This Is a Bike. Trust Us.
Barely visible against the vast asphalt expanse of the Nissan test track, a white speck emerges from the soft light of the Arizona dawn. As it approaches, it takes shape as what might be a miniature submarine, or maybe a giant suppository on wheels. Crammed within the tiny, fully enclosed, artfully streamlined body is a world-class cyclist who’s reclining like guy on a Barcalounger as he pedals furiously enough to make his bike the world’s fastest sweatbox. He rockets past with a whoosh, and I suddenly understand why his ride is called a human powered vehicle, or HPV, rather than just a bicycle.
Whatever you call it, this little sucker is honking along so fast that it could merge comfortably into traffic on the 405. Moreover, the rider plans to maintain this speed for the next 52 minutes, thereby setting a world record by covering nearly 55 miles in an hour without the aid of an internal combustion engine, electric motor or flux capacitor. Oh, and we’re not talking about a cycling legend like Lance Armstrong, tearing it up on a gazillion-dollar bike built of unobtainium. No, today’s would-be hero is a 29-year-old Brit by the name of Rob English who manages to race full-time even though he doesn’t get paid for it. “I have a very cheap lifestyle,” he explains, “and a very understanding mother.”
Which brings us to the dirty little secret of cycling: The fastest, most innovative, highest-tech bikes in the world aren’t found in the Olympics or the Tour de France. They’re the creations of the small and largely mocked world of HPV racing, a close-knit community of free-thinkers dominated by engineering geeks--many of them California dreamers--whose idea of bling is a platinum-plated pocket calculator. Even when ridden by top pros, conventional diamond-frame bikes rarely exceed 40 mph on level ground. Meanwhile, HPVs (also known as speedbikes) have blasted past 80 mph thanks to their sleek composite bodies and recumbent, i.e. prone, seating position.
In October, HPV racers from all over the world will congregate near Battle Mountain, Nev., for a weeklong series of late-afternoon runs along State Route 305. Each record attempt will entail four miles of banzai pedaling to accelerate up to top speed and then--when the cyclist is about to puke, pass out, explode or all of the above--powering through a 200-meter-long timing zone. Four years ago, Canadian Sam Whittingham became the world’s fastest human by blistering the speed trap at Battle Mountain at 81 mph.
On this Friday morning at the end of June, English and most of the other luminaries of HPV racing are braving the broiling desert heat here in Casa Grande to assault another world record, this one in the so-called Hour, the most hallowed mark in cycling lore.
The distance traveled in an hour from a standing start has been the ultimate test of a cyclist’s skill and heart since 1876, when an Englishman riding a high-wheeler covered 15.8 miles over the grounds of Cambridge University. Five-time Tour-winner Eddy Merckx called his record-setting Hour “the hardest ride I have ever done”--this from a cyclist so legendarily fierce that he was known as “The Cannibal.” Whittingham, a former Canadian national team rider-turned-HPV superstar, set the record of 52.3 miles two years ago. Although he’s not here to defend his crown, six of his rivals plan to take a crack at it on the banked 5.7-mile-long oval at the Nissan Technical Center North America.
The carrot they’re chasing is the Dempsey/MacCready Hour Record Prize. In 1999, Santa Ana businessman Ed Dempsey and visionary engineer Paul MacCready of Pasadena offered $25,000 to the first cyclist to cover 90 kilometers, or 55.9 miles, in an hour. MacCready had achieved international celebrity with his Gossamer Condor, a human-powered airplane that won the Kremer Competition in 1977, and he thought another cash-money competition would inspire innovation in the hidebound bicycle community. As he watches English’s run, MacCready acknowledges that he set the bar too high. So even if nobody breaks the 90-kph barrier this weekend, he’s agreed to award the prize money after the final record attempt on Sunday to the three riders with the best Hour marks to date.
