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World Record at 152 M.P.H. : Bicycle Built for Speed Finds Its Place in the Sun

Times Staff Writert

American cyclists geared to an average touring speed of 20 m.p.h. may soon be cruising a new breed bike at 25 m.p.h. . . . because its designer, John Howard, has pedaled a bizarre, upmarket prototype at 152 m.p.h.

That’s correct. A whistling 152 miles per hour. On a bicycle powered only by human legs. And the worn, scarred, over-the-hill legs of a 37-year-old Olympian at that.

Howard’s recent sprint was across the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah. For one mile he actually outran a helicopter and a chase plane carrying team photographers. He won a title that has changed hands only four times since Charles (Mile-a-Minute) Murphy rode behind a locomotive at 60 m.p.h. in 1899. It gave Howard his second mention (the first was for cycling 514 miles in 24-hours) in the Guinness Book of World Records.

But more important, he says, the aerodynamic lessons of his slippery Bonneville bike could change the pace of recreational cycling as surely as Jaguar’s streamlined sports cars changed the world’s slab-fronted approach to motoring.

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“I think we’ve built a better mousetrap,” Howard enthused. The living room and garage of his Encinitas home is a litter of frames and wheels and sketches. Mousetrap makings. “The rear wheel will be 28 inches, solid within a fairing, and the front wheel 26 inches. The head-stay will be dropped five inches and there will be a front fairing, just like those on a motorcycle, to scoop the air away from the rider.”

Despite the sophistication of modern metals and construction, explained Howard, the frontiers of touring cycling have remained bogged by turbulence and drag.

“There’s a lot of stuff on a bike that clogs up the wind--the rider, the brake assembly--so we’ve cleaned that up by reducing the frontal area. That should give us a speed increase between 5% and 10% . . . and without the rider expending any more energy.”

The new bicycle (currently under construction in the Irvine garage of Doug Malewicki, the madcap genius who did Evel Knievel’s Sky Cycle) will be introduced at next month’s Interbike Show in Reno. It will be called the John Howard Fuorilegge .

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“That’s Italian for Outlaw,” Howard said, “because a bike equipped with anything that reduces air turbulence is considered illegal in bike racing.”

The proposed retail price of the Outlaw also contains a touch of the rapscallion. “Eighteen hundred bucks,” Howard said.

Yet to finance the research that built this bike that borrows from the machine that skimmed the salt to reach the record that John built, cost more than $100,000. Howard’s attempt also was three years in the making with escalating goals in mind.

“Vanity was one,” he said. “I wanted to go faster under my own power than any other human being who has walked this planet. Not with an engine. Not with special fuels. But by cycling, a combination of human and mechanical energy where you are the engine, you supply the power.”

Total accomplishment of the athletic specialist was another motive. After all, Howard rode for the United States in three Olympiads, is a seven-time national cycling champion, has that 24-hour record and holds international biathlon and triathlon titles. So why not be the fastest thing on two pedals?

Also, publicity attendant to becoming a world record holder couldn’t possibly harm Howard’s already comfortable income from cycling endorsements and his multifitness franchises.

Serious and Silly

So he went to Bonneville and a recent festival at the flats for some serious and silly seekers of world speed records.

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A stock-bodied Camaro (with engine) zipped through the timers at over 200 m.p.h. and in novel fashion for a record breaker--with a 300-pound driver and journalist passengers. Another vehicle inaugurated an oddball world land speed category--for diesel pickups. One would-be record setter wanted to be the first (therefore the fastest) person to be towed across the dead lake in a bathtub.

The tub was denied a permit. The Camaro and the pickup made their marks. So did the audacity and determination of Howard.

As with all contenders since Murphy, Howard was paced by a faster vehicle. It was a Bonneville streamliner, one of those teardrop torpedoes with a maximum speed of 300 m.p.h. It’s rear deck was a cowling, a square cave to create a pocket of still air and suck Howard into high speeds.

