Engineering in Sports: Cycling 1 Hour World Record

The current debate as to whether a specially engineered Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit provides an unfair advantage to its wearer is analogous to the debate concerning the 1 hour cycling world record back in 1993. Starting in 1993, cycling faced an arms race of sorts with the prospect of continuous aerodynamic innovation significantly improving the 1 hour world record. This caused people inside and outside cycling to question whether human performance really mattered.

Graeme Obree Riding Old FaithfulGraeme Obree Riding Old FaithfulLicensed under the GNU Free Documentation License

If a truly revolutionary performance innovation appears in a sport, there are two options for the sport's governing body to consider:

  • Allow it either unchecked or within modified rules
  • Ban it and risk creating a new branch of the sport

Cycling 1 Hour World Record

Cycling's governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), has twice taken decisive action with respect to the 1 hour cycling world record in an attempt to keep the record as a measure of human performance rather than innovative bicycle design.

The first challenge to the status quo occurred in 1933 when Francis Faure set a new 1 hour record of 45.055km (27.996 miles) using an innovative aerodynamic recumbent bicycle. Riding in a recumbent position (i.e., sat low to the ground with outstretched feet first) produced a significant reduction in drag (due to a reduced frontal area) compared to the traditional upright riding position. In 1934 the UCI banned recumbent bikes from competing for the 1 hour record, which caused a splinter group to form, currently called International Human Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA). IHPVA allows any human-powered vehicle to compete for its version of the 1 hour record, whereas UCI allows only upright bicycles.

One of the most distinguished holders of the UCI 1 hour record was Eddy Merckx, who went to the high altitude of Mexico City to claim the record of 49.431km (30.715 miles) in 1972. The high altitude ensures rarified air (less dense than sea level), which reduces the drag force acting on the rider. The same effect is responsible for sprinters running faster times at altitude compared to sea level.

UCI Bans Aerodynamic Aids for 1 Hour Record

Starting in 1993 through 1996, Graeme Obree perfected a series of bicycles (best known was "Old Faithful") and aerodynamic body positions that saw him and others on bicycles he either designed or inspired repeatedly break the 1 hour record by significant margins. In response UCI refused to recognize records produced on bicycles using aerodynamic aids as of 2000 - essentially they mandated that the bicycle and body position should be equivalent to that used by Eddy Merckx when he set the record in 1972.

The current UCI 1 hour record was set (without the assistance of altitude) in 2005 by Ondrej Sosenka at 49.700km (30.882 miles) - only 0.5% further than Merckx's altitude assisted record.

IHPVA 1 Hour Record Improves

Meanwhile from the 1980s onward the IHPVA 1 hour record improved at a rapid rate. Needless to say IHPVA record bicycles are optimized to minimize aerodynamic drag using a teardrop-shaped enclosure around a recumbent bicycle frame.

The current IHPVA 1 hour record is held by Sam Whittingham who rode "Varna Diablo" to 86.752km (53.917 miles) - an amazing 75% further than the current UCI record.


New Cycling Speed Record: 82 mph

Sam Whittingham recently competed at the 2008 World Human Powered Speed Challenge in Nevada, USA and recorded the fastest speed ever on a bicycle at 82 mph or 132 km/h. Of course the bicycle is no ordinary machine, it is a streamlined, recumbent cycle similar to the one he set the IHPVA 1 hour record on.

so many MISS IT!!

Alas,.. I was one who missed it. one of 99.999% of us. However, thanks to readers digest, I read the article and couldn't finish it three times 'cause my eyes were too blurry. So overcome with emotion was I with the EVENT! Suddenly I was there with the few. (as there as I could be). Still overwhelmed with the glory of it, I typed "Sam Whittinham Varga" into you tube and suddenly I was even MORE THERE!(again, there as I could be). I felt the wind, the cool air, the energy, the camraderie, I saw Georgiev, The highway kiss, the bittersweet felling Sam had re: the road, Suddenly I was there, and when Georgiev made the comment that so few witnessed it, I joined the few,as others like me may have. Poetry,timeless poetry. (was I really there? In spirit, I feel like I was!)

Fastest Bicycles in the World

Sam broke his record in 2009 by going 82.819 mph at Battle Mountain, Nevada. This was using 5 miles of a temporarily closed Nevada state highway during the World Human Powered Speed Challenge. I am on of the fortunate folks to have volunteered and raced at this event. A lady competitor from France, Barbara Buatois has reached 76.4 mph at the same event in 2010. He rode Sam's bike, the Varna Tempest, built by George Georgiev. In July 2009, I hosted a speed challenge at the 5-mile Ford Proving Grounds in Romeo, Michigan. Sam Whittingham set a new ONE HOUR WORLD RECORD of 56.3 miles covered in One Hour, while Barbara set a record of 52.2 miles in One-Hour. Both again rode the Varna Tempest. What is remarkable about these speeds is that no Olympic bicycle racer could even do these speeds on a regular bike for even a few seconds (except going downhill of course), but Sam and Barbara were able to pedal at those speeds on a flat track for an hour. Sam's record was recently broken by Francesco Russo, who pedaled 56.9 miles in one hour in 2011. His machine, called the Eiviestretto was designed by Damjan Zabovnik, a former record holder. It is unique in that the rider lays on their back, going head-first staring at a mirror above their nose in order to see forward. It allows for a smaller frontal area than the Varna Tempest. The Eiviestretto was measured in a wind-tunnel to have a cdA of 0.015, one of the lowest numbers ever recorded for a vehicle that can transport a person. An earlier version of the Varna was estimated to have a cdA of 0.02. There was one vehicle built by Matt Weaver (78.02 mph top speed), who used CFD extensively in his design that was rumoured to have a cdA of 0.011. Some college teams, such as TU Delf in the Netherlands might challenge that efficiency. Their recent design, called the VeloX became the 2nd machine in history to top 80 mph this past year (2011).