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Watching World's Fastest Human Go Even Faster

Quadra cyclist Whittingham sets new world record; a first-hand report.

By Chris Keam 22 Sep 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Chris Keam is a Vancouver writer.

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Speed of Sam: Whittingham's Varna Diablo III sets mark. Photo by Chris Keam.

Sam Whittingham of Quadra Island made history in the Nevada desert on Thursday, pedalling the tear-drop contoured recumbent bike -- the Varna Diablo III -- to a world record speed of 82.3 mile per hour (132.5 kilometres per hour), claiming the $26,748 deciMach prize as the first person to do so, and cementing his position as the fastest self-propelled human on the planet. (Further down in this story, you can watch a video by Chris Keam and Earl Cassorla of the historic event.)

"I've been knocking on this door for years," said Whittingham, before a Thursday morning attempt to crack the deciMach barrier. "I want in!"

In that session, Whittingham went on to post an 80-plus mph time for the second time in his very successful career racing the specialized streamliners. So very close, but still not the new record Whittingham and bike designer Georgi Georgiev have been chasing ever since they were the first team to break the 80 mph barrier in 2002. Then Whittingham did something he'd never done before. He elected to try again during the evening session. In a sport where the athletes often collapse in an oxygen-deprived heap shortly after exiting their streamlined, fully-faired recumbent bikes, it was a risky move. Two runs in one day could have left Sam's body without enough time to fully recover and destroyed his chances to post competitive times on the last two days of racing.

The gods smiled

Whittingham jokingly remarked earlier this week he's been coming to Nevada for years and has yet to try his hand at gambling. But the afternoon's second attempt was a wager on the weather gods of the Nevada high plains that Lady Luck decided to reward. The windy conditions hampering the riders' efforts this week all but disappeared. Sam's decision to put all his chips on the table was about to pay off.

Veterans of the Human Powered Speed Challenge were calling it the best conditions for racing they'd ever seen. The hot day had the air shimmering above the asphalt of SR 305 -- the flat, straight stretch of Nevada highway outside Battle Mountain (altitude 1,219 metres) that's become a classic venue for riding these specialized bikes capable of breaking freeway speed limits. Lots of heat means even thinner air, all the better to punch through with a carbon-fibre and Kevlar-skinned streamliner. The lack of wind meant none of the buffeting that can rob speed, strike fear into a racer's heart and, in the worst case scenario, have competitors recreating Whittingham's epic crash of 2003, when he and the bike flew sideways down the course, skipping like a smooth stone for hundreds of yards before stopping.

Running scared

Whittingham was first to roll out of the launch zone for Thursday's final session. Team Varna crew member Steve Nash expertly taped the top half of the Diablo onto the bottom tub that holds Whittingham and the bike's chassis and rolled the white and black machine onto the start line. A countdown from the timers, a gentle push and guiding hand from Nash, and Sam headed for the speed trap some five miles away.

What Whittingham didn't know was that Nash had added an extra five pounds of pressure to the tires. Hopefully the small increase in pressure would give Whittingham the extra mile per hour he needed to break his own record. Right behind him was a perennial threat to Whittingham's dominance, "Fast" Fred Markham, inside the Easy Varna. Fred got away cleanly too. Now both men were on course, building speed for the 200-meter-long timing zone. They'd have needed to travel a distance of more than two football fields in under five and a half seconds to have exceeded 82 mph.

Standing beside SR 305, you could see the headlights of the chase car long before an HPV speed-bike came into view. Soon, however, the narrow streamliner appeared. As it rapidly got closer, a low whine preceded its arrival -- the sound of high pressure tires on pavement. Then the tone deepened. That was the sound of air being sliced apart by a streamlined shape that could easily be mistaken for a high-tech sarcophagus. Thursday night's run is one Whittingham will never forget.

"I was flying down the course, but I was getting bumped around like crazy," said Whittingham. "That was one of the scarier runs of my life, because I've never gone that fast ever before!"

Needed payoff

The deciMach prize money is most welcomed by the team. After all, it might cover a small portion of the money they've spent trying to produce the first bicycle and rider to travel at one tenth the speed of sound. With no one else here this year who has come close to the previous record of 81 mph and a clause that said the fastest run on the record books would get the prize, Sam could have stayed home and still cashed the cheque. But winning it this way is much sweeter, says the fastest man in the world.

"It's much nicer to win it (the deciMach prize) 'clean'... to actually go over 82 mph."

'A little bit of NASCAR'

Time in the saddle plays a huge role in this sport. Simply learning to ride a fully-faired recumbent bike will humble beginners, even if they have years of racing experience with regular bikes. The cramped cockpit makes balancing the bike an act of willpower rather than body English. The roar inside the machine when it reaches top speed overloads the senses. Even for veterans of the sport, a high speed pass is downright frightening at times. As always, there were new competitors who could barely finish a run, let alone claim one of the prized hats that proclaim the owner a member of the 50, 60, or 70 mph club. There's one hat that reads 80 mph... it's black with a hot-rod style flame job on the brim and sides and only Whittingham has the right to wear it.

"A little bit NASCAR," laughs Sam, who builds hand-made bikes on Quadra Island, British Columbia, when he's not chasing world records. But there's no doubt that this standard cotton ball cap is, in its own way, also a crown. And as long as he's able, the current king of SR 305 has no plans to give up the throne, or the hat.

"There's been many a year where I've said that's it. This is the last year. I'm retired... and then something happens in the winter! I can't imagine sitting at home during this week, being like every other lazy bum sitting on the couch. Matt Weaver [another top-ranked HPV racer] has said as long as you are fit and capable then you should endeavour to be here and that's always kind of stuck with me. You know, how many chances do you get to do this stuff? So, as long as I'm capable of being here and capable of going fast, I should be here. This is what I'm supposed to do."

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