Muscle and ingenuity propel the
human-powered speed race in Lander County.
story by Danny Lee
It’s a beautiful sunny day under a bright blue sky, and an exciting cycle race is underway just outside Battle Mountain, Nevada.
Spectators scoot forward on their grandstand seats, craning their necks and shading their eyes for a glimpse of the next entrant, a distant sliver quivering silently in the heat waves, too far away to be heard.
As the racer bears down on the grandstand, the only sound along the straight stretch of highway that serves as the race course is the murmur of the crowd.
“Oh, he’s movin’.”
“Could be fast.”
The racer wobbles and the crowd gasps, but he recovers and presses on, drawing closer and closer, faster and faster, gradually appearing as a very narrow, elongated egg with wheels.
It whips by the grandstand—there’s no engine roar—just a whispery whirring of tires on asphalt and a gentle breath of disturbed air.
“Must have been doing 70,” somebody says. “That is one fast bicycle.”
Seventy miles an hour on a bicycle?
Absolutely, because this is the week-long World Human Powered Speed Challenge, which draws speed contestants and their fastest bikes from around the globe to Battle Mountain Nevada, every September. The high altitude and arrow-straight section of pavement has been drawing athletes to Battle Mountain since 2000.
Gearing up for greatness
“Of course, you can show up on your pogo stick, it is a ‘human-powered’ contest,” laughs Alice Krause, a race organizer. But most entrants bring bicycles, usually in recumbent form, “like you were pedaling in your chaise or your lawn chair.”
The bikes are designed and built by engineering teams from around the world. They can be pretty exotic, with the rider squeezed inside an aerodynamic plastic shell without even a windshield. The rider steers using a video screen with speed and other technical readouts.
“But if you look inside,” says Alice, “you’d recognize it as a bicycle, with shifters, gears, pedals—all the stuff you’d see on a normal bike.”
The goal is to use brainpower, ingenuity and technical savvy to wring the absolute maximum speed out of a human being’s fairly modest muscle power. And they’re doing pretty well. At the 2015 event, Todd Reichert—riding for a team from Toronto, Canada called Aerovelo—pedaled to a blazing new speed record of 86.65 mph.
In addition to very modest cash prizes, different speed levels earn riders different color hats—maroon for 65 mph, black with flames for 75 mph. Todd earned an 85 mph hat, which is rusty orange.
The event also has divisions for youth entrants all the way down to elementary school. A school-aged girl no taller than four feet got her modified bike above 30 mph, Alice says. “That’s a pretty good showing for somebody so small. It was cute, they put little pink curtains inside her bike.”
There are also different classes for other vehicle forms, like tri-wheels, and famous Para-Olympic athlete Elizabeth McTernan set two records in an arm-powered cycle.
Hobnobbing with the world
Nearly everybody from town takes part, either volunteering or just watching. “We have many positions that need to be filled up and down the course,” says Alice. “If someone comes to spectate, they often find themselves in the thick of things as a volunteer.”
“Battle Mountain is a sweet little town,” she says. “They have embraced us like family. Every year we come back and they’re so excited to see us.”
It’s mutual. Independent and university race teams from England, the Netherlands, Canada, Slovenia, Italy, Russia, France and elsewhere stay in town and love with race fans. It makes for a great mix of cultures. There’s a special “Show and Shine” bike exhibit, and local school classes study the ultra-slippery aerodynamics and super-efficient gearing of the bikes, then take field trips to see them up close. The kids even get to climb into some of the bikes, to get the feel of a real high-speed racer.
Spectators are welcome to this free event each morning and evening for qualifying runs. There is a bus available for rides out to the race course, to see the racers in action, for the evening runs. It leaves the Civic Center each day around 4:45pm and returns approximately 7:30 pm.
Meanwhile the racers get a good look at the wide-open spaces of the American West.
“The Europeans are so surprised at how spread out everything is here,” Alice chuckles. “They think they can get out here from Vegas in a couple of hours. It’s really about a seven-hour trip. Or they say, ‘We’re going to drive to Washington afterward.’ So, that’s another 12 hours.”
At the end of the week’s racing, a final banquet brings the teams and the town together one more time, and there’s always a powerful family feeling to the event.
“We consider Battle Mountain our second home,” says Alice, who lives in California with her husband, and fellow organizer, Alan Krause. “There’s a family reunion feeling that is part of the experience.”
It’s the kind of friendly competition and camaraderie that is on display every year at Battle Mountain, but that doesn’t mean anybody is going to politely let themselves be beaten, not if they can help it.
While the racing goes on, every team is working as hard as they can to go as fast as they can.
“They all want that top speed,” Alice says.
And the rusty-orange, 85 mph hats are just a bonus.