Peter Megdal sets cycling world record
Survivor of heart disease excels in shattering limits others may set for him
by Scott Heald
[Editor’s note: The following article concludes coverage in The Dedham Times of the world record Peter Megdal of Dedham holds in men’s cycling. He set the new mark for ages 60-64 of 47.43 kilometers (29.47 miles) traversed in one hour on Sept. 12 at the Bicentario Velodromo in Aguascalientes, Mexico.
The previous world record was established by Jim McMurray of New Zealand in 2021, at 47.36 km. In that year Megdal attempted to set a world record himself and came close, going 44.9 km. Last year Megdal tried once again to eclipse McMurray’s mark but ended up a little shy at 45.5 km.
Megdal is what’s known as a Para athlete: he was born with a medical disability, which is a right club foot. That causes certain problems with the muscles and bones in that foot, he said. But time and again, he has proved all doubters – including some otherwise distinguished physicians – profoundly wrong about what he is capable of accomplishing as a cyclist, beyond his noteworthy achievements as a scholar and consultant.
Megdal’s other medical hurdles have included a broken hip and a bout of COVID. He has had six surgeries on his right foot, which makes his right leg about 30-40% weaker than his left leg. None of that has prevented him from forging himself into a tremendous athlete in an endeavor that has thrilled him for decades.
Overall this Dedhamite does not so much endure a demanding regimen of workouts and competitions as welcome them wholeheartedly. “I stay motivated for the love of fitness, health AND cycling which is such a beautiful sport,” he says.
Moreover, he is a survivor of severe atherosclerotic heart disease, having been diagnosed with that in 2024. Subsequently a program he developed utilizing sound medical information and excellent nutrition reversed the disease and essentially cured him.
The first part of coverage in these pages appeared in the Oct. 6 issue. Major excerpts of a recent discussion between the cyclist and this reporter appear below.]
Peter Megdal: I was able to produce more power (in this attempt at the record, versus a previous attempt, due to better health). I also improved my aerodynamics significantly from the year before, which enabled me to go even further.
To give you some perspective, I added another two full kilometers on, which is eight full laps, this year. I’m going back again in late October to try to add onto it. My wife is so good at the organization aspect that a pro team asked her to organize. They said, ‘How much is your fee?’ She’s never done that before — she had just organized for me and a group of masters. The pro guy’s going and I got a free trip, all expenses paid, to try it again.
It’s so technical. If I had my head tilted up during that race I would not have broken the world record, because of the aerodynamic changes. We learned that there’s a different wheel that I could use that would give me about a full lap or close to a lap further distance. We also started off too cool. I have trouble in hot temperatures, and I tend to get overheated. We were going to do it around 70. The thermometer was on the wall halfway up on the grandstands and it was reading a higher temperature, so my coach said, ‘Go ahead and go.’
It said 72, but the actual temperature was 62, on my bike computer. You’re not allowed to look at the bike computer but you can put it on behind you, on the seat. When I was warming up I was looking at it, and I said, ‘I think it’s too cool.’ Every ten degrees is worth five watts, and every five watts is worth a lap and a half. I was ten degrees cooler, so that was a lap and a half that we lost. The wheel was probably another lap. A kilometer is four laps, so we’re looking at half a kilometer just by those two things alone. Then we figured out that there’s another way I can hold my head where I actually look straight down at the track, which is very difficult to do.
Remember, it’s going by distance. There’s a black line, a red line and a blue line. Those three lines are for different types of races, but the closest one to the bottom is the black line, and that is measured at 250 meters. If you ride that black line and you never deviate from it for an hour — it’s only two inches wide — you would ride exactly 250 meters every lap. But because you’re on a bicycle and nobody’s exactly perfect, you weave a little bit. If you watch videos and study them, which I have, for some of the pros, they’re really strong and fast, but a lot of them aren’t that careful about following the black line. Every time you deviate from that, you’re not only increasing your distance, but remember, the track is banked. So if you go up above the black line just a few inches, you’re actually climbing a little hill. The banking is steeper in the turns. That makes you a little bit slower.
