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Sam Whittingham: The World’s Fastest Human

“The tire blew and the next thing I knew I was sideways and up in the air,” he remembers. “The whole bike rotated 90°. I was basically an airplane wing flying down the highway.”

As his fully enclosed recumbent speed bike lifted off, Whittingham’s world went from the usual loud hum of pavement on rubber to an eerie silence. “I thought, ‘Is it so loud, I’ve gone deaf? Did I die?'” Then Whittingham hit the ground. “The quiet was replaced with a horrific noise, like an oil drum being dragged down the highway at 100 kilometres per hour.”

Out of the tiny window in the fairing that covered his human-powered vehicle (HPV), Whittingham watched cars and spectators fly by as the Kevlar shell slid down the road and finally came to a stop in the ditch 300 metres from where he took off. Whittingham walked away without a scratch or even a bruise. He was “scared as hell” and he even swore he would never get inside an HPV again.

That was 2003, during Nevada’s Battle Mountain World Human Powered Speed Challenge, an annual invitational speed bike competition in the high desert of Nevada. Whittingham ate his words and entered the 2004 competition.

There’s something about the world of racing the fastest bikes on earth that Whittingham can’t leave alone. Part of the attraction is that he’s good at it – he hasn’t been beaten in competition since 1993 – he holds the land speed record of 130 km/h and the hour record of 84.22 kilometres. But there’s more to it than that. It’s part addiction to speed, part competitive streak, and part techno-geek that brought Whittingham into HPV racing and keeps him at the forefront of a painfully uncomfortable, anything-but-mainstream cycling discipline.

“Getting in one of these bikes is like going for a walk and doing 60 kilometres per hour,” he says. “I love the speed. I also love how simple and precise the sport is. Every element has to be a perfect fit for it to work, and there’s no room for extra anything.”

Keeping it simple means going fast, efficiently. Whittingham can produce approximately 600 watts, or half a horsepower, at his maximum output. That half-horsepower propelled the Diablo II 130 km/hr. “If you asked a car manufacturer to make a car go that fast on half a horsepower, he would say it’s impossible,” Whittingham says. “We have to do so much with so little.”

Finding that speed in a bicycle is not easy. It involves balancing weight, wind resistance, and friction with performance and how much discomfort the human body can stand.

The fairing is strapped and bolted over the bike frame, literally locking Whittingham inside. To stop, someone has to catch him or he falls over. The only body parts he can move are his legs. Even the front tire can only steer about a centimetre either way because the gap in the fairing is so small. “Sharp edges slow down the bike,” Whittingham says. “The hole for the tire (10cm x 2cm) creates 10 times more drag than the rest of the bike.” The fairing is almost airtight so there is only a small amount of oxygen inside for Whittingham to breathe. It’s a claustrophobic space that gets ridiculously hot. For the hour record, Whittingham has to balance speed with a hole in the fairing that slows him down but provides oxygen for him to stay conscious. He also has to balance how hard he pushes himself with hyperthermia. “It’s a balance of keeping me alive and going as fast as we can,” he says.

Everything is pushed to the max, including the gearing. There are five gears on Diablo II, Whittingham’s newest bike, and the smallest chainring is 50% larger than the largest ring on a standard racing bike.

For the speeds and weight the bike can handle, it should have 1.5-inch slicks for tires. Instead, to reduce friction, Whittingham and his bike designer, George Georgiev, use 7/8-of-an-inch wheelchair racing slicks. As if that weren’t enough, the duo wanted to inflate the tires as hard as they dared, so they inflated a bunch of the tires until they burst. “The tire is recommended to a PSI of 115; most of the tires we tested blew at 240, so, we ride them at 150,” Whittingham says laughing at the extremeness of it all.

And ride them he does. His first three years of speed racing yielded only marginal results, but in 1993, Whittingham was invited to a meet in Colorado. Before the race, Georgiev designed the first two-wheeled HPV ever ridden in competition – all its predecessors were tricycles. Whittingham and Georgiev won and they haven’t been beaten since.

Whittingham started training with PowerCranks, a unique training crankset designed to increase cycling speed, competition on the cycling circuit increased and a few modifications on his bike all helped move his land speed record upwards each year.

Now most of the speed records are set during an annual competition on a high-elevation road near Battle Mountain that is nearly dead flat and plumb straight. The competition is the World Human Powered Speed Challenge and Whittingham owns it, having bettered his own record there three times – the last time in 2002.

Even with that success, there’s something about the fringe element of the sport that keeps people speculating that if an Olympic or world champion cyclist tried it, Whittingham’s record wouldn’t hold up.

In 2001 that was the case, when Olympic champion Jason Queally went to the Battle Mountain with a team that included 20 media people. They spent $500,000 on their bikes. Whittingham and Georgiev spent $5,000 on theirs. It looked like a true David-and-Goliath struggle until Queally and Whittingham actually got on their bikes. Whittingham set a new record, and Queally needed help just getting his bike rolling.

Whittingham was publicly vilified again last year when he beat World champion cyclist Lars Teutenberg in an hour-record attempt at the Opel test track at Dudenhofen, Germany.

“People always think that the faster cyclist is going to win,” says Andrea Blaseckie, Whittingham’s wife and fellow speed cyclist. “But this is a different sport. Jason said he can’t beat Sam, and he recognized that Sam is the fastest at this sport.”
Still the sport remains far from the mainstream. Whittingham has struggled to get sponsorship. Those struggles, combined with competition who can’t seem to catch him, have left Whittingham unmotivated.

“I don’t know how to go faster in the bike we have now,” he says. “When I started this sport, what I wanted was the top speed and hour record at the same time. Now that I have them both, I’m not sure where to go from here. But if someone came out and beat me, I’m sure I’d get all fired up again.”

Whittingham isn’t even sure that he will compete at Battle Mountain come this year’s competition. Instead, he is concentrating on his custom-bike building company, Forte Bikes, and supporting Blaseckie’s attempt to regain her women’s speed record at Battle Mountain. Ellen van Vugt beat her record in 2004.

But that doesn’t mean the reign of Whittingham is over. Georgiev has a new bike design in the works, something totally different. If they can scratch together the cash to build it, Whittingham will ride it and then . . . who knows.

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