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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Updated: May 23, 8:31 AM ET
"BECAUSE REALLY, THIS IS NUTS"

By Tim Keown

SEPTEMBER 2003. Sam Whittingham, a national team track cyclist from Canada, is inside this contraption that he and his buddy insist on calling a bicycle even though it looks more like a homemade cruise missile with two tires peeking out from underneath. He's lying back on a recumbent frame inside the eight-foot-long sculpted faring, squeezed so tightly into place that he can't move his head; his position resembles that of someone hiding in a pipe. The only parts of his body that can move are his legs, which madly pump the pedals to propel this thing as fast as humanly possible. Literally.

Whittingham is the engine, and right now, on this afternoon, he's powering this rolling tube called Varna Diablo II at just more than 80 mph. The noise inside the Kevlar/carbon-fiber drum is jet-engine loud, but nothing matters except flying through the 200-meter speed trap in 5.456 seconds to hit 82 mph, which would break the human-powered vehicle record of 81 mph he set one year earlier. He's traveling more than twice as fast as Lance Armstrong ever pedaled a bike without the help of gravity or drafting. And Whittingham feels it coming: He has enough experience, more than a decade's worth, to know when conditions, bike and state of mind are in record-breaking alignment.

He's been building speed for about five miles down a desolate stretch of Nevada highway, nearing top speed, when a tire blows, then … nothing.

Nothing?

Nothing.

Understand what nothing means here. Nothing means silence, which means the thin tires are no longer in contact with the road. Nothing means Whittingham is airborne and gliding at 80-plus mph. Even when everything works right, he's at the mercy of the machine. He can't put his feet down because he's enveloped by the faring. He has to be helped into the bike, then balanced, then pushed to get started, then helped out when he's finished.

But now, nothing means he's helpless, out of control, hands attached to handlebars and feet clipped into the pedals, yelling, "Oh s—! Oh s—! Oh s—!"

The contraption turns sideways in the air, 90 to the right, so that his hunched shoulders are perpendicular to the asphalt. As Whittingham flies three feet above the road, he's thinking about the top half of the faring, attached to the bottom with Velcro and hockey tape. He stays airborne for what seems like miles but is in reality about the length of a football field, the silence pierced only by the concussive burst of his expletives. He crashes right side down. And with that the sliding begins, first on the asphalt, then into the sagebrush and tumbleweeds.

Outside the tube, Whittingham's friend Georgi Georgiev watches in horror. A genial old man and classically trained sculptor, he's the best in the world at making fast, human-powered tubes. His job at the end of a run is to stop the contraption; he does this by performing a kind of straddling bear hug before it comes to a stop and falls over. This is a crucial job, and Georgiev is a master, although he once rode an earlier version of Varna Diablo 50 yards, as if riding a whale at SeaWorld, after miscalculating where Whittingham would stop.

As Whittingham slides along the desert, Georgiev chases him like a kid whose unleashed dog is headed for traffic. Whittingham finally stops a quarter-mile later; he's pulled upright and extracted from the tube unhurt. An impression of the right side of his body—shoulder, elbow, knee—is visible on the outside of the tube.

The strange and unexpected weightlessness Whittingham experienced when he crashed nearly five years ago flashes through his mind every time he shoehorns himself into one of Georgiev's creations. Oddly, for someone who has devoted so much of his life to becoming the world's fastest human, Whittingham spends little time in a tube. It's not feasible to run one on open roads, even near his home on Quadra Island or on Georgiev's Gabriola Island, both remote outposts in British Columbia, Canada. So for much of the year, Georgiev tinkers while Whittingham pedals a road bike to keep his 5'7", pit-bull-like frame pared to 160 pounds. Starting in April, the rider amps his bike time to as much as six hours a day. By September, when he meets Georgiev in Battle Mountain, Nev., for the annual World Human Powered Speed Challenge, Whittingham is fully prepared for the adrenaline rush of hitting that 200-meter speed trap, his butt six inches from the asphalt, his heart pumping out of his chest. He works hours for seconds.

Whittingham builds custom bike frames for his company, Naked Bicycles and Design. He's an artist in his own right. In February, at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Portland, Ore., one of his creations won all the top awards: Best in Show, President Walker's Award and People's Choice Award. The bike, a modern retro single-speed with wooden rims and a disk brake, was inspired by a friend who recently died of cancer. Lance Armstrong bought it to display in his new bike shop in Austin, Texas, and Robin Williams came by Whittingham's booth to see if he could outbid Lance's $12,000. "No," Whittingham said. "But I can always make you another one." Williams left with a business card.

The fastest human-powered vehicle on earth.