English’s first lap, starting from a standstill, is 47 mph and change. His first flyer is better than 54 mph, and he backs that up with another lap at 52-plus. He’s close to a record pace, and the crowd--about 50 HPV junkies--perks up. Then English’s speed heads south. Fifty-one miles per hour. Fifty. Forty-eight. Because it’s so early and there’s some cloud cover, it’s only 84 degrees. Outside, that is. Inside English’s carbon-fiber cockpit, which is sealed with tape and could double as a thermos, the heat is brutal. His bike wiggles like a fish (pedal-induced oscillation, it’s called) as he grinds away at the cranks. “It’s an ordeal,” says American record-holder Matt Weaver. On Sunday, Weaver plans to ride his Cutting Edge II, an HPV so insanely complicated that it makes the Space Shuttle look like a Model T. You’d think he’d be pleased to see one of his competitors punking out. But the expression on his face suggests that he’s imagining himself inside English’s oven. “Once your body temperature gets up around 102 degrees, your muscles say, ‘OK, let’s wait until we cool down a bit,’” he says. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
English tries. Man, how he tries. But by hour’s end, he’s covered only 49.8 miles--a British record, though too slow to earn any Dempsey/MacCready booty. As he freewheels off the track, I hear him shout through the bodywork: “Get me out of here!” A furnace-like blast of heat eddies out of the bike as the canopy is ripped off. English is helped up, then crumbles to the ground, physically shattered. Covered with ice and draped with wet towels, he hardly moves for 15 minutes. “Dear God,” he finally says, “it’s unbelievable how hard that was. My heart rate was over 200 for at least 45 minutes.”
Says John Weaver, Matt’s father and a retired physician. “He went through hell. If he’d been a normal person, he’d be dead.”
The architecture of the conventional diamond-frame bicycle hasn’t undergone many fundamental changes since it was introduced more than a century ago, and for good reason. It’s cheap, reliable, robust, easy to build and remarkably efficient. But it could be better. Recumbent bicycles are faster, safer and more comfortable. Build them out of Space Age composites and skin them in streamlined bodywork and they’ll make conventional bikes look second-rate.
A case in point: Brothers Steve and Craig Delaire race a recumbent built by Steve, a motorcycle racer who went into the bicycle business in Santa Rosa because it was better for the environment. Middle-aged and nobody’s idea of world-class athletes, the Delaires aren’t here to challenge the Hour record but to set personal bests. Even so, they go fast enough--Steve logs 43.3 miles and Craig covers more than 36--that they would have lapped Lance Armstrong if he’d been racing against them on a conventional bike.
The prospect of top pros being waxed by wankers prompted the Union Cycliste Internationale, the body that governs bike racing, to ban streamlining and recumbents back in the ‘30s. Cast out of the UCI family, ‘bents have grown up as the unloved, overlooked and, let’s face it, peculiar-looking orphans of the bicycle world. According to biking stereotype, they’re ridden either by old geezers with long beards and aero bellies or by over-the-hill engineers in bad shorts. Their cool quotient, in other words, is strictly negative.
Fittingly, the HPV movement was initiated by card-carrying members of the slide-rule club. Back in 1974, a streamliner designed by mechanical engineering professor Chet Kyle to energize his students at Cal State Long Beach set several speed records at the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. In April 1975, he and Orange aerodynamicist Jack Lambie organized the first HPV event at Irwindale Raceway. MacCready served as official timer. “It was probably the strangest bunch of vehicles ever raced in one place at one time,” Kyle recalls.
HPV racing has been relegated to footnote territory in recent years, tarred with the “clown cycle” brush. But back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the mind-boggling speeds achieved by these unconventional racers briefly brought several of the studliest pros into the fold. U.S. Olympian “Fast Freddy” Markham was the first cyclist to exceed 50 and 60 mph. Then, in 1986, he won the $18,000 DuPont Prize for breaking the 65-mph barrier. In recent years, Markham has limited himself to the top speed competition near Battle Mountain, but he has come to Casa Grande for what promises to be his last hurrah. “I’m not sure that I’ve got a record in me; I’m just an old guy.” He smiles ruefully. “I sure wish I had this bike when I was in my prime.”
