World Human Powered Speed Challenge tests the limits of design and performance in Battle Mountain, Nevada for the 20th year

by Brian Bahouth

Vittoria Spada, riding Taurus X for the Torino Polytechnic University - image - Jun Nogami

Just outside Battle Mountain, Nevada, there is a perfectly straight, flat, 5-mile section of state Route 305 that has been specially resurfaced to accommodate human powered vehicle speed competition. A Nevada Department of Tourism grant from the US government paid for the 2009 paving job, and from September 8–14 of this year, Battle Mountain will host the World Human Powered Speed Challenge for the 20th year in a row.

On this edition of The Wild Hare podcast, we hear from Alan Krause, president of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association and co-convener of the World Human Powered Speed Challenge.

See music credits after text below.

Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak issued a proclamation on September 8 that declares September 8th-14th, 2019 to be World Human Powered Speed Challenge Week. The special section of Route 305 affords competitors a 5-mile acceleration zone to reach their maximum velocity before being timed over a 200 meter “trap.” Alan Krause says the state of Nevada and the community of Battle Mountain have been welcoming and supportive since 1999.

“We’re here in Battle Mountain to push the limits of human achievement. There happens to be the most ideal location to set records for human powered vehicles here on highway 305. We’re at high altitude, and it’s a very long, straight section of road that complies with our slope restrictions, because we don’t want to have too much assistance from gravity.”

Racers line up to pick numbers to determine their spots in the first round of qualifying on Sunday morning, September 8, 2019 – image – Jun Nogami

Krause says it is a difficult race to safely stage, and he and other officials are not given to taking risks. Atmospheric conditions are a central concern. According to Krause, some teams will abort a run if even a tiny amount of rain falls. For a time to count as a world record, the wind must not be blowing in any direction at greater than 6 kilometers per hour or 1.67 meters per second. Krause says competitors ride when the wind is typically its most calm.

“These vehicles are very light and have a lot of surface area and are very susceptible to the winds, crosswinds especially. We race the bikes early in the morning when the winds are low and then again in the evening just before sunset. For instance tonight there’s a wind forecast, so we’re going to actually have to go out to the course an hour before and see if it’s too windy to run, rather than have everyone come all the way out the middle of the desert and have it be too windy to actually race.”

Dr. Jun Nogami is a well-regarded engineer, research scientist and professor at the University of Toronto. Nogami heads up the timing crew, an international contingent of volunteers.

“My lead timer is Jun Nogami, and he teaches at the University of Toronto. He comes with his good friend every year, and we usually pick up one or two volunteers. Merika comes from the Netherlands. She’s our radio operator there in the timing area. The whole event’s like that. We’ve got people that come from England every year just to volunteer and take part in this amazing thing that we’re doing.”

The aerodynamically slippery “streamliners” as they’re known will compete in 7 distinct classes. The fastest speeds are achieved in the single rider category, both men’s and women’s. There are also multi-wheel or multi-track entrants, a junior men’s category, and this year, a multi-track bike powered by 5 people. So how can a human powered bicycle travel at 90 miles per hour on flat ground?

“I think we should start with your regular bicycle, your 10 speed. When you’re riding your ten speed, 80 percent of all the resistance you encounter is aerodynamic drag. The remainder is made up of rolling resistance and bearings, and really that part is insignificant. I think we’ve all done this experiment where you’re driving along in your car and you put your hand out the window and turn it flat to the wind. You can feel how much resistance there is and turn it like an airplane wing and actually fly your hand in the wind.

“That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about aerodynamic drag. These bikes have reduced that to almost nothing, and that’s why they’re capable of these great speeds is that once the drag disappears, then you can increase the gear. Many people think it’s as simple as increasing the gear on the bike but really, without the aerodynamic benefit, you’re not going to achieve these great speeds.

“It’s really the aerodynamic streamlining that allows these bikes go so fast. Right now the men’s record is just over 89 miles an hour and the women’s record is just over 75 miles an hour. We’re expecting to see, based on this morning’s qualifying, that women’s record fall this year. We had the Delta Amsterdam team qualifying in the 60s (mph) on a half course with only two and a half miles to accelerate to the 200 meter time trap. That’s really, really quite fast. Actually, everybody’s going really fast. It’s amazing and really phenomenal to see what’s going on.”