Crafting cool bike frames is Whittingham's job. But this, riding Georgiev's creations at insane speeds for six days every fall, is what he does for fun. Yes, fun: sitting in an incredibly uncomfortable position in a tube with a windshield as big as a cereal bowl and pedaling 'til he nearly passes out. In addition to the unofficial record for the world's fastest crash, Whittingham also owns six marks for pedaling with rubber on the road—including one for riding 53.917 miles in an hour around the Nissan Test Track in Casa Grande, Ariz., on Easter Sunday 2007. "Once I get going, I never want to stop," says Whittingham, 35. "The key is, don't think about it. If you spend too much time thinking about it, you'll just scare the s— out of yourself. Because really, this is nuts."

The spirit of this odd obsession lies in Georgiev's backyard. Here, amid boundless greenery, you can trace the quest to set and reset the speed record for HPVs. The rusting shells of previous speed-bike incarnations are strewn everywhere, representing an evolutionary time line of one man's compulsion to build the fastest, most efficient form of human transportation. Efficiency, in this context, means making a machine that maximizes the power of an engine (Whittingham) by reducing wind resistance. Current versions of the Diablo are about 16 inches wide and 28 inches high. Georgiev builds frames and farings and puts them together; every weld and cut is done to advance the purpose of making the bike hide from air.

The 65-year-old Georgiev defected to Toronto in 1972 from Varna, Bulgaria, to create sculptures for the city. In 1987 he moved again, this time to Gabriola, a two-ferry trek from Vancouver and a haven for artists, draft dodgers and makers of hemp clothing. Georgiev lives with his wife, Andrea, on the western shore of the island, the quiet broken only by the whistles of osprey and the squawks of gulls. He lives here for one reason: "The peace allows me to think," he says. He is the rarest of 21st-century humans: the true aesthete.

Bikes were always a fascination, more for simplicity and efficiency than for transportation. His friendship with 1970s Canadian cyclist Jocelyn Lovell changed fondness to profession. Lovell became a quadriplegic when he was hit by a truck in 1983, and Georgiev began experimenting with three-wheel designs that would allow the paralyzed to hand-pedal on the open road. Riders cranking Varna handcycles won medals at the 1988 Paralympic Games and have set multiple world records. He sells 75 to 100 handcycles a year in addition to racing wheelchairs and sitskis.

When he met Georgiev, in 1990, Whittingham, who lives with his wife, Andrea Blasecki, and children (Misha, 13, and Sophie, 10), was an aggressive road and track racer and "covered-head claustrophobic"—hardly a candidate for Georgiev's mobile art projects. But the instant he rode the bike, rush overrode panic. Whittingham attracted international attention in 1993 with unofficial records (no wind measurement) in 500-meter and 1-kilometer time trials on Georgiev's bike Varna Mephisto: "He's the only one who does it right. He's fearless." Sometime this summer, Whittingham will take a trip to Gabriola to try out Georgiev's newest creation, a Varna Diablo whose circumference is roughly four inches smaller than the previous version. Georgiev built it with the idea of taking back the women's HPV record, which was once owned by Whittingham's wife. But if Whittingham can squeeze his body into it, who's Georgiev to argue?

For 18 years Georgiev has squeezed Whittingham into skinny tubes designed to hide from air.

OCTOBER 2001. Georgiev and Whittingham fasten the Varna Diablo to the tonneau cover on the bed of a Ford pickup in Georgiev's driveway. They take a ferry to Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, and drive to another ferry that takes them to Seattle. From there they drive south to Battle Mountain, where eccentricity meets obsession every fall. A year earlier at this event, Whittingham rode the Varna Mephisto at 72.75 mph.

At about the same time, a group from England checks its vehicle onto a plane and begins a much more heralded trip to the same place. The group has invested $1 million into the effort to erase the B.C. guys from the record book. The Brits have left nothing to chance. They hired Jason Quealy, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist in the 1K time trial, to pedal a bike called Blueyonder Challenger. And they hired men in lab coats to analyze coefficients of drag and the like. "They were a huge machine backed by a ton of money," Whittingham says. "We were two guys in a pickup."

The British bike, with corporate logos and a media contingent and a gold medalist, goes 64 mph. The two guys in the pickup? Spinning the pedals at 120 rpms and cranking out 625 watts of power—slightly less than 1 horsepower—Whittingham blasts through the speed trap at 80.552 mph, the fastest a human has traveled under his own power. (Whittingham would hit 81 mph the following year in Varna Diablo II, which is branded the most efficient vehicle ever created.) "That was a big deal for us," Whittingham says later.

So what's the secret? Why has Georgiev's original Varna design become the most copied in the history of HPVs? Why has every serious attempt at the record in the past 15 years been made with some variation of his work? Georgiev has no lab, only a garage shop. There are no scientists, only a sculptor. "It doesn't come from books," Georgiev says. "It comes from inside of me, from here." He points to his heart. "I enjoy the possibility of it."

People always ask about the science. They look at Georgiev and Whittingham and their records and wonder how much faster high-tech could take them. "That's not why we do it," Whittingham says. "The whole process is to make the most efficient machine, not necessarily the fastest. It would defeat the purpose to farm out the manufacturing."