At 49, Markham is taut and wiry, with a full head of graying hair but the restless energy of a teenager. He runs his hand over the sinuous body of his black beauty, lovingly polished by crew chief Gabe DeVault so that it resembles a patent-leather slipper. “Cycling is a matter of who’s willing to suffer the worst,” Markham says. “These days, if I get to hurting really bad, I’ll just cave. I suffered through the pain years ago. Now my big thing is just finishing.” Unfortunately, he can’t even manage that. After turning a lap faster than 55 mph, his chain derails. Back in the paddock, he vows to try again tomorrow.
Next up is Damjam (pronounced Damian) Zabovnik, age 31, a soft-spoken Slovenian with a sparse beard who’s working in an aircraft factory in Northern California. Polish aviation student Jacek Kesy is his entire crew; they ferry their bike around on top of a Honda with a mismatched fender and 180,000 miles on the odometer. Last year, at Battle Mountain, Zabovnik set the European speed record of 73 mph--traveling backward. Yep, he sees the road in a mirror and steers via controls that are reversed. (Otherwise, he’d have to steer left to turn right.) Like Markham, he’s fit and tightly sprung, but instead of the Californian’s sunny disposition, he’s under a perpetual cloud of Eastern European pessimism.
Me: How’s the track?
Him: Bad. Bad cracks in the turns.
Me: Can you break the record?
Him: The bumps are very bad. I adjusted the wheels but . . . . (He mournfully shakes his head.)
Me: So how’s your bike now?
Him: It’s better than nothing.
The originality, craftsmanship and sheer nuttiness of Zabovnik’s bike make it a favorite in Casa Grande. I’d come here expecting to find a vibe similar to land-speed car racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats, another venue where ingenious do-it-yourselfers chase records that interest nobody but them. But Bonneville mostly showcases blue-collar gearheads rooted in the glory days of hot rodding. HPV speedsters, on the other hand, are built by engineering iconoclasts looking toward a green future, and they’re ridden by athletes who push the limits of human endurance. Zabovnik gets extra credit because he has a foot in each camp.
At the start, his knife-edged bike sways like a blade being brandished before hand-to-hand combat. He steadies himself and starts pounding out laps in the mid-50s. After 45 minutes, he’s ahead of the record. Then we hear a tinny radio report from the chase vehicle: Zabovnik is down!
“I wasn’t tired and I wasn’t overheated,” he says phlegmatically when he returns to the paddock. “But over the bumps, I was like this.” He mimics a marionette being jerked around by a kid with a bad case of attention-deficit disorder. “The front tire exploded.”
I expect him to be devastated: In 11 minutes, he would have had been the world record-holder. Instead, he looks resigned, as if this experience merely confirmed his conviction that the only immutable law of the universe is the one attributed to Murphy.
The last rider of the day is Weaver’s crew chief Rob Hitchcock on one of Weaver’s old bikes. A 43-year-old Arcata general contractor who used to run the service department of a giant bike shop, he recently returned to school to study mechanical engineering. He is making his first run ever in what’s known as a camera bike. To maximize aerodynamic efficiency, Weaver designs his HPVs without windscreens. Instead, riders “see” the outside world via video screens that display images from cameras mounted in the tailfin. Camera bikes are notoriously tricky to ride. Markham, the most experienced HPV cyclist on the planet, crashed his camera bike six times--and once ran over his former team owner--before reverting to a conventional model.
“You can do it, Rob!” Weaver shouts as he pushes Hitchcock away from the starting line. But Hitchcock is listing from the launch, and he swerves off the track and plops down in the infield. Weaver sprints over to right him, and Hitchcock tries again, riding not for a world record but simply to complete a lap around the track. His second start is better. But the video quality is so poor that he can’t make out a bright orange pylon until it’s a few yards in front of him, and when he swerves to avoid it, his bike crashes again.
There’s a collective groan back in the paddock. All that time, all that effort, all that sacrifice, and for what? “It would be so easy to quit,” Hitchcock says later, forcing a smile. “But I’m not giving up. This isn’t the end of the world. I’m coming back. It was just so disappointing with all those people watching . . . .” He pauses to regroup. “In this sport, you’ve got to have a brilliant design and you’ve got to have maximum performance. It’s a combination of technology and athleticism. I’m an athlete of mind and body.”
