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Fastest Man Alive Lives on Quadra

Cyclist Sam Whittingham aims to shatter his own human-powered record.

By Chris Keam 11 Sep 2008 |

Chris Keam is a Vancouver writer.

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Sam and his Diablo: Trying to top 130 km/h. Photo courtesy Sam Whittingham.

Forget about the Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt and his stroll to Olympic gold. Bolt only managed a paltry 27.3 miles per hour (43.9 kilometres per hour) for 30 metres during his record-setting 100 metre run. The speediest man on the planet is actually Sam Whittingham of Quadra Island, British Columbia. And he'll be attempting to go faster than 82 mph (130 km/h) at the Human Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada, Sept. 15 to 20.

Whittingham will be inside the Varna Diablo III, a purpose-built "HPV" (human-powered vehicle), designed by Bulgarian-born sculptor and inventor Georgi Georgiev of Gabriola Island. It's so fast that other riders buy the previous incarnations, knowing he has struck aerodynamic gold. Georgiev, however, is quick to point out he's no engineer... and simplicity is the key to the Varna design. The man who pilots Georgiev's very slippery bike believes the secret to the machine is one of observation and imagination.

"If you had Georgi's brain you could build this thing mostly from stuff in a hardware store," says Whittingham. "It's a very organic shape. If you look at nature you'll see these same kind of shapes, and that's where Georgi gets his inspiration."

Together, they've shattered records with stunning regularity, humbled organizations with much bigger budgets, and become the pair to beat when HPV teams from around the world make their annual pilgrimage to the straightest, flattest and smoothest piece of road in the world.

Lonely stretch of high desert

The setting for this pursuit is SR 305. As far as roads go, this piece of Nevada highway is ideal for pedaling the fastest human-propelled vehicles in existence -- thin air, and a straight black ribbon of high-altitude asphalt. Spinning ridiculously huge gear ratios up to speed takes miles, preparing for 200 metres of sprinting through the speed trap. Handlers wait to catch the two-wheeled machines, hoping exhausted riders don't miscalculate and overshoot the mark -- an occupational hazard when pedaling a sealed, streamlined, carbon fibre-shelled bike on a diet of reduced oxygen... and the fine cuisine available at either of Battle Mountain's fine dining establishments.

The scene has its traditions. A parking lot in the middle of not much, in the middle of the top third of Nevada. Teams ranging from home-brew to high-tech converge upon the Battle Mountain Super 8 Motel, tinkering with their esoteric machines, catching up on the latest news. Everyone's chasing the Holy Grail of human power -- the deciMach. A $25,000 cash prize, and big-time bragging rights, named in homage to Austrian physicist Ernst Mach... and waiting for the first person to propel themselves to one tenth the speed of sound. At sea level, that would be 120.7 km/h. In the rarefied air of Battle Mountain (elevation 1,219 metres), the magic number jumps to 132 km/h, to compensate for the thinner air and negligible downward slope (0.6439 per cent) of the road.

$25,000 on the line

The prize has grown from $18,000 to $26,172.73 over the years. This year it gets awarded no matter what. Twenty-five thousand dollars, to either Whittingham/Georgiev or anyone who can beat Sam's 2002 record of 81 mph (130.4 km/h). A grand for second place, $750 for third. They had to throw in an "Other Than Sam" clause for those prizes, just in case. Theoretically, the B.C. pair could stay home and still pick up the big cheque. But according to Whittingham, that's not going to happen.

"I tried that before," he laughs, and it bit me on the ass!"

He's referring to the loss of his hour record to Fred Markham in 2006. He got it back in 2007, riding 53.92 miles (86.8 km) in 60 minutes. Whittingham has his own magic number, what he thinks he's capable of, with the right conditions.

"If we had perfect conditions and the road was resealed, which is what we're waiting for, then I think I could go 85 [mph or 136.8 km/h]. But you know what? People used to ask me that question when the record was 68 and I used to say 'Whew' maybe 72."

This year, the last chance for the big prize has swelled the ranks of contenders.

"There are twice as many teams as before," Sam notes. "I don't even know who some of them are."

One challenger Sam is quick to acknowledge is Slovenian rider Damjan Zabovnik -- who recorded a 74.96 mph [120.6 km/h] run last year (a new Euro record). But, that's still more than 5 mph [8 km/h] slower than Whittingham's '07 run (79.52 mph). Georgiev finds a little humour in the fact he and his Eastern European comrade/competitor are doing so well on American soil.

"I was kidding them last year saying here we were coming from the communist countries and dominating you guys!"

One more mile an hour

Money aside, Whittingham still needs one more mile per hour to break the deciMach barrier and become the first self-propelled human to exceed one-tenth the speed of sound. An arbitrary number to be sure, but not without the roundness of figure we love in our feats of physicality and invention. Whoever who does it first might end up memorable. And while Sam doesn't deny the attraction of setting the record, he says the real motivation is more personal -- chuckling at the idea of posterity or profit.

"We don't do it for the money. We don't do it for the fame. It comes from a curiosity. We share a desire to see what's possible. I don't do this to say "Look what I did. I do it to find out what I can do."

One thing the two men may be doing is defining the shape of vehicles to come.

"We're part of an evolution," asserts Whittingham. "There was the car and the bicycle and slowly smaller cars are being manufactured and we've taken the bike and car-ized it. They're going to meet in the middle and the line is going to blur. If you put a gas engine in the Diablo, based on my energy output (600 W), we're getting 800 miles per gallon."

"The Varna is basically the most efficient vehicle ever put together by men, says Georgiev proudly. "We are talking about half a horsepower moving 250 pounds over 80 miles per hour. Efficiency is the whole battle. Imagine how much energy you could save in the lifetime of a vehicle, if you drove 250,000, or 500,000 miles and you are saving so much energy because the vehicle moves so easily through the air. This is an enormous amount of savings."

Not for commuting to work

The only thing harder than going 81 mph (130.4 km/h) in the Diablo, according to Whittingham, is going three mph. Handlers can't help with push starts and are only allowed to help keep the bike upright for the first 15 metres. With the huge chain rings necessary to get the rider up to speed, the beginning pedal strokes require a huge exertion, all the while balancing a bike with limited steering capability and a vulnerability to cross-winds.

"The trickiest part of the whole thing is the start. Once you're rolling, for the first 30 seconds or so, you check everything out and then you know you're ready for a run."

He doesn't get much chance to practice.

"There's few places I can get it up to speed. But, I've been riding basically the same bike for 15 years. I know that eight to 12 weeks out I have to really start to train hard. I may not be in the same shape I was when I was cycling competitively, but I ride my bike hard year-round."

Curiosity is what drives Georgiev. One thing he's already figured out is his partner in speed.

"Sam was 19 years old and my friend Paul came by one day and said 'You know what, I was (bike) racing in Comox and some youngster just beat the hell out of me, he was so fast.' The next time he came, he brought Sam. That was 16 years ago. We've worked together all these years and he knows what I think and I know what he thinks."

The time has been a productive one for the two men, with a long list of HPV racing accomplishments that would be hard to overshadow, even if an upstart was first to go faster. But, for Sam and Georgi, finding that extra mile per hour in 2008 would make this the best year yet.

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