To retain the integrity of the pursuit, Georgiev and Whittingham won't accept a corporate sponsor. (Asked about financial gain, Whittingham says, "Yeah, there's a lot of money in this—I've spent a lot of money.") In a moment of weakness, or perhaps just curiosity, they took the Mephisto to a wind tunnel in Vancouver in 2000 to test its aerodynamics. The scientists printed the numbers and shook their heads. Georgiev's contraption barely registered. It was the most aerodynamic form they'd ever seen.

They're an odd couple. In the movie, Tom Cruise would play Whittingham, Anthony Hopkins Georgiev. They shrug when asked to describe how they came together in this obsession, this union of Georgiev's vision and Whittingham's willingness to surrender to it. It's just what happened. They share a spirit of adventure and a love for a challenge that has few rules and vast potential. What more do you need? After all, how many people do what they set out to do in life? Maybe being 5'7" lowers the ceiling for track cyclists, who tend toward the massively muscular. Maybe creating public art becomes more of a job and less of a calling. Worlds collide.

OCTOBER 2007. Some 100 or so people are at the Challenge. It's a good bet none are casual observers. The six-mile stretch of Highway 305 was chosen as the seven-year-old event's home after a serious investigation found it to be the straightest, flattest, highest (4,616-foot elevation), least-traveled highway in the U.S. The surroundings are eerily beautiful: stark mountains, chaparral with no vegetation growing above thigh level. Says Georgiev: "You have to look beyond the monotony of the vegetation."

The feel is more convention than competition. There are meetings at the Super 8 every night, organizers and competitors packed into a conference room to rehash today and plan tomorrow. Road condition is Topic A. The surface of Highway 305 has been in steady decline, and HPV advocates are negotiating with the Nevada Department of Transportation to repave before the 2008 event, a move that would almost guarantee a record. But if NDOT decides to go cheap and install Chip Seal, a gravelly and tire-gripping stopgap, the event may be canceled in the future and the HPVers will be forced to scour North America for another flat, straight, little-used road in the middle of a different nowhere.

Among aficionados and drivers of HPVs, Whittingham is a rock star. Each of the 10 riders will make one timed run a day for six days. When Whittingham finishes a run, a friend appears at his side with his sweatshirt, sweatpants and sandals. Two other roadies grab the ends of the Varna Diablo III and carry it back to the truck. There's a guys-without-dates feel to the scene, men who are serious about this endeavor in a way that touches only the truly dedicated. (The backslapping reverie might undergo a change this September because the $25,000 .deciMach prize, a reward for the first rider to hit 75 mph at sea level or 82 mph at Battle Mountain, will be awarded to this year's Challenge champ. If no rider bests Whittingham and Georgiev's 81 mph, they win the prize.)

The sole purpose of the Challenge is to break the record, but road conditions have made that nearly impossible the past couple of years. Still, on the third day of the event, Whittingham hit 79.52 mph—fast but not fast enough. Today, the fourth day, has turned blustery. Georgiev warns his friend against taking a run, but a camera crew has come to shoot Whittingham, so he shrugs and hops in. He tops out at only 60.77 mph, yet he climbs out of the tube smiling, saying he almost got blown off the road.

And that's part of the charm: Whittingham doesn't pretend he's doing something of great importance. He doesn't bemoan the obscurity of his pursuit or elevate its meaning. He understands his quest is as far out of the mainstream as Battle Mountain itself. He pedals a tube made of Kevlar and carbon fiber, built by hand by a Bulgarian sculptor whose gut feeling has taken on science and won. He sits compressed into a position that prohibits him from turning his head or scratching his nose, and sometimes he does it at more than 80 mph. And next time, maybe even faster.

Together, they are attempting to perfect the most efficient form of the most efficient form. They do it on their own time, in their own way, for their own satisfaction. And they do it better than anyone else in the world, a fact that, to most people, means nothing.

Nothing. How perfect.


For a photo gallery of Sam's latest trip to the World Human Powered Speed Challenge and a look at his workshop click here.


FAST FORWARD By Ron Feemster

Whittingham and Georgiev are on top of the speed chart, but human pedalers have powered vehicles to a variety of records. Here are four:

AIR: In 1985, Holger Rochelt spun at 27.5 mph around a 1,500-meter course in the aircraft Musculair II. It was designed by Holder's father, Gunther, a designer of solar-powered planes.

WATER: A pedal-powered hydrofoil called Decavitator covered 100 meters at 21.29 mph in 1991. The boat was designed by MIT professor Mark Drela, whose Daedalus set the human-powered flight distance record of 72.4 miles in 1998.

SUBMARINE: Jeremy Lebel, representing the University of Quebec's Ecole de Technologie Superieure, pedaled the one-person Omer 4 through a 10-meter course at 7.192 knots, about 8.2 mph, in 2003.

DISTANCE: In 2005, Czech cyclist Ondrej Sosenka rode 30.9 miles in an hour on a conventional bike with no aero tweaks, breaking one of the sport's most prestigious speed marks.