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The Fastest Bicycle on Earth

In this episode of Upgrade, we meet the Dutch team behind the VeloX3, which holds the world speed record for pedal-powered bikes.

by Max Hoppenstedt
Dec 3 2014, 5:40pm

​Image: Motherboard|VICE

When the bicycle became popular in the beginning of the 19th century in southern Germany, England, and France, it was the first machine that championed private transportation. Almost 200 years after the invention of the vélocipède and Drais' dandy horse, personal mobility is one of the highest imperatives in a globalized world. Today, our streets are filled with fixed-gears, roadsters, rickshaws, BMX, and electric bikes.

The ​Human Power Team has demonstrated just how fast you can go with pure muscle power. The third model of the Dutch team's high-tech recumbent bicycle, the VeloX 3, reached a speed of 133.78 km/h, setting a new world record for the fastest pedal-powered vehicle.

Lead engineer Dennis Berckmoes demonstrates the technique of the VeloX 1. Alle images: Alexander Sußmann / VICE.

A team of about a dozen students from the Delft University of Technology is responsible for the development of the bicycle. Over the past four years, the team has created a new prototype in their VeloX series. Each year, they've brought their prototypes to Battle Mountain, Nevada, where the best recumbent bicycle teams in the world attempt to set new speed records on a 8 km strip of highway.

A spare chassis from the record breaking VeloX 3 sits on top of the equipment of the Human Power Team workshop in Delft.

We visited the Human Power Team in their workshop in Delft, where lead engineer Dennis Berckmoes, amid the final preparations for their next record attempt, walked us through the details of the engineering process that he and his colleagues from the student team go through every year while iterating their high-speed prototype.

All of the components of the VeloX4, from the chassis (made of extremely hard, yet super-light carbon) to the aerodynamics (tested in the wind tunnel of a space center), to the special gear system and the 3D-printed special parts, are individually designed and produced.

"This is Formula 1 for bicycles," as Dennis put it.

Dennis demonstrates the top shell, which has the video monitoring system attached to it. It's the only window into the outside world for the driver.

The Human Power Team's garage is situated right next to other pioneering CO2-neutral transportation projects like Nuna Solarcar (the series winner of the Solar Challenge in Australia), high-speed rowboats, and emission-free submarines.

A profile of The VeloX 1, the first ever prototype from the Human Power Team.

For many members of the Human Power Team it's not just about setting world records. It's also about the pioneering work that can lead to the improvement of bicycles suited for daily use. One of the results of this work is the Velo Tilt prototype, which Wim Schermer developed together with members of the Human Power Team.

Wim Schermer is apparently quite comfortable with the first version of his Velo Tilt.

The Velo Tilt can reach speeds of 60 km/h with very little exertion. It can cover longer distances with pure muscle power, potentially replacing the cars commuters rely on. In Germany alone, almost 25 million commuters make a 25 km trip in their car each day. These trips could be made in the Velo Tilt, reclined and relaxed, without burning fossil fuels. Wim would like to bring the Velo Tilt to the market in a few years, even if he admits that it will cost several thousand euros in the beginning.

I don't go in it. I would just fall over after a few meters.

The Velo Tilt comes with a trunk that you can easily store your groceries in. And it has three wheels, so it's easy to operate, even for recumbent newcomers. And that's a definitive advantage compared to the Human Power Team's high-speed model. Even Dennis doesn't dare to get into the Velo X. 

"I have a lot of respect for our drivers, who have all mastered this vehicle," he said. "I don't go in it. I would just fall over after a few meters."

Most of the Velo X drivers are athletes from the University of Amsterdam who bring their racing experience to the garage. In the end they are the ones that have to get into a completely sealed-off box where they can only see what's going on in front of them through a camera system. Life as a competitive recumbent bicycle racing driver doesn't come without some unusual measures.

After visiting the Human Power Team workshop, we joined the team for the first race of their fourth model in the VeloX series. Shaking hands at 4 AM at the EurosSpeedway Lausitz, the driver, Rik Houwers, informed me that he just cleaned two giant plates of spaghetti bolognese. Just the breakfast he needed before attempting to set a new world hour record.

The VeloX4 on the race track of the Lausitzring, attempting to break the hour record.

In the end, the Human Power Team wasn't able to succeed at setting a new hour record. Switzerland's ​Fran​cesco Russo remains the holder of the hour record with just over 90 km/h, even though Dennis assured me that at a good day, they would aim for between 92 and 93 km/h. But even if other recumbent bicycle developers, like the ​ARION1 team from Liverpool, have announced plans to soon reach new top speeds of 140 km/h, the Human Power Team's VeloX 3 still holds the world record for speed today.

Dennis believes that the new generation of the Velo X will soon be able to reach an average speed of 100 km/h over an hour. Aside from a tinkerer's ambition, the prospect of high-speed recumbent bicycles that are road-ready for everyone is what drives both Dennis and Wim.

"I have a Tesla car, but I also have several recumbent bicycles," he said. "Each liter of gas we save is pure profit for all of us. That's why I clock more kilometers in my recumbent each year than in my car."