There are two different disadvantages to doing that. There’s four inches below the black line that’s still wood, but if you go below that it’s painted blue. They put buffers down there so you don’t ride on it, so you don’t cheat. There’s a caveat to that: the black line is not on the very bottom of the wood. Some of the really good pros that have broken the world record can actually settle a little bit below the black line. Technically speaking, there is a legal way to cheat, if you can ride below the black line. What I’ve been practicing doing is riding on the black line or below it. Now, there’s some danger because you can hit the buffers, making your wheel slide out. Because the blue part of the track is not slanted, if you really ride fast on the turns your wheel could slip out. But the more practice that you do, the more you can try to get down below that black line. I did it a little bit. I don’t think it gained me a lot of time, but I didn’t need a lot of time. I only broke it by 70 meters.
The other thing about this type of race is, there’s nobody else on the track. All you’re doing is chasing a time. You know what your lap time (goals) are by figuring out what your record needs to be. My aerodynamicist and coach graphed out each lap. Many of my laps, I was within three hundredths of a second, pacing myself. Every time I go by my coach would yell, ’19!’ (seconds for the lap). If I was above 19 he would say, ‘9-1’, meaning ‘19.1’. I’m going by at 30 miles per hour, so he can’t really call out the whole number. Then if I’m (at) 18, he would say, ‘8-8’ or ‘8-9’, for 18.8 or 18.9. You start from zero (a full stop), so you have to factor in the slow start, which is a couple laps. I needed about 18.9 seconds a lap. That’s about 13.2 meters per second, or 29.5 miles an hour. It’s all very mathematical.
The first three times I did this (attempt), I either started off too hard or didn’t understand what to do. Last year I finally figured out, ‘start slow and be metronomic about it, and just be very steady.’ The way the technique goes now is that you start slower than the world record pace, and then you build into it. Then you, at some point, start to do lap times faster than the world record pace, because your physiology is better if you start slow and build up than if you start fast and slow down. Once you go over your physiological threshold, you can’t make it back up. But if you start slow you’ve got something left.
The Dedham Times: I see.
Megdal: My aerodynamic coach has worked with the top pros, including the current world record holder for the pros. His brother-in-law’s sister is married to Dan Bigham from Great Britain, the guy that broke the world record just before the current world record, I think mid-last year. Dan Bigham is on the same team as Filippo Ganna from Italy, who broke his record. Bigham actually spent two months after he set the world record to help this other guy break the world record.
DT: What was that category?
Megdal: It’s open pro. It’s the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) elite hour record. (The new record is), I want to say 56 kilometers, something like that. So Ganna’s a lot faster (than me), but he’s also the best that ever did it. So in fact, three years ago the pros were doing 51 km. I did 47 and a half. The pros were doing 51, so I’m not too far off that. But this guy really set the standard. The aerodynamicist that worked with both those guys is the same guy that I’m working with.
(In Mexico at 6,000 feet altitude), we got there and I was just exhausted. My heart rate’s racing, and you start getting really fatigued quickly at altitude. My pacing had to be exactly on. They (European competitors at a similar velodrome in Switzerland, at about 1,500 feet above sea level) had a rider that was trying to break the 50-year-old world record, which is 51 km, and he missed it by 100 meters after a full hour because he started off too fast. He was supposed to do 17 seconds a lap. He was doing 16.5 seconds, and he didn’t have it at the end. He just kind of burned out.
DT: Is the facility in Mexico indoors or outdoors?
Megdal: It’s indoors, technically speaking. It’s under an inflatable bubble that’s quite large. So it has to have a constant, positive pressure with a fan blowing inside. It’s a very low pressure. The walls are solid, but the roof is a bubble. There’s no HVAC system in there per se, so you don’t have heating and air conditioning. That part of Mexico (central) is a high desert. The temperature gets quite hot in the middle of the day — it can exceed 100 degrees. At night it gets really cold. Even in the summer it can get down into the 40s. When you walk in early in the morning it could be as low as 50 or 55 degrees. As soon as the sun comes up it starts to get passively heated. We got there about 9 o’clock, and it was still about 60 degrees inside. By later in the day it was 85 degrees.
DT: You mentioned that the temperature was 62 for your attempt?
Megdal: The start of it — it went up 3 degrees during the hour.
DT: Is there a range within which the record must be attempted?
Megdal: No. It’s all your decision. It was a little bit cool, an overcast day, so the velodrome wasn’t heating up very fast. I probably should have waited at least another hour, and it would have added some distance. But I get a second chance — I’ll go back and try it again.
DT: What is the ideal?
Megdal: Well, it just depends on how you handle it. I don’t handle heat very well. Bradley Wiggins, who used to hold the world record and is a former Tour de France champion, did it in 85 degrees in Great Britain. Hotter is faster, but you can overheat. I’ve been practicing in Canada, at an indoor velodrome. It’s been in the 80s there, and I haven’t even been able to complete my workouts because my body hasn’t been able to take the heat.