Hitchcock’s father wraps him up in a bittersweet hug, and they pack up their gear.
Everybody convenes at the track at 4:45 a.m. Sunday to beat the heat, which is forecast to peak at 108 degrees. For the third consecutive night, the Cutting Edge crew thrashed past midnight, this time fixing the video system, the unique Weaver-designed front derailleur and a way-cool water pump he built to bathe his head in ice water with each pedal-stroke. “I think that’s the most comfortable garage floor I ever slept on,” Raymond Gage murmurs as he and the rest of the guys wearily start going over the bike yet again.
Weaver, 37, is the mad scientist who best sums up the HPV community’s dual personality. A runner with Olympic aspirations until he blew out a knee, now an engineer who works on wind power, he’s both a legitimate athlete and an honest-to-goodness geek. Tall, handsome, with perfect posture and a perennial smile, he’s brilliant, charming, generous, approachable, polite and articulate, a Gen X cross between Jack Armstrong and Tom Swift. “He’s bloody clever,” English says. “He knows everything about everything, and that’s no exaggeration. I’m not stupid, and I can’t keep up with him.”
Weaver’s flaw is that he can’t leave well enough alone when perfection seems to be an all-nighter or two (or 10) away. The bikes that English and Markham ride, as well as the one Whittingham used to set the world record, are based on something Weaver built years ago but never raced because he’d already designed a new-and-improved model. “He’s a genius,” Markham says. “He revolutionized the sport. But he gets hung up on details. Sometimes you wish he’d forget about getting everything just right and say, ‘We’ll deal with that next year.’”
As befits his name, Fast Freddy is ready to go when the track opens for business. While Markham completes his first lap, English is wheeled to the starting line. Bike owner Dave Balfour, an Illinois optician, and his companion, Becky Aulenbach, a nurse, have retrofitted the HPV with several Rube Goldberg contraptions to keep the cockpit cool. But English is still feeling the effects of Friday’s heat, and the bike has some niggling problems. When his speed drops below 50 mph, he bails. “I wasn’t going fast enough,” he says, “so there was no point in killing myself.”
Markham, for his part, has clocked the fastest lap of the weekend--55.6 mph--and he’s cranking hard, carving a straight-edged furrow down the track. “I just love watching him ride,” says his daughter, Tanya. “There’s no wobbling at all. It’s like he’s on rails.” Keeping time with a gigantic stopwatch that dates back to the dawn of HPV racing, Kyle is suffering through bipolar swings of joy (because Markham is smashing the world record) and worry (because Markham may not be pacing himself). Tanya, grinning, just shakes her head. “It’s in the bag,” she says with 10 minutes to go. Daughter knows best. Markham’s official mark is 53.432 miles, more than a mile better than the old record. His face is dangerously gray when he rolls to a stop, and he looks as though he’s about to burst into tears--of exhaustion rather than joy. “I don’t feel that good,” he croaks.
Incredibly, the Cutting Edge crew is still screwing around with Weaver’s bike. The water pump won’t stay fixed. First, it’s secured with metal tape. Then with a hacksaw and baling wire. Then with a cordless drill. Then the drill bit disintegrates. Weaver remains imperturbably upbeat. “I’m encouraged in a weird way,” he says. “Every time I’ve raced against Freddy over a long distance, I’ve beaten him. So if we’re able to solve these little technical issues . . . .”
While the bike is carted over to the starting line, still in pieces, Weaver warms up on a stationary bike as a friend fans him with a cardboard box. “Oh, the hour cometh,” he announces in a mock-biblical voice. Over his head, he drapes a turquoise terrycloth shawl fashioned to absorb water from the pump. On top of it, he fixes a large piece of metal mylar film--it looks like tinfoil--to retain the coolness next to his skull. The whole thing is secured with black pantyhose. It would be hard, frankly, to make yourself look more ridiculous.
