Human-powered speed record falls at Battle Mountain


September 18, 2013

The record-breaking bike of the Delft University of Technology and VU University Amsterdam (Photo: Rick Robson)

The record-breaking bike of the Delft University of Technology and VU University Amsterdam (Photo: Rick Robson)

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It's with considerable interest that Gizmag has followed cyclist Graeme Obree's latest quest to break the human-powered speed record on his self-designed and self-built bicycle, Beastie. On Friday at the World Human Speed Championships at Battle Mountain, Nevada, Obree finally made the attempt. Though he fell short of that ultimate record, he did break the world prone record (for cycling head first, face down) with an impressive speed of 56.62 mph (91 km/h). Yet the overall speed record was broken during the event, by a team from the Delft University of Technology and VU University Amsterdam.

Speaking to BBC Radio Scotland, Obree revealed that the record fell after a number of incremental improvements from the 47 mph he achieved at the beginning of the week. "The timekeeper announced it is a new official world record, and that's a strange feeling," he said. "I've not heard that for 20 years." That was when Obree set the one-hour cycle distance world record on another bike he designed and built himself, Old Faithful.

Listening to the interview, it sounds as if Obree is reconsidering whether a prone bike can compete with the speed of recumbents, an idea he borrowed from the way skydivers dive.

He may have been partially convinced by the efforts of cyclist Sebastian Bowler and his team from Delft and Amsterdam, which managed to add 0.6 km/h to the existing human-powered speed record with a new and formidable pinnacle of 133.78 km/h (83 mph). Technically this is for a single rider in the 200 m flying-start category, but as the shortest distance of those contested, this tends to be the fastest category at Battle Mountain.

The Delft team had its own technical problems to overcome during the course of the week, finding that the high speeds achieved deformed the outer shell, compromising its aerodynamics. The team was able to fix the problem, and went on to break the record, set in 2009 by Canadian cyclist Sam Wittingham.

Though Graeme Obree's own achievement fell short of the 100 mph barrier he'd hoped to break, he sounds satisfied to hold the prone speed record. Yet Obree remains convinced that 100 mph is achievable. "I do still believe 160 km/h [or] 100mph is possible in the next 20 years with the developments I've seen here this week," he tells Cycling Weekly. "There is absolute cutting-edge technology here and brilliant, friendly people."

Sources: Delft University of Technology, BBC, Cycling Weekly

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

Seems like a big hurdle to 100mph from just over 50. Double the speed requires four times the power at the same drag. How much further can the drag be reduced or the human power be increased?


I think he meant from 83 to 100 mph, he appears to have realised from the wording of the article that a prone position is not going be competetive.

Gary Bonney

A photo of The Beastie for comparison would have been nice. I wonder how much bigger a 'gear' he will need to use to get to the 100?

The Skud

We were achieving mid 50's speeds in the eighties (Bluebell 54.38mph 200m European championships). I admire Obree immensly but if he'd bothered to research the subject he would have discovered that the prone position was tried (by the Easy Racer team amongst others) and abandoned. For all kinds of reasons of comfort and control - but mainly because it's slow.



"Recumbent" includes both prone and the more conventional supine positions. Obree's expertise in in aerodynamic riding positions, and Dr. Alan Abbott, who had the absolute record at 47 MPH, showed the large advantage of the superman position for narrowing the shoulders. It sure would have been nice to see at least a link to some useful information about all that wonderful technology. This whole series of records is also misleading, depending not only on thin mountain air, but also a minor downslope, a legacy of the first venue used for a contest. Perhaps a new series should be based on flat roads, near sea level. Battle Mountain is a good rule-beater, but very inconvenient.

Bob Stuart

@Dekarate, the required power actually goes up by a factor of 8 if you double the speed. The wind drag force goes up by a factor of 4, but the required power is the product of the force and the speed, so speed comes up 3 times in the power calculation. Which means, of course, that it's even more difficult to get to the 100...


Congratulations to Graeme for his remarkable achievement. And to Sebastian for his. Very good to see that the limits continue to be pushed back by these amazing people and their teams.


Anyone interested in the Land Speeder? It's in my back yard. I think it hit 53mph in 1981. It's a 3 wheeled rear drive trike with a bullet cowling and still actually works but it will soon be electric. The most efficient transportation is a human powered bike.

Nathan Salter

At about 4,500 feet elevation, does that hurt the cyclist's performance due to oxygen or does the lowered air drag compensate? If it hurts why not find a sea level site to make the run?

Tom Swift

@ Tom Swift: The elevation is a compromise between the oxygen needs of the rider and the advantages derived from the thinner atmosphere he has to push through. Indeed the lowered air drag is to advantage. Also the site at Battle Mountain has some weather advantages at the time of year we use. Records are nearly always set with lower than our allowable wind speed across the course in any direction because excessive steering costs speed. Some of our earlier records were set at nearly twice that height: 8000 ft. (2438M). It might also be instructive to note that the U. S. Olympic cycling team's training and certain world cycling records were done at higher altitudes. Colorado Springs, and Mexico City respectively.

Paul Gracey

So it took two universities four years to catch up to a two man team , one rider and one builder . who live at sea level , maybe the Dutch secret is to live below sea level ;-)

Paul Isserlis
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