When you’re in an aerodynamic position you’re piercing through the wind. Your hands are in front of you, your head’s down. So you’re not getting that cooling effect of the breeze hitting your chest, like you would normally do if you’re running, or even if you’re just riding a regular bicycle. You’re shunting off the cooling air away from your body. That makes a warm temperature much worse.
DT: Do you carry water on the bike?
Megdal: No. You’re not allowed to have a computer, so you can’t look at your power, speed or time. You’re also not allowed to carry water or food. If you watch Formula One racing, these guys lose 2 or 3 kilograms of fluid just sitting in a car steering, being in hot weather. Their races are about an hour long. Yes, you can get quite dehydrated. You have to drink enough water, take enough sodium and eat enough — just an optimal amount. That’s not an easy thing to figure out. I did pretty well on that aspect. But you lose two or three pounds of water just sweating out.
Also if you reach down to grab a water bottle and drink, if you could do that, you’re going to lose 10-15 seconds because you’re breaking your aerodynamic profile. The difference between sitting up with your hands on the handlebars like you would normally ride a bike, versus being in the aerodynamic position is about 100 watts. I’m producing a little over 200 (watts). So 50% of my energy advantage would be lost. I’d do about 41 kilometers if I were to ride it the whole way sitting up.
DT: I had never thought about it in those terms.
Megdal: Nobody does. Why would you? I’ve spent the last year — several years — but particularly this last year really honing in on all these details.
DT: You said a couple of years ago (during a previous feature in this newspaper) that you had trained in California, at altitude. Was that something you did again for this attempt?
Megdal: I’ve studied and studied and studied about how you do the altitude training, should you do the altitude training. Some experts actually suggest that altitude training is detrimental because you have less oxygen, you can’t work as hard. So if you’re producing watts, your muscles have to work with energy. You don’t have as much oxygen to really stress your muscles. So the training effect at altitude is less that at sea level. So for some of the training it’s suggested that you go to altitude and you sleep at altitude, and drive down to a lower level to train. That’s what I did in California. I was sleeping at 8,000 feet. I was in Mammoth. I would drive down to Bishop, which was about 3,900 feet — still at altitude, but you can stress your muscles more.
There’s another thing you can do, which I did, too, which is sleeping in an altitude tent. Basically you have a tube that runs into a plastic tent. You put it over your bed, and you can de-oxygenate the area you sleep in. I bought two of them because I have a house in the mountains in New Hampshire, which is not at high altitude. The studies have been all over the place in terms of how to do altitude training. There have not been any really good, controlled studies. A brand new study came out in January of this year showing that in mice — corroborating other studies that they’ve done on humans — altitude training has pretty much no effect, because you’re stressing your body so much at altitude. Even though the theory is that you’re adapting to the altitude, you’re not really adapting to it.
Instead of doing altitude training this year, we decided to take that block of six weeks and do really intense interval training at sea level. The trick to that is, do I do altitude, do I go up? There’s another whole set of parameters and theories about when you go to altitude. What I’ve noticed about myself is, the day that I go up to altitude, I do well. The day after I’m there, I do pretty well in terms of testing on the track. At two days I’m already starting to fall off the wagon, so to speak. Three or four days into it, I’m not doing very well at all. Part of that is because your body’s going, ‘What the heck’s going on?’ It’s using a lot of energy trying to adapt to the altitude.
I think that’s what happened this year. We went there (Mexico) on a Sunday. My race was on a Tuesday. On Monday we went to the track — I was flying, I felt so good, the world record pace felt easy. This happened the year before, too — the pace felt easy, I was doing it for ten minutes. I had a really good heart rate. It seemed like it was going to be very simple, and I was going to smash the world record. On Tuesday I woke up and felt like crap — really fatigued. I wasn’t going to put it off another day, so I did it. But this next time (in late October), we have the advantage of going a week ahead. I’m going to go up there and practice. So the two options are, ideally you would fly in the day of and do it right there if you could, because then your body hasn’t started to go through the stress of adaptation. The other option is to wait a week.
[Editor’s note: A few weeks before setting the new world record, Megdal distinguished himself in a much quicker race, indicating his versatility as an elite cyclist who can generate high speed in both short-distance and long-distance events.
