View Full Version : World's fastest land animal: human

12-06-2004, 05:31 PM
The speed freaks of Battle Mountain

New Scientist vol 184 issue 2476 - 04 December 2004, page 36

It takes nerves of steel and a bike like no other. Dana Mackenzie meets the fastest cyclists on earth

ON A September evening some 20 kilometres from Battle Mountain, Nevada, two temporary bleachers cast lengthening shadows beside an empty road. The crowd is small - just 12 spectators - but the stadium is vast: miles of Nevada desert, flat as a soccer pitch, with mountain ranges on all sides. The desert is dotted by green and gold clumps of sagebrush and transected by the Euclidean straightness of the highway. A fretful wind has been stirring up dust devils all day, but as the sun dips behind the mountains, the atmosphere becomes still and expectant.

"Here he comes!" cries one spectator. Far up the road a pair of headlights appears. That's the chase car, but sharp eyes can just make out a tiny dot in front of it: a ruby bullet streaking out of the dusk faster than a cheetah in full stride. The occupant of this vehicle, Sam Whittingham, is at this moment the fastest self-propelled land animal in the world.

A minute or so later, Whittingham's ruby capsule zips past the timing trap at 78 miles per hour and is gone with a barely audible whoosh. We have just seen a man travelling, under his own power, at more than twice the speed of the fastest cyclist at this year's Olympics.

To the uninitiated, it may seem surprising that putting an aerodynamic frame, or "fairing", around a bicycle can speed it up so much. But it's really physics in action. Above 20 mph on a level road, nine-tenths of a cyclist's energy goes into fighting the wind. A well-designed fairing radically reduces the wind resistance. It increases the weight, but as long as there are no hills this has little effect on the cyclist's top speed - only on the time it takes him to work up to it.

That is why this spot in the Nevada desert has become a Mecca for human-powered vehicle enthusiasts for one week every year. It is the site of one of the longest perfectly flat stretches of road in America. Although the bikes are timed only on a 200-metre stretch, which the fastest riders cover in less than six seconds, they require over 6 kilometres to accelerate to top speed and nearly another to stop.

Two riders dominate the sport of speedbiking: Sam Whittingham, a 32-year-old Canadian, and Matt Weaver, a 34-year-old Californian. Whittingham, who is built like a spark plug, holds the world record for speed, 81 mph, set at Battle Mountain two years ago. He rides a "Varna" bike designed by Bulgarian expatriate George Georgiev (he named the Varna not after the Bulgarian city, but after his first dog). Weaver, with the lankier frame of a middle-distance runner, designs his own vehicles and currently rides a "Cutting Edge". Weaver, who went 78 mph in 2001 to set an American record, has chosen at the last moment to skip Battle Mountain and try for a different world record next month. If he can cover 90 kilometres (56 miles) in one hour, he will win the $25,000 Dempsey-MacCready Challenge, offered by Paul MacCready, the designer of the first human-powered aircraft (see "Eyes on the prize").

Packaging people

So how exactly do you out-sprint a cheetah? "It's about the bike and the rider, and how you marry the two together," Whittingham says. "That's harder than anybody realises." The bike designer must understand how to package a human into a very small space, and mould that space into the most aerodynamic shape possible, "to hide the rider from the wind", in Georgiev's words.

There is evidently more than one way to do that. The variety of bike designs at Battle Mountain is stunning, from rowing bikes (you don't pedal, you row) to tandems with back-to-back seats, to a ground-hugging trike that looks for all the world like a submarine. The hotel parking lot looks like a gallery of bicycle mutants. "We are where aerospace engineers were in the 1920s," says Bill Patterson, a retired engineering professor at California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly). "If you went to 20 aircraft designers in 1920 and asked them what a bomber should look like, they'd give you twenty different ideas."
The hotel parking lot looks like a gallery of bicycle mutants

Georgiev's Varna looks like a slipper from the side, a bullet from the front. Weaver's Cutting Edge resembles a narrow dirigible with a shark-fin tail, and that's no accident - the aerodynamics of a speedbike are more like those of a blimp than a jet aircraft. "Matt's contention is that the coefficient of drag is everything. He tries to build a vehicle with maximum laminar flow," says Patterson. "For George, the frontal area or 'flat plate' is everything. He builds the smallest flat plate in the world." For now, it's almost a perfect stand-off.