On Monday night, September 9, 2019, Rosa Bas rode this bike to a new women’s record of 75.88 mph – image – Jun Nogami

These bikes are not purchased off a shelf. Each steamliner is custom designed and all but hand-manufactured. Working year-a-round, university-based and independent teams spend staggering numbers of hours developing their designs. Winning and setting records at the World Human Powered Speed Challenge are important and coveted accomplishments, but Krause says the object is to gain valuable knowledge from making the most aerodynamically efficient vehicles possible.

“We want to focus on having good races, and then the technologies that come from racing are … that’s the actual goal of this whole thing is that these technologies apply directly to all forms of transportation, whether it be aircraft or trains, aerodynamic drag is what slows all of these things down, and we can be more efficient. That’s really what this is about. These are super-efficient vehicles that are going at highway speeds on the power of three 100 watt bulbs. That’s pretty amazing, and the winner of our contest may not be the strongest rider. It’s going to be the most efficient bike.”

The stories behind the bikes that compete in Battle Mountain are inspiring examples of dedication, learning, skill, and to a large degree, daring. The competition drives the development of technology and also demands a well-coordinated team effort.

“The fastest bikes, the riders are completely sealed inside and can’t put their feet down to start or stop, so they definitely need a team of people to watch them. The distance for that assistance is limited to 15 meters, so that’s part of the design criteria for a starting gear. You have to be able to start to make the run and you have to start in compliance with our rules.

“The beginning is fundraising and the design and the building of all these bikes, especially from the university. Very large groups of students are working on these projects year around. In the case of Delta Amsterdam, they’re on their ninth year here. So every year, there’s a new group of students. They’ve brought 20 students with them. I’m not sure how many more work on the project. Many of these (bikes) are a huge effort.

“Then you’ve got the small teams and those are the owner/rider builder, and he’s probably here with his brother and their best friend. They’re doing it out of their garage. They’re taking what everyone else has learned and they’re applying it to their bike and they’re coming out here and racing too, so it’s not just the big teams. There’s still room for the garage builder, the person with the dream to put something together and come out and compete.”

Competitors from eight nations are in Battle Mountain this year. Even though the competition is keen, there is a camaraderie among participants inspired by Battle Mountain’s remote location and a shared commitment to the development of efficient transportation technology.

“Because it’s so remote, we all rely on each other for things as well as a lot of cooperation between teams, just for everything. It’s a big group project. It is a competition, but it’s also … we’re here to share this technology and things we’ve learned to go faster. Everyone’s very welcoming and encouraging of the new teams. We have a new team this year from the University of Tokyo. They’ve been having  some problems. It’s a first year effort, and that’s not unusual. They’re getting lots of assistance from the other teams and materials and stuff.

“It’s different from your average competition. It’s friendlier. We all spend a week here in Battle Mountain, and I think there’s 6 or 7 restaurants, so you all end up eating together a lot, spending a lot of time together. It’s a unique sort of an event and experience and it’s really difficult to convey. Most people when they come out and do it once they really want to stay and they want to come back and they do, year after year.”

Music credits in order of appearance as reported through the Public Radio Exchange:

Song: Greenland
Artist: Emanicipator
Album: Safe in the Steep Cliffs
Label: Loci Records
Year: 2010
Duration: 1:25

Song: Diversion
Artist: DJ EZI
Album: Friends for Dinner
Label: Jon Kennedy Federation
Year: 2013
Duration: 2:38

Song: The Underground
Artist: DJ EZI
Album: Friends for Dinner
Label: Jon Kennedy Federation
Year: 2013
Duration: 1:20

Song: Happy Cycling
Artist: Boards of Canada
Album: Music Has the Right to Children
Label: Warp Records
Year: 2002
Duration: 2:15

Song: Blue String Pudding
Artist: Momma Gravy
Album: Dribble it On
Label: Pork Recordings
Year: 2001
Duration: 2:19

Song: Shaolin Satellite
Artist: Thievery Corporation
Album: Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi
Label: Warner Records
Year: 2010
Duration: 2:16

Song: The Glass Bead Game
Artist: Thievery Corporation
Album: Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi
Label: Warner Records
Year: 2010
Duration: 2:08