Weaver climbs with a gasp into a trough filled with ice water to lower his body temperature. Next he strides across the paddock with water dripping off of him and the tinfoil sticking out from his head like Mercury’s silver wings. At the starting line, the crew is still working on his bike. In a reluctant, regretful voice, race organizer Al Krause informs Weaver that he’s got 20 minutes, tops, to start his run. Virtually everybody at he track has gathered around to watch Hitchcock and company feverishly try to put the bike together, thrashing like emergency room docs swarming over a flatlining patient. Weaver alone remains outwardly calm. “You’re doing great,” he says as he patiently waits to get started.
Finally the bike is ready. Weaver slithers under the carbon-fiber top tube and, after a series of painful contortions, worms himself in the cockpit. The fit is claustrophobic; encased inside the bodywork with a breathing mask affixed to his face, he looks as though he’s being imprisoned within a fiendishly high-tech torture chamber. The body is screwed shut. As the seams are being taped, Weaver shouts in a weirdly disembodied voice: “A strap came loose! A strap came loose!” Hitchcock, with sweat rolling down his nose, doesn’t even pause. “You’ve pretty much got to run with whatever you’ve got right now,” he says.
The bike is rolled to the starting line. With a clank of the chain Weaver pedals off. After 50 yards, he slams down hard on his left flank. Amid general pandemonium, his crew wheels him back to the starting area for a second launch. For three days, this is the run we’ve all been waiting for, and the only thing that can stop Weaver now is Weaver himself.
He takes off again. He wobbles, veers left, right and back to the left, then stabilizes. At the starting line, there’s a ragged, almost disbelieving cheer. On the back straight, the chase vehicle reports that Weaver is already up to 55 mph. In the paddock, there’s a sense that this is a done deal. Two years ago, at California Speedway in Fontana, Weaver covered 51.4 miles in an Hour despite a host of problems. If he’s going this fast this quickly, he should be golden.
“That’s Matt,” says Cutting Edge crew member Carl Mueller. “The wire is always scratching him on the back as he goes under it.”
Weaver’s first lap is solid, but his second is slower than anticipated. And it soon becomes clear that he’s nowhere near a record pace. Markham, lounging in his bike with his back to the track, starts to smile, and the tension in the paddock deflates. A handful of people are waiting at the finish line to greet Weaver at the end of his anticlimactic 48.7-mile run. But he doesn’t stop, he doesn’t even slow down, and the crowd scatters to avoid being bowled over. Weaver rolls to a halt a half-mile up the track. When he’s pulled from the cockpit, he’s as wasted by the heat as English had been two days earlier.
Fifteen minutes later, he’s back in the paddock. Despite disappointment, dehydration and heat prostration, he stands in his bare feet and manfully explains what went wrong: The video was so bad that he couldn’t see the people at the finish line until he nearly plowed into them. The mask slipped off his face before the start, so he had trouble breathing, and the water pump broke after a half-mile, so he was being parboiled inside the cockpit. Oh, and nobody filled his water bottle, and since there wasn’t time to install the GPS unit, he had no idea how fast he was going.
“Wearing that goofy headgear was like putting on two ski caps and climbing inside an insulated box,” he says. “It was torture.” Told that, at one point, he was doing 45 mph, he groans. “Forty-five miles per hour! Oh, that’s pathetic!”
Fast Freddy is the story today. For 60 agonizing minutes, he turned back the clock and earned one last moment of glory, not to mention $18,000 in prize money. (Whittingham and Weaver are awarded $10,000 and $6,000, respectively, for previous Hours runs, while MacCready gives Zabovnik $4,000 and English $2,000 for being the two fastest foreign competitors.) “I was hurting,” Markham admits. “I was really hurting. I think this Hour took a year out of my life. This ride was probably my greatest performance ever.”
For Weaver, the event has been a study in frustration, but in defeat, he exhibits the character of a champion. “What we were trying to do required great precision, and great precision requires time and money, and time and money were two things we didn’t have,” he says. “Records are important, and it’s disappointing not to break them. But with records, you’re living in the past. At the core level, my interest is in the potential--what it will take to get us to the next level.”
I catch up with Hitchcock at the hotel. “The first thing I’m doing when I get home is catch up on sleep,” he says. And after that? He flashes a giant grin. “Battle Mountain is only 12 weeks away.”