The difference in philosophies doesn't stop there. Georgiev trained as a sculptor, and claims that his designs are inspired by a sculptor's understanding of human anatomy. He eschews computers and wind tunnels, and downplays the role of invention. "I've learned a lot by looking at what other people do with a critical eye," he says.

"I remember when I first saw George's bike, when we put together an invitational in Colorado in 1993," says Bill Leone, a technician at Cal Poly who has helped the college's student teams design human-powered vehicles over the years. "The bike was so perfect, the idea was so complete. I thought, 'God, it's obvious, this is what I've been trying to make for five years!'"

"I had the same feeling in 1991, when I saw Matt Weaver's first bike," Leone adds. "With George's bikes, you say, 'Ah, this is art!' With Matt's, you say 'Ah, this is engineering!' And you know both of them are going to be real fast."

Weaver became the unofficial champ of speedbike racing as a high school student in 1990, when he beat "Fast" Freddy Markham in a race. Markham, a former Olympian and winner of the $25,000 DuPont Prize as the first human to top 65 mph, is still an active cyclist at 47, and was the second fastest rider at Battle Mountain this year.

Though Weaver was a high school track star, he is not a world-class athlete. He compensates with a bike that is "engineered up the wazoo", in the words of Garrie Hill of Human Powered RaceAmerica, an organisation that sponsors and promotes human powered vehicle racing. His bookshelf is stacked high with notebooks on all sorts of subjects. He is the guru of laminar flow, that state when air slips by a wing without turbulence. In practice it is impossible to achieve perfect laminar flow, but Weaver's bikes come as close as possible, with laminar flow over 75 per cent of the body. That translates to a threefold decrease in air resistance compared with a normal bike. "It's equivalent to having the strength of three men," Weaver says.
It's a course for the brave-hearted or the insance, depending on how you look at it

Weaver also reconceived the interior of the bike. The first modern streamlined racers, built by Chet Kyle and Jack Lanvie in the 1970s, were regular production bikes with a Mylar fairing. Even these crude models were fast enough to set world speed records - or would have been if the Union Cycliste Internationale had not banned fairings way back in 1913, launching a nearly century-old tradition of resistance to new technology. Today The Guinness Book of World Records does list Whittingham's speed record, but under technology rather than sports.

Speedbike builders soon realised that recumbent designs, with the rider leaning back and presenting a smaller profile to the wind, were faster yet. But it was dj vu all over again: recumbents briefly held the UCI speed record in 1933, before the sport's governing body decided that they, too, were illegal. Most recumbents place the front wheel either in front of the rider's feet or beneath them. Weaver changed that by putting the front wheel between the rider's legs. Obviously, with the wheel between your legs you cannot steer it as on a regular bike, but at high speeds you wouldn't want to. According to Weaver, many people - including Paul MacCready - were sceptical about his ability to balance the vehicle, but his "low-racer" design has now become the gold standard for speed.

Weaver's third huge contribution to his sport was to find Battle Mountain. He did it by equipping his car with a high-tech air pressure sensor (to detect any changes in altitude) and GPS receiver, wiring them up to beep whenever they detected a sufficiently level, and long, stretch of road. After 3000 kilometres of wandering around the American west, his beeper went crazy when he got to Nevada's Route 305. In 2000, the first invitational challenge was held there, and the site now dominates the list of the fastest times in history.

It's a course for the brave-hearted or the insane, depending on how you look at it. The rider must understand the finicky handling of speedbikes, and cannot afford to panic when racing at twice the speed of a normal bike, lying down with their butt inches off the ground in a cocoon they cannot get out of unaided. Last year, a powerful team from Slovenia brought a bike called Eivie, in which the rider faced backwards and steered by looking in a mirror. Crazy as it seems, this actually makes good aerodynamic sense. An ideal airfoil is wide at the front and tapers to a point, just like a supine human, with head and shoulders at the front and feet at the back. Eivie went 68 mph, and might have gone faster. "They hired a pro rider," says Hill. "When he found out how fast they could go and how narrow the road was, he quit. He was scared."

All speedbike riders agree that the sport is not for the faint-hearted. Hans Wessels, a rider for the Dutch entrant Team Elan, had crashed his White Hawk a month earlier during a run in Germany, scorching a still-visible outline of his body into the vehicle's carbon-fibre shell. As the bike skidded along the ground, the friction melted the carbon-fibre fairing. By the time it had cooled again, it was moulded around Wessels's body. "Theoretically I have power enough to set a world record, but do I have the nerves?" he asks. "The legs can do it, but the brain has to do it, too." Whittingham, who crashed in 2003 after hitting a slick spot, said he took it easy on his first ride this year: "I started having flashbacks to last year."

