 2019.
Santini: What’s your motivation to go after these goals?
Jonathan Shubert: The bicycle is a wonderful thing for exploring yourself and exploring the world, and I love pushing the limits. I'm always looking for my next challenge, and this one was very exciting. I'd had inspirational role models - like Roger Banister breaking the four-minute mile or Kipchoge breaking the two-hour marathon. Achievements like these capture people's imagination. Breaking through a barrier that seems impossible and unreachable (like the three-hour barrier for road cycling 100 miles) is a monumental mark. I think it's particularly important at this moment in time when the whole world seems to be finding everything impossible to go after these barriers.
Santini: What’s the next challenge you have planned?
Jonathan Shubert: The UK equivalent of the Race Across America is Lands End to John O Groats, a route across the entire length of Britain. The record is 43 hours and 15 minutes, set by one of my teammates. My next challenge could be an attempt on that record if someone's willing to sponsor it. I've also just agreed to start doing some presenting for a very well-known cycling channel. They might have me doing all sorts of challenges.
Santini: Thanks for talking to us, and best of luck on your next big adventure.