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Pedaling Into the Future : Transportation: The bike-like human-powered vehicles use the latest design and science techniques to move riders farther and faster. HPV enthusiasts gathered recently to test their craft.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Steve Markhem did a double take as what looked like an egg on wheels flashed by a shopping mall in this North Coast timber town.

A moment later, a contraption with two drivers seated back to back rounded a corner. Then a yellow blur shaped like the nose of an airplane whizzed by.

“What in the world is that?” Markhem asked, dumbfounded by the sight.

A bird? A plane? A UFO?

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Try human-powered vehicle.

A Southern California invention, human-powered vehicles (enthusiasts call them HPVs) are any type of vehicle propelled exclusively by human muscle. They have pedals and wheels, like bicycles, but many also have aerodynamic shells, some sleek, others funky and whimsical.

About 75 of them flocked to Eureka during the past week for the 20th annual International Human Powered Vehicle Speed Championships, which concludes today. They and their drivers came from around the United States and from places such as England and Germany to take part in the unusual competition.

The purpose: to optimize human power with the latest advances in science, technology and human ingenuity. The objective: to determine who has the fastest HPV on Earth.

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“The ordinary bicycle design is a design from a hundred years ago. . . . It’s outdated and inefficient,” said Mhyee, a 27-year-old part-time baker from Arizona who discovered HPVs while competing in 24-hour bike marathons several years ago. “I thought I’d ride a bike that would take me farther and more comfortably.”

Marti Daily, president of the 2,500-member International Human Powered Vehicle Assn., said the competition was started 20 years ago by a Los Angeles-based group that ran its first creations at Ontario Motor Speedway.

They wanted to test their ideas “of what actually constituted a faster bicycle,” she said. Two HPV drivers broke a land speed record in 1980 at the Ontario track, earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Al Krause, co-founder of the Redwood Empire HPV Assn., is hoping to organize an annual West Coast HPV competition, with Eureka as a regular stop. “I feel we can only expect to see continued growth . . . and increasing interest in HPV racing,” said Krause, a self-taught artist and engineer who has been racing HPVs for 20 years.

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Barred from competition in races sponsored by conventional cycling associations, such as the Union Cycliste Internationale, these innovative HPVers believe they represent the cutting edge of bicycle development.

Some call the vehicles New Age bicycles. Whatever the label, they turn heads.

And that might not be as easy as you would think here. Eureka, after all, is the home of the Kinetic Sculpture Race, a wacky three-day race over land, sea and sand held annually on Memorial Day weekend in Humboldt County.

Some kinetic racers switched to HPVs when they got serious about racing, said David (Clock Doc) Hitchcock, a businessman with a Ph.D. who helped organize and is one of the timekeepers for the kinetic sculpture race. Both events attract eccentric, inventor types, many of whom have advanced degrees in mechanical engineering or mathematics.

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Despite their startling appearances, HPVs are serious bikes. Many are meticulously designed and constructed by university research teams with budgets of $70,000 or more.

The world’s fastest HPV is the Dexter-Hysol Cheetah, engineered on computer design and analysis software by UC Berkeley students. The rider leans way back, enclosed in an aerodynamic bubble made of lightweight carbon composite.

Others are practically held together by shoelaces and bubble gum, such as one seen this week encased in flimsy cardboard that fluttered in the wind.

Four basic categories of HPVs competed: utility vehicles, intended for use around town to carry things such as groceries; all-terrain vehicles, which, like kinetic sculptures, must traverse land, sea and mud; human-powered boats, and “streamliners,” or speed bikes.

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Prizes consisted essentially of honor and camaraderie. In the past, DuPont Corp. offered prizes of $15,000 to $25,000 to the first vehicles to surpass certain limits.

The competition had its fun moments. Traditionally, any vehicles breaking the 55 m.p.h. speed limit in West Coast competitions are given honorary speeding tickets by the California Highway Patrol. This week in Humboldt Bay, a patrolling sheriff’s boat zapped human-powered water vehicles going 10 m.p.h. with a radar gun.

There were grim moments as well, such as when a British Columbia entry, Varna II, crashed Monday at the Redwood Acres Speedway during a practice run. The driver sustained a minor injury, but the vehicle was undamaged.

Because of the dense sea-level air and fog in the area, and because of the frequency of strong Pacific winds, few HPVers seriously expected to break any world records.

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One exception was Mhyee, from the town of Sahuarita, south of Tucson, who arrived here in a beat-up pickup with his HPV poking out the back.

Mhyee, who said his single name (pronounced me ) focuses him on his inner identity, used his skill in meditation to power himself onward during his grueling, record-breaking performance.

His rocket-like vehicle, called Gold Rush America, was dotted with decals and totally enclosed in a streamlined shell, except for a small hole near the top where his helmet protruded.

Tuesday morning, Mhyee broke two world records when he circled a small oval track 1,876 times. He pedaled 607 miles in 24 hours, breaking the old record for the most distance cycled in that time by six miles. At 25 hours, 7 minutes, he crossed the 1,000-kilometer line, breaking the prior mark for that distance by two hours.

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About 4 a.m. Tuesday, into the final hours of the tortuous race, Mhyee was heard singing loudly. Tunes such as “Roxanne” emanated from the vehicle. Afterward, he needed the help of several people to pry him from the tiny, bubble-shaped vehicle.

He believes his cycling draws attention to a cleaner, healthier, more ecologically sound lifestyle.

“I’d like to influence people, especially kids. I’d just like to show that we as humans can have and do have determination to do anything we want and shouldn’t give up hope for the outcome of ourselves and humanity,” he said.


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