Road block

In the end, circumstances conspired against him anyway. His first run exorcised the ghosts of last year's crash, but the following day two truckers, angry at having to wait at a roadblock for the cyclists to finish, faked a breakdown in the middle of the course - and then abruptly disappeared when the Nevada highway patrol went to check on them. Whittingham had to wait several minutes in his cramped vehicle for the all-clear, and only managed a 76 mph run. The next day his 78 mph ride was deemed void because of a slight tailwind. Not that the breeze helped him at all. "Any wind is a bad wind," he groused after emerging from his cockpit.

Wessels didn't even get to finish the course. He crashed in scary fashion at 67 mph, and the Plexiglas front window of his vehicle shattered, allowing his right leg to dangle through the jagged opening and scrape along the highway. Luckily his injuries were minor - a bad road burn and some bruised ribs. Indeed, speedbikes are inherently safer in a crash than regular bikes, because the cyclist is low to the ground and travelling feet first. "Kevlar does a good job of protecting them, just as long as they don't run into anything before it scrubs the speed off," says Carol Leone, a former coordinator of the Battle Mountain event. The only thing in Wessels's path was sagebrush, which was a fairly useful shock absorber.

Team Elan did achieve some glory, however: rider Ellen van Vugt borrowed a Varna, rode faster each day and finally set a new women's world record at 66 mph. But the biggest prize on offer, the $23,000 deciMach Challenge, went unclaimed. Initially intended as a prize for travelling at one-tenth the speed of sound, or 75 mph, the rules have been rewritten to take into account the higher speeds possible due to the reduced air resistance at Battle Mountain's high altitude. Riders at the site have to exceed 82 mph to claim the prize. It doesn't matter, anyway: money is not the issue at Battle Mountain, according to Jonathan Woolrich, this year's onsite coordinator. "It's a very pure competition - it's just man against physics," he says.

Despite Woolrich's purist enthusiasm, there is another point to these efforts: those involved see themselves as pioneers of a pedal-powered future. Although speedbikes are not yet a runaway commercial success - the teams at Battle Mountain operate on a shoestring budget and claim that financial resources are no substitute for design skill (see "When the professionals came to town") - they talk eagerly about a world the rest of us dread, where oil prices will be 10 times what they are today and bicycles will be the only affordable form of transport.
Who ever expected humans to propel themselves to 80 mph?

Those bikes may turn out to be "velomobiles," fully enclosed three-wheelers, perhaps with a small electric engine for hills, which even non-athletes would be able to pedal around comfortably at 20 to 25 mph. About 10 companies in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark are already selling such vehicles, with some of the designs very much inspired by speedbikes. The most successful, a three-man company called Velomobiel.nl, has sold 200 hand-crafted vehicles in four years.

It may seem like a long way from there to outnumbering the 11 million bicycles bought every year in Europe, or the 14 million automobiles. But then again, who ever expected humans to propel themselves to 80 mph? "What this is all about is that streamlined bikes are the most efficient transportation device in the history of the world," says Bill Leone. "The real breakthrough innovations don't come from big companies, they come from guys working in a garage."

Eyes on the prize

IT'S not a bad wage for an hour's work. Cover 90 kilometres in this time, under your own pedal power of course, and you will be $25,000 richer. No wonder the world's two fastest bikers are racing for this result.

However, there are good reasons why the Dempsey-MacCready Prize, announced in 1999 by businessmen and inventors Ed Dempsey and Paul MacCready (the designer of the first human-powered aeroplane), has not been claimed yet. Don't bother attempting it on a regular racing bike, for which the "official" 1-hour world record is a mere 49.441 km. Even if you own a speedbike, there are major practical hurdles. Where do you ride it? A highway won't do, because the rules require a closed loop. Renting an automobile racetrack can cost upwards of $2000 per hour. That may be a pittance for a professional car-racing team, but it is a budget buster for a garage mechanic.

So Sam Whittingham and Matt Weaver, the world's top two speedbikers, have been forced to rely on favours. Earlier this year, the Opel automobile company opened its test track in Dudenhofen, Germany, to speedbikes for a week. Whittingham set a new world record of 84.215 km - impressive, but still well short of the prize. Then, in October, the California Speedway in Fontana allowed Weaver free use of its 2-mile track for two mornings. There was only one catch: the track doesn't open until 6 am, and Weaver had to be finished by 8 am.

