This news from earlier in the week has received a great deal of international media coverage but here’s some background material that hasn’t been so widely reported. Such as? Er, like a 15 year old American schoolgirl going faster than the Telewest-sponsored, Olympic champion sprinter Jason Queally. You see, it’s all down to HPV design know-how, something the British Blueyonder team chose to ignore…

REVISED: HPV rider breaks 80 mph barrier

And all will be revealed on a BBC TV documentary (possibly with breathless commentary by F1’s Murray Walker) to be shown later in the year. A film crew – complete with enough budget to pay for helicopter flights at Battle Mountain, Nevada, the scene of the 2001 World Human Powered Speed Challenge – followed the preparations of the Blueyonder team. (Blueyonder is Telewest’s ADSL broadband internet access service).

Yet by the end of the speed war on Battle Mountain, the TV crew was focussing just as much on the other contenders, including four Canadians at the event in a borrowed pick-up truck. Their rider, the HPV stalwart Sam Whittingham, was the one to break through the 80mph barrier at the 200m final section of the five mile long course, selected for being smooth, straight and level.

The Blueyonder team might have had a gold medal winning cyclist, a very flash website, numerous publicity officers, big sponsors, a TV crew, backing music from Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, and an absolute expectation they would win but what the Telewest-sponsored team didn’t have was HPV experience.

Long before the World Human Powered Speed Challenge this point was stressed many times to by HPV expert Mike Burrows. He predicted the Blueyonder challenge would end with a whimper rather than a bang.

The HPV world is close-knit, co-operative and cultish. Designers freely exchange ideas and most speed challenges are only lightly competitive. This is wholly unlike the world the Blueyonder designers come from. Chief designer Chris Field designed the Hotta carbon-fibre monocoque road bike that Queally won gold on in the Dunc Gray Velodrome at the Sydney Olympics, and the Blueyonder machine was built by Formula One specialists Reynard of Brackley, which manufactures Kevlar and carbon-fibre shells for Formula One race teams such as the British American Racing team (star driver: Jacques Villeneuve).

The Blueyonder team had a budget of £250 000, many times bigger than the budgets of the US and Canadian teams present on Route 305, just outside Battle Mountain, Nevada.

When experienced HPV designers and racers told them their machine was nice, but flawed, the Blueyonder team chose to ignore the advice.

The Blueyonder website is full of overblown confidence. Yet Queally had little experience of riding HPVs and, thanks to production hitches, was unable to test ride the fully faired Blueyonder Workwise until arriving in the US (flights were provided by co-sponsor Virgin Atlantic).

According to HPV website,, the Blueyonder team kept themselves to themselves at the start of the six days of racing but by the end were keen to listen to the advice from the ‘amateur’ teams. It must have been galling to have their Olympic athlete bested by the 15-year daughter of one of the HPV challengers.

By the end of the week the 31-year old Queally was going faster than 15-year old Tanya Markam in the Gold Rush Le Tour (a ten year old HPV design also raced by her father, ‘Fast’ Freddy Markham), but only by 15mph.

Part of Quealy’s problem may have been tiredness: just before leaving for his ten hour flight to San Franscisco Queally had helped fellow sprinters Craig McLean and Chris Hoy win bronze for Great Britain at the track World Championships in Antwerp.

But mostly the Blueyonder flop was put down to the Blueyonder machine itself. It was too big and was aerodynamically flawed, believes Burrows, who designed the Windcheetah recumbent trike as well as Chris Boardman’s Lotus superbike and who knows a thing or two about aerodynamics.

On the penultimate day of racing Blueyonder Workwise designer Chris Field said he was proud of his quarter of a million pounds HPV:

“We’ve had three runs starting from nowhere and achieved over 63 mph. No one’s ever done that before – not even Sam Whittingham, so to come from nowhere with a vehicle that’s never been tested before and in three runs achieved that, we’re both pleased and disappointed. I’m proud of our achievement so far. Of course, we’d like to have done better and given the opportunity, I’d re-look at the vehicle body shape – I think we could make it smaller.”

Sam Whittingham’s breaking of the 80mph barrier is good publicity for cycling as a whole. With muscular effort alone, and with no pacing or drafting, it’s been shown that a human can break the UK motorway speed limit.

Even moderate riders can coast at 30-40mph in ‘off the shelf’ faired recumbents.

That’s why they were banned by the UCI in the 1930s. A semi-decent recumbent rider on a faired HPV can almost always outpace a Cat 1 rider on even the lightest, fastest upright bike.

And fully-faired recumbents have been steadily getting faster and faster since the 1970s, when interest in HPVs started to grow again.

Modern HPV racing is still amateurish in many ways – the timing machinery used at the 2001 World Human Powered Speed Challenge was embarassingly antiquated and the events organiser has appealed for a more up-to-date set up – and speed challenges are usually laid-back affairs bathed in a spirit of cooperation and friendly rivalry.

This year’s event was more competitive than previous ones, partly to do with the over-brimming confidence of the Blueyonder team.

But the biggest rivalry was between rider-designer Matt Weaver in his Kyle Edge and 29 year old Sam Whittingham in the George Georgiev designed Varna Diablo. Each kept breaking and re-breaking the world speed record.

Sean Costain, event organiser, said on bentrideronline:

“Typically these events are more about pushing the upper limit and less about head to head competition, but this time it felt different. Both [Weaver and Whittingham] really wanted it and the both knew that it would take nothing less than a Herculean effort to win.

”Sam Whittingham became the first man to exceed 80 mph by his own power. But if not for the challenge from Matt Weaver, it is commonly believed by those in attendance that 80 mph would not have been reached.”

Costain welcomed the entry of HPV virgins, the Blueyonder team.

”They concluded the event with respect intact, but certainly disappointed and eager to return with something much smaller. As the week progressed, the interchange of thoughts and ideas between the Blueyonder and the other teams was quite good. Eventually they caught on to the idea of a free exchange of design ideas and a number of the regular HPV guys reported having really good discussions with Blueyonder team members. I have a feeling many of them will be back.”

By the end of the six day event Sam Whittingham had become the first person in history to exceed 80 miles per hour on an HPV by completing the 200m section in 5.55 seconds for a new world record of 80.55 mph. He’s now the fastest self-propelled lifeform on the planet. No animal can go as fast. (The cheetah has been timed at 65mph, and Burrow’s Windcheetah was named so in order to focus interest in HPVs besting of the animal kingdom).

”Jason Queally managed to crank the oversized Blueyonder machine up to a rather respectable 64.34 mph, the fifth fastest single rider in the history of the sport,” said Costain.

But, damning with faint praise, Costain added:

“It seems almost inevitable that the blame game will soon begin for the Blueyonder team. Sad, because they really did do a great job of building a streamliner without any experience or seeking help from more experienced people."

However, a big budget team could break records, believes Costain:

“I really hope [Blueyonder] can convince their sponsors that they can come back with a strong contender. The Blueyonder entry is great for the sport and though they have been humbled by their competition, they have learned so much from this experience that I think they could come back and win.”

Burrows doesn’t believe Telewest will sponsor another Blueyonder effort:

"They were just after the publicity, they’re not interested in HPVs."

He also believes Queally could have topped 90mph if he was able to fit in Matt Weaver’s HPV, a much more evolved design.

But Burrows told he doesn’t feel big money is the answer:

"It’s a great disappointment that so much money was given to a group of people with so little experience – and genuine interest – in HPVs. Our sport isn’t enhanced by big money. We do what we do as individuals, we don’t need big money thank you very much."


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