More precisely, he gained third place in the U.S. 2-kilometer Individual Pursuit competition among men in his age group at Rock Hill Velodrome in Rock Hill, South Carolina on August 9 at the USA Cycling Masters Track National Championships.
His time of 2 minutes, 32.6 seconds edged fourth-place finisher Joseph Paulson of Longmont, CO, and put him just 1.9 seconds behind silver medalist Paul Drees of Avondale, PA. Meanwhile Chris Carlson of McKinney, TX, who is a former Olympian as well as a holder of multiple records, US cycling titles and world cycling titles, took home gold with his time of 2:26.5.
Occurring as a pursuit, the race was from a standing start on a 250-meter track, with only two competitors on either end of the track. They chase each other, with the fastest overall time winning the age group. Athletes at the Championships competed among men’s and women’s categories in five-year increments from ages 35 to 95 in events such as Flying Time Trial and Team Sprint.
Megdal, who holds a PhD in nutrition, cycles for a team called Curing Heart Disease, and currently the team consists only of him.]
DT: Following up on the competition back in August in South Carolina, that one was more of a quick race, is that right?
Megdal: Right. That was on an outdoor velodrome, concrete. I had a terrible race, for me. We had the data afterwards. I was down about ten percent from when I was in practice. It was a really hot day and I shouldn’t have even gone, because I was focusing on the hour. I ended up with a bronze medal, and that’s fine. I got on the podium. I was the third-best in the country for that event. But… I wanted to win… I wasn’t really happy with that, but I’m certainly happy with the world record.
I have a lot of problems with the foot (his right foot) doing that 2-kilometer effort, because you do really have to sprint. At the beginning you have to put 100 percent effort, from standing still. For the hour you start slower, so it doesn’t stress your foot as much.
The 2-km is kind of an intermediate distance (some races are even briefer). There is some sprint aspect. I think I’m suited for that race. In 2018, the third race I ever did as a pursuiter, I got fourth at the world championships.
But I wanted to do the hour because the hour is known as the quintessential, most prestigious type of world record in cycling.
DT: Was the world record set in a Paralympic category?
Megdal: I am categorized as a Para athlete. The event that I did was not for Paras — it was able-bodied Masters. It’s considered a world record for (ages) 60 to 64. UCI does five-year age groups, and I’m 63 so I’m in the middle of the age group.
I am a classified-Para athlete. So that record will supersede and count for my current national record as a Para athlete, which was 46.25 km. I broke my own record, and set the record at 47.43. So I did set two records, technically speaking.
To make it more confusing, even though it (the attempt in Mexico) was conducted by UCI, UCI does not recognize that record as a national record. That’s recognized by the USA Cycling Association.
I was 100 meters shy of the UCI world record for Paras. Now if I had broken that record it wouldn’t have counted, because I’m not internationally classified as a C5 (a category of Para competitors). I’m only nationally classified. To get internationally classified I have to do an international competition as a Para athlete, which I’ve never done. That’s rule #1.
Rule #2 is, UCI has a requirement called the biological passport that you have to be enrolled in to have a world record for an elite event count. You have to be registered and have your whereabouts tracked by the governing body controlling that, which is WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency.
They can test you at any time. Lance Armstrong, if you recall (the supposed 7-time winner of the Tour de France in the late 1990s and early 2000s, who later had those titles revoked after he was found to have been using substances not permitted in the sport), was evading WADA. He eventually got busted for doing drugs.
You do a baseline test when you go into the program. I did not register for that. In order to get in, you have to spend about $10,000.
DT: Is there a drug-testing regime for the Mexico competition?
Megdal: Yes, there is. Your bike has to be weighed, and all the angles inspected. As soon as you’re done with that you’re not allowed to leave the room. They watch you drink water, then bring you into the bathroom and literally watch you pee in a cup. They want to make sure you don’t have a bladder hidden underneath your jersey. It’s a very degrading experience, in my opinion, but you have to do it.
DT: You told me a little about your next competition in Mexico. Do you ever take part in a more leisurely cycling event, whatever it might be?
Megdal: What I prefer the most in my life for riding is (when I used to) ride back and forth for work, because I felt like I was killing two birds with one stone. When I was in college, I used to draw blood (in a lab), as a part-time job to support myself. When we weren’t drawing blood, I could sit there and study.
I used to love, when the morning rounds were over, that I was getting paid to study. And I still feel the same way about when I was riding to work, because I’m getting exercise and I’m not using my car. That was always fun.
