Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Human Powered Vehicles

A couple months ago, Gavin and I blasted out of Reno at 3am and pointed ourselves towards Battle Mountain, NV. Why on earth would we go to such a place, particularly at such an hour? Well, one of the many things that makes Nevada, well, Nevada occurs in Battle Mountain each September, and it's the Human Powered Vehicle Competition, or HPV for short.

These are machines that don't even remotely resemble a bicycle, but that's pretty much what they are, just glorified. They look very different because they're capable of exceeding 80 mph on flat ground, of which normal bikes are not capable. Just so we've got some context for the rest of this post, here's what we're talking about:


They select this particular stretch of road outside Battle Mountain as it's the flattest, straightest, smoothest, highest altitude road they've been able to locate after scouring much of the planet, and the Nevada Department of Transportation is friendly to them, too. So when we pulled off of State Hwy 305 at 6am, we were expecting to see some sort of elaborate setup. No such thing. Actually, we were the first ones there, but only by about 5 minutes. They do their runs early and late in the day when the winds are at their calmest. Perfect conditions for them are warm and calm, so the first runs of the morning are rarely the fastest.

The riders have 5 miles of flat straight road to get up to speed, and then they're timed over a 200m section. At 80mph, those 200m go by in about 6 seconds...

View towards the finish

Nevada clouds

If we wanted to see any action, we'd have to walk about a mile, as the parking area was at the end of the uphill stretch they use to slow down. So off we went, traipsing through the sagebrush, until we got to the finish line. From here, it's easy to see all the way down to the beginning of the course. Lazy Nevada highway fades into big mountains, sagebrush lining either side. On most days, this stretch of highway between Battle Mountain (Grand Prize Winner, Most Unfortunate Abbreviation to Paint on Nearby Hill) and Austin would see at most a few dozen cars, but for this week, it's a bustling hub of activity.

Ancient and irreplaceable timing wire strung through the brush

Timing station

The HPV organization gets control of the highway from 7am to 10am, and traffic of all sorts, including pedestrian, is tightly controlled during these hours. So imagine my surprise when I stepped into the middle of the road at 6:57am to take a photo, only to be confronted by a spittingly furious man who asserted that he'd have me removed from the site if I didn't Get Out of the Road Right Now. You know, for being unsafe. Well, I had looked left and right before I stepped onto asphalt, and there were no cars coming from either direction for mmmmmm roughly 3 miles. This means that I could have stood on the centerline, closed my eyes, counted to 100, and been in no danger of loss of life or limb. And mind you, it wasn't "their" highway for another 3 minutes.

This little exchange was the first of several that made me raise an eyebrow about their approach to safety, which I believe to be highly flawed. More on that later.

Anyhow, Gavin's big draw to come out here (and a good part of mine, too) was to see Graeme Obree, the Flying Scotsman, have a go at the HPV thing. If you're not familiar (and I'm not expecting you to be), Graeme is the fellow who twice held the cycling Hour Record in the 90s, swapping it back and forth with Chris Boardman. Obree was notorious for having homegrown equipment and unconventional training methods, while Boardman was the opposite, making Obree an everyman's hero of sorts.

The power outputs required to reach these amazing speeds are not world-class. Don't get me wrong: they're stout alright, just not the stuff of legend. That is, until you consider the contorted, blind, stuffy shape you have to hammer yourself into in order to fit in the bike. Generating those power levels under those constraints is considerably more impressive! You see, these vehicles are designed for aerodynamic performance with little regard for anything else, ergonomics falling far down the list. We could hear riders' knees banging against the fairings in several bikes.

Cameras to see out...

This thing's seen some miles

Some of the more obvious body joints

Another camera-sighted rig

Curiously, most of the bikes we saw were wobbling back and forth, some to savable degrees, and one that was not. A ~15-year-old kid crashed pretty much right in front of us, sliding nearly 100m along the shoulder and down the embankment, tearing the bike to pieces and leaving him prone and scared in the frame, thankfully uninjured. Earlier in the week, a bike had tipped over past the finish line, after which it slid, speedily, into a section of guardrail that was protected with zip-tied sections of plywood, without which, the rider probably would have died. The 15-year-old had plowed over a post reflector, normally rigid galvanized steel, but NDOT has graciously replaced these with breakaway plastic versions, thus saving the kid from being sliced in half.

Upon response to the accident we saw, two things happened. First, a couple guys dragged a hay bale 3 feet to a "better position." It was not. Second, a safety steward of sorts silently yet deliberately paced off the distance between my light stand that the bike had plowed over and the road. It was, incidentally, further than their 30' recommended distance, and I'll also note that the crashing bike stopped about 4 feet short of a considerably more expensive lens I had stood upright on the ground. Maybe I didn't see their entire response, especially during debriefing later, but I found their approach to safety to be more of the "risk management" type and less of the "actually safe" type. I've been exposed to enough of both to have a pretty good sniffer for which is which.

Big nose

Streaking along

Another Euro machine

Anyhow, what concerns me about the design of the bikes is that, with the monumental gyroscopic stability afforded by having wheels spinning 50 or 60 or 80 miles an hour, creating instability in the overall vehicle has got to be down to aerodynamic issues, rider and powertrain configuration, or some combination of the two. I'd like to guess that it has a lot to do with the aerodynamic center of pressure, both horizontally and vertically, and while some teams obviously have advanced design tools at their disposal (they largely came from Europe), many of the other teams built something sleek-looking that may not be backed up by the math. I also believe that the pursuit of straight line speed takes attention away from things like stability, whereas I'd argue that you have to make it to the finish line if you want to post a fast speed...

Actually, I'd love to hear from anybody who's got more insight into why they're so unstable. I'm genuinely curious, and I haven't studied the various balances and forces enough to fully understand it.

The competitors and spectators were a fun bunch, enthusiastic geeks at heart and keen for conversation. My impression of the organization is that it bemoans its small budget and poor following on its fringe status, whereas acting the part a bit better would probably solve all their problems at once. I'm not meaning to be overly critical, as I think it's one heck of a neat pursuit, and I'd love to see it flourish and see some records fall by big amounts.


Finish in sight

The Egg again

Obree ended up having an OK day. He had finished racing his homemade bike earlier in the week and took one run in a borrowed bike, reaching something along the lines of 60mph. Still fast as hell, but a good indication that this is a formidable challenge to do well it if a guy like Graeme is off the pace. It's still pending approval, but the overall record apparently fell Saturday evening: 83.13mph. The fastest run we saw in the morning was 79mph, and that looked really really fast.

Gavin and I went the slightly-longer way back to Reno which included lunch in Austin. He hadn't seen much of them parts of Nevada, so it was a good excuse for a tour.



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