That didn't leave much time for a 1-hour run, because Weaver has to go through an hour of preparations before he is even ready to move. The inside of his Cutting Edge speedbike looks like the cockpit of a fighter jet, with a mask for breathing and tubes for hydration. He and his two-man crew have a 29-point checklist, including, most importantly, turning on the video camera that is his only way of seeing outside the bike.

On 8 October, Weaver travelled all of 30 centimetres before a drive belt broke. Just like that, his first shot was gone. The next day he crashed three times before launching successfully. But the low sun blinded his video camera on the backstretch, forcing him to pedal at less than full speed. Then his speedometer malfunctioned. Nevertheless, he did complete a full hour - a feat quite comparable to running a half marathon across a tightrope wire while blindfolded.

The result? Unofficially, Weaver travelled 82.756 km, not even breaking Whittingham's record. Nevertheless, his mood after the race was jubilant. After more than three years of development and five failed attempts, it was the first time he had actually completed an hour in the Cutting Edge. And he believes that unlike Whittingham, he still hasn't reached his potential. With a better video system, a better starting time, and a better start, who knows? Ninety kilometres doesn't seem so far out of reach.

When the professionals came to town

FOR years, everybody wondered what would happen if a team with real financial resources took on the Battle Mountain track - and in 2001, they found out. That year, British telecoms company Blue Yonder brought a half-million dollar vehicle to Battle Mountain, with a BBC camera crew tagging along behind. The vehicle's ball bearings alone cost more than the other competitors' speedbikes. They hired Formula One car designer Chris Fields to build the bike, and Olympic gold medallist Jason Queally to ride it. They finished fourth, with a top speed of 64 miles per hour, humbled by Whittingham and Weaver's homemade bikes.

"There were some awfully big egos involved," says Garrie Hill of Human Powered RaceAmerica. "They could have turned out something really cool if they had just asked other designers for advice. Instead, they treated it like Formula One, keeping their work all hush-hush. About halfway through the week they began to open up, but by then it was too late."

High C
12-06-2004, 05:49 PM
Most excellent.

I seem to remember that US amateur cycling champion John Howard set a speed record in the mid 1970s, riding behind a fairing that was being towed behind a car. Over 130 MPH, if I remember correctly! :eek:

You should've seen the front chainring!

12-07-2004, 04:37 AM
Hmmm... and all this time I've thought that the fastest humans alive was a Las Vegas hooker working a convention! ;) :D

12-07-2004, 05:25 AM
Thanks for that...very enjoyable ! smile.gif I reckon a recumbent with an electric assist (for ...coming home) would be just fine ;)

ion barnes
12-07-2004, 05:33 AM
George Georgiev lives on Gabriola Is.(Canadian Gulf Islands). Very talented, is an understatement.

Oyvind Snibsoer
12-07-2004, 05:35 PM
NOT the fastest non-powered humans, though. The current world speed skiing record is 250.790 kmh / 155.834 mph.


12-07-2004, 05:39 PM
Is that counting the round trip time up and down the hill? I didn't think they could make it up the stairs that fast in those funny boots, and chairlifts usually aren't human powered. ;)


[ 12-07-2004, 05:53 PM: Message edited by: huisjen ]

12-07-2004, 05:41 PM
Downhill skiers are not unpowered - they are powered by gravity!

Originally posted by huisjen:
Above 20 mph on a level road, nine-tenths of a cyclist's energy goes into fighting the wind. Thus I assume above 20 knots head wind, nine-tenths of a wooden saiboat's sail power goes into fighting the head wind! Maybe we need bubbles around our boats on a beat!

12-07-2004, 06:46 PM
Originally posted by Oyvind Snibsoer:
NOT the fastest non-powered humans, though. The current world speed skiing record is 250.790 kmh / 155.834 mph.

http://www.harryegger.com/flash/bilderg/bild6g.jpgDo ski divers fall faster than that? Same sport, different medium?

George Roberts
12-08-2004, 10:51 AM
huisjen ---

Thanks for the post.

12-08-2004, 10:52 AM
Excellent post! With human powered vehicles and a better passenger rail system. We could eliminate a lot of cars and the need for so much petroleum in this country.