Lessons from the Desert


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Earlier this week, I sat down with Dave Collins of the University of Liverpool Velocipede Team while he relayed the experience of his team this summer, as they set out to break the land speed record for fastest human powered vehicle. Masterminded by the engineering students and staff from the University of Liverpool and backed by heavyweight sponsors, Rathbones, the project has been two years in the making. The vehicle, ARION 1, is a carbon shielded bullet, plastered in national colours and sponsorship logos with a 104 toothed chain ring as big as my torso. The riders, Ken Buckley and Dave Collins, were there to convert the engineers’ design into a new entry in the record books. And where else better to try their luck than in the state of Nevada? Dave brought me in from their arrival in the United States…

This year’s attempt in the desert was preceded by 5 days in San Francisco. The riders keeping themselves delicately balanced between fatigue from over training and sluggishness from disuse. Optimising themselves for the upcoming max power outputs they’d be gunning for. The importance of fresh legs could not be overstated and even saw the riders upgraded to business class for extra leg room on the flight over. Sadly, for the engineers, minds and digits needed only economy.

Battle Mountain 

From San Francisco, it was a 12 hour drive out to where the fight for the world record would take place. Battle Mountain. This is not a track from Mario Kart, I have confirmed. Battle Mountain is a small desert town found in northern Nevada. Population, just over 3000. Each year, it hosts what is officially called the ‘World Human Powered Speed Challenge’, along its flat, southern highway. 

Trials 

First, the qualifiers. 2.5 miles in which to hit 50mph, the required speed. This was new ground for the team who’d yet to reach such numbers back home in the UK, on the runway at Bruntingthorpe. If and when they passed, the 5 mile course would be opened up for them and their true record attempts could be made. It is within this 5 mile stretch the riders build up to maximum speed over a 200m trap. 200m to make all the work that has gone before, count. No pressure, right? 

 

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Dave preparing for his run

 

Time in the seat 

The first round of runs quickly made something very apparent to both the riders and engineers- 3 weeks’ worth of time in the bike was just not enough preparation. All the power in the world couldn’t make up for faith in technique and confidence behind the wheel. There was a steep learning curve ahead for both Ken and Dave. Early crashes dented confidence and slipping into poor headspace was all too easy. The carbon casing could take the knocks but that couldn’t stop basic human instinct from taking over and flushing riders with adrenaline and hesitation. And yet, despite this, both Ken and Dave made the cut. Both made it over the 50mph mark and secured their place amongst the other internationals, all vying for title of fastest man. 

Broken records 

Adapting quickly, it didn’t take long for the team’s numbers to shoot up from the fifties to sixties. Dave reached the 60mph point first with Ken quickly following, in what was to become a repeat pattern of friendly competition. Each rider’s achievements spurring on the other. 60mph. 64mph…67… Impressive numbers given the less than favourable conditions. Impressive enough to break the old British world record when Ken hit 69mph. The team was warming up nicely. Their surroundings, however, were lagging behind. 

Wind, rain and snow 

High speeds in the desert conjure up images of melting tires on cracked concrete. Not quite, this September. Unusually bad weather took to the valley. Rain stopped several runs and it became a game of ‘if and when’ the teams could hit the track. Frustrating for so many who’d made the journey out there; seeing their time slots fall by the wayside thanks to elements outside their control. Still, not many of us can claim to have seen snow on top of a mountain in the middle of summer in the Nevada desert. A bizarre sight to behold. A natural phenomenon caused by the swinging diurnal temperatures and high elevation of the land. But it wasn’t rain (or snow) which presented the greatest problem to the team. By far, the most dangerous condition before them was the high wind streaming through the valley floor.

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Rob calls in with a weather report

The crash 

It was these winds which shook the team midweek. Earlier crashes were disturbing but this crash was different. High winds and a cruising speed of 55mph threw Ken and the bike worse than ever before. The rider emerged unscathed but the bike was far less fortunate. ARION 1 was in bad shape. 

Around the clock 

“They were an absolute credit to the project. Solid effort from those guys.”

These are the words Dave uses to describe the ARION engineering team who worked round the clock for 3 days, in order to get the bike back in working order and ready for more runs. Taking turns in shifts, every member played their part to keep Britain in the running. It’s during times like this that the glory shifts. From the power of the riders to the skill of the engineers. Never felt more than when Dave and Ken stayed up late to provide relief and moral support to their team members under pressure to bring ARION 1 back to life. Legs rendered useless until their heroes with the tool kits broke their own personal best that week. It would prove to be time well spent. 

All or nothing

The bike was pieced back together. The cracks filled and sanded. The aerodynamics restored as best they could. Lastly, the front tire was swapped for a more stable model. Slower but steadier, giving both riders that extra ounce of confidence they needed to go all out on the final day. And confidence was key. The whole morning was spent psyching themselves up for their last chance. Getting used to the new tire, grappling with the altered feel to the gears and handling. Both riders now had a point to prove. Both wanted to do the project and team justice. Both wanted to truly earn their places on ARION 1. 

Britain’s new fastest 

Dave broke 70mph on his final run. An incredible moment. Britain’s newest fastest man. At least, for a while. Word of his success reached Ken. The gauntlet had been thrown down and now his last run demanded steel legs, steelier nerve and a downright disregard for any kind of timidity. By all accounts, it was all out. As of September 2015, Ken stands as Britain’s fastest man as he surpassed 75mph.

“It was the perfect result. For everybody, the whole team, really.”

Dave, our second fastest, is certain in his words. By his reckoning it was good for all. Both riders broke the old British record. And both riders have stood as the country’s record holder. Ken, the longest standing rider of the project, walked away with the title, something that sits right in a karmic kind of way. The engineers can now lay claim to developing the fastest man powered technology in the country and saw their efforts pay off despite a nerve wracking couple of days in the week. The ARION team is now Britain’s fastest. They have their Nevada State Police speeding tickets to prove it. Britain’s fastest.

But not yet the world’s. 

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The ULV Team at the awards ceremony alongside Italian team Polycumbent

ARION 2 

Right now, the world record title is held by Canadian Todd Reichert and the AeroVelo team. 86.65mph is the new brass ring for the team at the University of Liverpool to target. And they are aiming. 

Read any motivational meme about success on social media these days and you’ll notice a pattern. Recurring themes. Similar accounts. Success comes from effort. It comes from not giving up. It comes from learning from your mistakes and your victories. All the lessons from the desert are being taken on board by our team; rider experience and time on the bike, handling ability in unfavourable conditions, gear changes, tire selection and crash recovery methods. How to be more efficient. How to work best with the riders. How to go faster.

Both riders are convinced they can do better. They walked away wondering what 2 or 3 more days could have brought them. The engineers, too, are full of their own certainties and hunches about the potential that awaits them in the lab. The year ahead promises renewed efforts from all of them. Mentally, physically and technologically.

We hope you’ll join us for the sequel…