The bike was an awesome thing built for this single purpose. A double reduction gear system with three sprockets and two chains. Stumps for handlebars and motorcycle tires on 18-inch wheels bolted to motorcycle forks. A radio control so that Howard could override the accelerator on the pace car, govern his own pace and cancel the possibility of surprise speed changes.

Gearing (one turn of the pedals translating to 90-feet of travel) made it impossible to pedal such a bicycle from a dead stop. So Howard was towed to 60 m.p.h. before tucking himself inside the pace car’s slipstream for the record run.

And there was the undeniable deadliness of it all: To break out of the pocket and into the slipstream would be to slam into wind and a salt harder than any freeway.

Unholy Fishtailing

One run ended with unholy fishtailing by the bike. Said Howard: “We had never been above 124 miles per hour (in trials) and above 125 the bike started taking on new characteristics. It just wasn’t stable. So we designed a fairing to cover the spokes of the rear wheel and I could use that to counteract side forces just like a rudder.

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“Then we had to rip off a small fender installed to protect a camera mounting. It was acting like an aerofoil and at 134 miles per hour it lifted the front of the bike and everything was bouncing around in the vortex. It was absolutely terrifying.”

On another run, the pace car topped 140 m.p.h. which was just over the old record. But it was running alone. Howard had dropped out: “Too much salt was blowing up and into my helmet,” he said. “I was getting sand blasted.”

On the second run of the second day, Howard knew he was closing fast on 150 m.p.h. Then a rear tire went flat: “As soon as I felt it go I nailed the brakes. The bike was all over the place and I knew I had to get out of the vortex in a hurry. I broke out, raised up and used my body as an air brake. It was like running into a brick wall and I don’t know how the bike stayed up as it slowed down.

“All I know is that I didn’t think it could be done and that we were moving rapidly in the direction of a major crash.” But he managed to stop safely.

There were three more runs that day. Five miles for the tow and the long pedal to maximum speed. One mile through the traps. Two miles to slow down. “I was exhausted,” said Howard.

He was hot (It was July 20): “It was 110 degrees; it was brutal.” He was afraid: “I was having a hard time dealing with fear, getting it out of the way, and the thing that brought it on was the roar of the engine when Rick (pace driver Rick Vesco) started the car. " There was pain: “I was hurting. From 70 (m.p.h.) to 110 there’s this anaerobic pain, you feel it in your chest, in your legs until every fiber of your system is screaming for release.” Yet there was something else. “I kept getting this number in my head. One hundred and fifty two. It kept coming back. One hundred and fifty two. I knew the salt was perfect and as good, they said, as the ‘40s and ‘50s that were its heyday. Suddenly, everything felt right.”

Competition Experience

It certainly was. Two decades of competition experience came into play. Several years of monastic heavy training now meant something. The past few months of 70 m.p.h. pursuits behind unsuspecting trucks on Pacific Coast Highway were ready to pay off.

“We went out and I immediately dialed in,” Howard said. “Everything was tuned. All my survival instincts were coming into focus. Nothing existed in my world and my concentration except the bike, the salt, the car and what we were doing.

“I could sense it coming on and so I kept 152 in my mind. It became a fixation as I pedaled. Then I heard Rick talking talking through the headphones: ‘I hope you’re back there because we’ve got the record.’ ”

They had. It was 152.284-miles-per-hour.

Last year, Howard knew exactly what he’d do if he earned the record. He’d be satisfied with that. There would be no attempts to improve on his own mark, he said, no defense of the title.

This year, Howard knows exactly what he’s going to do if somebody overtakes his record. He’ll ride the salt again.

“Because I now know this was the most important victory in my life, something totally different, an achievement related to speed rather than endurance.

“Then there’s the high. You have to do it, you have to experience that incredible exhilaration to understand it. Drugs. Sex. Rock and roll. Carnival rides. They’re lemonade beside the pool compared to this.”


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