Battle Mountain, Nevada – The week-long bicycle race taking place along a closed stretch of desert highway here would probably not impress your average professional cyclist.
The sponsors are universities and toolmakers, the accommodation is a smattering of motels in a single, dusty town, and the 22 riders here range from mostly weekend pedallers to a couple of low-ranked pros.
But considering that even the fastest Tour de France riders average only 55km/h on a straightaway, the top speeds here are astonishing.
“Oh, I’ve never gotten above 65,” or 104km/h, engineering professor David Sianez says casually. He is here from a small university in Connecticut.
“My top speed was a little over 70,” or 112km/h, says Australian Gareth Hank.
And the fastest rider here? That would be Todd Reichert.
In 2015, he set a world record of more than 138km/h – that is faster than the posted speed limit for motor vehicles in this US state.
The difference between this contest, known as the World Human Powered Speed Challenge, and all other pedal races is the design of the bikes.
By laying the rider on his or her back, in what is known as a recumbent position, the bike achieves vastly better aerodynamics than a traditional “diamond-frame” design.
And by encasing the whole form in carbon and kevlar, the air passing around the frame never becomes turbulent, as it does passing the ragged form of an exposed human being.
The result is that while those of us riding bikes to the store spend as much as 80 percent of our energy on wind resistance, these bikes reduce the aerodynamic profile of an entire human being to less than what your hand experiences as you hold it out of the window on the highway.
Of course, sometimes that means the riders here are not quite ready for the speed they achieve.
Yasmin Tredell, a rower recruited by the University of Liverpool to pilot their bike, had never pedalled it down such a long, open stretch of roadway as this before, and during her first run she says she hit 50 miles per hour (80km/h), breaking the women’s world record.
“It’s bloody scary,” she says, her hands shaking.
It’s the claustrophobia that gets to her.
“It’s pitch black in there, it’s enclosed, it’s right on your head and your shoulders.”
And then there’s the open desert conditions.
“On a day like today it’s quite windy, so you’re twitching around in there,” she says, gesturing at the highway. “And it turns out the road isn’t that wide, really.”
The competition is not glamorous. Hank, who fabricates recumbent bikes for a company in Australia, came out alone for this race, and at the last minute his parents cut short a vacation to fly out and be his crew.
“They don’t know the technical stuff,” he says.
“But I couldn’t do it without them.” Hank says he has got used to the dangers and discomfort of his bike.
“If you’re claustrophobic it’s probably not the best environment, and it’s quite tight and squishy in there,” he admits.
“But if it ain’t tight, it ain’t right.”
The bikes are not practical, admits Alan Krause, who co-organises this competition with his wife Alice.
“The rider can’t even put his feet down, so he needs assistance being launched and being caught,” says Krause.
“So this isn’t something you’d go to the store to get groceries with.”
But he believes the technology developed here – interior video cameras that obviate the need for a transparent windshield, the aerodynamics, the ergonomics – can help improve all forms of transportation.
“The same family of parts, arranged differently, becomes a super-efficient replacement for an automobile,” he says.
“Unfortunately I think often car design is about fashion and not about efficiency. We’re all about efficiency and the shape is whatever’s most efficient, not what’s fashionable.”
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