As I mentioned in my last post, I was off again this summer to the World Human-Powered Speed Challenge (WHPSC) in Nevada. What I didn’t mention was that we built a brand-new vehicle this year that we managed to keep almost entirely a secret until the final weeks before the competition. What’s special about this new bike is that we actually designed it to fit me as one of the riders. That’s right; “riders”, plural. But before I get ahead of myself talking about the bike, it may help to introduce the unusual competition and set the stage for our being there.
Every year, for the past 20 years, unique breeds of only slightly crazy cyclists, engineers, and combinations of both flock to the middle-of-nowhere Nevada – namely, the town of Battle Mountain – to see how fast they can make their curious vehicles go using only pedal-power. The quaint mining town of Battle Mountain (population 3635, elevation 1375m) plays host to the longest, straightest, flattest stretch of road in the world that is at any appreciable altitude. Twice a day for a week we get to close down 8km (5mi) of this road to race our contraptions. What the Bonneville Salt Flats are to motor racing, State Route 305 is to human-powered vehicle racing. The distinction between “bicycles” and “human-powered vehicles” is an important one as many of the vehicles that show up to this competition sport three – or more! – wheels.
This competition attracts worldwide attention with teams of enthusiasts and teams from universities coming from the USA, Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Australia, and Canada (that’s us!), though other countries have made an appearance in the past. While the teams and team members vary from year to year, this competition is founded on a strong community with many of the same faces turning up every year. Many of the key organizers will travel thousands of kilometers every year to attend though none of them earn a cent from it. It truly is a dedicated and passionate community that keeps this event running!
University of Toronto’s HPVDT at the WHPSC
Personally, this was only my third year attending, though the Human-Powered Vehicles Design Team (HPVDT) has been attending since 2010, with two of our members making this their seventh attendance. We’ve fielded the bike with the most runs down SR305 with Vortex making it’s 100th successful run in 2016. We’ve spun-off the team (Aerovelo) that designed and built the current world-record bike, Eta. We even won the competition once in 2017 with Eta‘s sister bike, Eta Prime, reaching a top speed that year of close to 130kph. And now we’re making another bid at going even faster with our new speed bike TITAN.
The crazy thing about TITAN is that it’s a back-to-back tandem bicycle. This puts it in a whole different class of vehicle than what we – and most competitors – usually build. The last time a multi-rider bicycle was fielded was in 2013. The record for multi-rider vehicles was set the previous year in 2012 by the same bike, a back-to-back tandem named Glowworm. It’s record, 73.08mph (117.6kph), was the number we were aiming to beat this year.
Phase 1: Actually finish the bike and ride it
As we’re wont to do, we underestimated the time needed to actually build TITAN so when we left Toronto on the Labour Day weekend, the bike was very close to functional, but we had yet to ride it. Part of the tradition of this competition for our team – and also out of necessity – is the 40 hour drive to Battle Mountain that we needed to get out of the way before we could get to racing. We chose to leave a few days early this year giving us some time to settle in, acclimatize, and get to work on TITAN before the racing started.
We got to Battle Mountain on Wednesday, hoping to be ready for the first day of races on Sunday. Alas, more bugs needed fixing and practice was needed, so we spent the first five days there alternating between working on the bike and driving out to a back road for testing. Also, crashing. Many of the issues we were trying to fix resulted in low-speed crashes in testing. Finally though, on Tuesday, the third scheduled day of racing, we showed up to the 4km (2.5mi) qualifying course ready to see if TITAN could go fast enough to allow us to run the full 5mi course. We were also curious to see if we could ride the bike without crashing it.
Phase 2: Race the bike!
Our successful qualifying run meant that we could now race on the full 5mi course. While that length of course may seem excessive for a regular bicycle, the vehicles that are going to hit speeds in excess of 70mph are actually still accelerating when they reach the timing traps in the final 200m. Slowing down from such high speeds requires massive braking power and time, so the vehicles are given another mile after being timed to slow down enough to be caught by a group of volunteers. Even slowing down from only 58mph, we could smell our disc brakes burning and feel the heat emanating from the (covered) rotors.
With the bike in a functional state, we now wanted to get as much seat time as possible by taking as many opportunities to race as we could, including later that same evening. Though being a high-speed sport pushing the limits of aerodynamics, these vehicles are highly affected by the wind. The wind needs to be below 6kph (328 ft/min, to be precise) for the run to be considered “wind legal”. A non-legal wind would disqualify an achieved speed from the official record, and hence, a world record. But even if the wind is only 2-3x above the legal limit, it can become too dangerous to ride. While we intended to race again that evening, the wind stayed too high for our liking, so we opted not to run.
We took to the course first thing next morning though. The wind readings were quite variable, but bordering legal so we decided to run. Unfortunately, 2mi down the course the wind picked up making it too dangerous to try to go any faster. We started coasting at around 60mph and by the time we crossed the finish line we had only slowed to 42mph. At least we stayed upright. This run also tripled the total seat time we had together in TITAN.