Most of my training has just been riding with groups. I’m a member of two different touring groups. I really enjoy going out on group rides with people and socializing, and getting the exercise. The extreme efforts of setting records or competing in races — I call that the cherry on top of the cake. But the cake itself is what I like the best, which is getting up and going out for rides.
I was just with my wife’s family about a month ago. They were all hanging out and having fun, and I was going out and doing these four-hour bike rides, because I was training for this event (the world record attempt). On the way out her dad asked me something about the type of rides that I was doing. I said, ‘I’m not doing this for fun. There’s a feeling of accomplishment, that I have this goal I want to get over.’
The majority of the training that anybody does can’t be high-intensity, because you can’t do high-intensity all the time. It’s sort of like the 80-20 rule: 80% of it’s not that hard, 20% of it’s hard. That’s a general rule.
Because COVID happened, a lot of the group rides I used to do are defunct. I’m a ride leader for Charles River Wheelers. But I haven’t led any rides because I’ve been too busy training hard. This is a touring group with a several hundred member base, and every weekend they have two or three rides. I love doing those rides when I’m not training for an event.
I’m looking forward to all of this being over. It’ll be November when it’s all done.
There are some people who like to just go out and hammer (out miles of riding). I had to hire a coach to make me do it, to have that structure, because I don’t naturally go out and ride hard.
A lot of what I want to do now with my life in general is not so much going and setting world records. Almost the main purpose of this was to show what you can do if you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease. You can reverse the disease, you can cure the disease.
I had severe heart disease about ten years ago. I put myself on a program that was all evidence-based, from the best sources of medical literature and nutrition, to set myself up for a healthy life to the point where I can set a world record.
For me it’s super-important. It’s not that I want anybody to say, ‘I have heart disease. I want to go set a world record.’ But it shows you that if somebody like me, with the family history that I have with heart disease, can set a world record, it means that virtually anybody with diagnosed atherosclerotic heart disease can have a significant improvement in their life.
That’s really what I want to do going forward. That’s what the book (that he is contemplating writing) would be about. I don’t think a lot of people understand that. Probably very, very few people do, and certainly doctors don’t get it. I had to educate my own, personal doctor in this.
I’ve done some consulting where I’ve helped people go on this pathway of changing the diet, getting on the right medicines. But there’s a whole lot that I learned, and a whole regime to doing this properly, where you can treat your heart disease if you want to prevent it, but particularly if you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease, that you can do that is not at all addressed by the medical community — zero, zip, nada.
I’m not saying that your father, mother, brother, or somebody that you might know that has heart disease (can do this). Virtually, in my opinion, 100% of them are not being treated properly. They’re not getting the right diet, they’re not getting the right drugs, they’re not meditating.
They’re not doing all the lifestyle things that you need to do to cure the disease, because medicine — cardiac medicine today — is, in my opinion, behind the times. I’m not the only one that says that, but I definitely have proven it.
When I was diagnosed, I was given a stent to open up one of the arteries. Since then I’ve done a whole lot of different things that have made me improve. I did it completely differently from what the hospital told me to do.
The real emphasis that I want to put out without indicting the whole medical community, because that’s not really what I’m trying to do, is I want the individuals that are being treated by the medical community to take sharper notice at what they can do to improve the treatment that they’re currently getting.
That’s what I do in my consulting, being a proof-in-the-pudding type of person. Both my parents, a grandfather, an uncle, a younger and older brother all died from heart disease. My sister has heart disease, and my half-brother just had a heart attack. I was diagnosed with heart disease, and I just set a world record. DT: Unbelievable.
Megdal: What I really care about is trying to get people to understand. If I had known 20 years ago what I know now, I wouldn’t have had to go through a stent, and all this other stuff. There was nobody around like me who was doing what I’m doing now, that could be a role model. I already knew my parents were dead from heart attacks. I was concerned about it. That’s one of the reasons why I went to graduate school.
When you get diagnosed and you know that your life is on the line, your study becomes really real, really fast. My older brother and younger brother were still alive at the time. I just want to get the public more aware.
(For my consulting clients) I will sit with their cardiologist and tell them, ‘No, you’ve got to put them on this drug,’ and ‘No, you’ve got to have them on this diet,’ and ‘No, we’ve got to do this procedure.’ The way that the medical community works is, (they use) whatever their practice protocols are for their particular hospital or group practice, which may not be the best practice with the current knowledge of science.