That luck didn’t hold to the evening. The wind was almost nonexistent when we launched again, but quickly became gusty. We alternated between pedaling and coasting for most of the course until we hit the 1km to-go marker when a gust knocked us over at 60mph. Coincidentally, our first high-speed crash in TITAN happened right in front of where the paramedics were stationed. One of whom happened to be videoing our run to show to her kids.
We were slightly shaken, but otherwise uninjured. TITAN added a few more scratches to both sides of the fairing to even out the battle scars it gained in practice. The rear tire was also completely shredded as it caught the ground and caused us to flip to our other side. Aside from that, the bike was completely fine. This crash made us aware of a couple of issues we had in the steering column that caused the handling to be a bit unstable, especially in the wind. A late night fix had the bike ready to go again for Thursday morning.
With the wind co-operating and the crash panels removed, we posted a decent speed of 66mph; a result we were quite happy with considering neither of us put in terribly much power and the focus was just on getting down the course.
Much to our chagrin, the steering column gremlins came back that evening, as the handling somehow proved too loose to even launch properly. More late night fixes were necessary.
Come Friday morning, we had properly fixed our steering issues, giving Calvin much better handling for the morning run. The wind, unbeknownst to us, rose to 2x the legal limit as we passed through timing. The bike felt solid and steady even with a little bit of a sprint at the end; though I thoroughly spent myself on the run-up to the sprint. As I mentioned before, to hit high speeds, the bike is accelerating the whole time down the course, even through the timing traps. We could feel that TITAN had reached it’s aerodynamic limit as we stopped accelerating 4mi in and actually slowed down slightly towards the end, posting a slightly improved speed of 67mph. It was time to move on from fixing problems to maximizing potential.
Phase 3: Setting records!
Filler was applied, the fairing was lightly sanded, our best tires were put on, and an aerodynamic cover for the front wheel was added. It was time to try to take TITAN as fast as it could this year without extensive sanding and painting work. And so it went fast. Friday the 13th proved to be a lucky day for the team. We scored ourselves the best race slot in the house: the last position in the last heat of the evening; the position with the best winds. Calvin and I felt good enough to put in some power and as we yelled and cheered at each other down the course we posted a much improved speed of 74.73mph – a new multi-rider world record! We were absolutely thrilled! We knew we both had more power to give and the bike certainly hadn’t topped out yet, so our hopes were high for the final day of racing.
The wind proved uncooperative for Saturday morning as a gusty ride slowed us down to a non-wind-legal 73mph.
The lack of sleep and adrenaline crash caught up to us by the evening though as neither of us was feeling up to another high-speed run. We scratched from our final slot and called it a wrap on WHPSC 2019. That decision proved a good one anyway as the wind turned out to be a hair over legal anyway.
“Solve enough problems and you get to set a world record”
– a wise man (Calvin), 2019
A Special WHPSC
While I’ve only focused on our team for this post, it was an exciting and action-packed week all around at Battle Mountain this year. Aside from our own world record, some others were broken as well!
The women’s single-rider record was broken three times this year after standing untouched since 2010. First Rosa Bas from TU Delft-Amsterdam nudged it up on Monday to 75.88mph. A couple days later, Ilona Peltier from IUT Annecy then bumped up the record to 77.1mph. In the special evening heat in which we broke the multi-rider record, the junior men’s record was surpassed although the wind was not legal, Vittoria Spada, from Politecnico di Torino (Team Policumbent) surpassed the previous women’s record with a speed of 76.98mph and Ilona bested herself by sky-rocketing the women’s record to 78.61mph. Earlier in the evening the women’s trike record was increased to 56.42mph by Yasmin Tredell from the University of Liverpool.
While the men’s single-rider record (The Record, 89.59mph) stayed well out of reach this year, for the first time since 2015 a rider surpassed the previous world record of 83.13mph. Fabien Canal from IUT Annecy went 84.99mph – tantalizingly close to an 85mph hat (hats are awarded for every 5mph increment starting from 50mph)- and Andrea Gallo from Team Policumbent went 84.81mph; making the two of them the second and third fastest humans, respectively.
Oh, and there was also this 5-person goliath that showed up this year: the Sprocket Rocket.
And that’s a wrap
I think this post has gone on long enough now. It was an exciting year at Battle Mountain with three official world records increased along with a handful on unofficial ones. It seems quite likely that the women’s record will break 80mph in the not too-distant future. Delft has publicly announced they’re building a tandem for next year so TITAN won’t go uncontested in the multi-rider category. Liverpool, too, has expressed interest in building a tandem. And TITAN still has a lot more speed to give once we actually paint and sand the bike. Next year is looking to be just as, if not more, exciting! For now though, it’s back to real life.
Cheers and Ride On!