PEDAL TO THE Mental

All the thrills and spills of motor racing … minus the motors

WORDS MICHAEL STAHL PHOTOS THOMAS WIELECKI

NE HUNDRED and thirty years ago, the motor car gave humankind the ability to cover vast distances with the speed of a railway, the practicality of a carriage and the independence of a horse or bicycle. It also brought us motor racing.

All at the press of one pedal.

By any comparison, bicycles are boring. The Tour de France is only interesting for the scenery. Velodrome racing looks like turds swirling in a bowl, without the satisfaction at the end. A 24-hour race for ‘humanpowered’ vehicles sounds like a slow, sweaty, deliberate piss-take of motor racing’s pinnacle, the Le Mans 24 Hours.

We’ve thrown back the roof on a Fiat 500C Pop and driven to a rural town not dissimilar to Le Mans; surrounded by lush pastures, kissed by a majestic river.

There, we discover that the Human Powered Vehicle (HPV) Australian International Pedal Prix is anything but a joke. The 24-hour race in Murray Bridge, east of Adelaide, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. It’s the oldest, biggest and fastest event of its type in the world.

The ‘racetrack’ is a 2.1km loop road in the town’s Sturt Reserve, with occasional bumps and kinks and a startfinish straight running parallel to the Murray River.

If you think Le Mans offers an epic recipe with 56 cars over 13.6km, try cramming 225 aero-bodied, recumbent trikes into two kilometres. They writhe and barge and attack each other like frantic salmon, the fastest Open class cars hitting 70km/h on the straights and averaging better than 50km/h over the 24 hours.

Competitors compete in four categories, and the lifeblood of the five-round HPV Super Series – four six-hour races in addition to the 24 – is the three school categories, covering kids up to Years 7, 9 and 12. The 50-odd Open (Class 4) entries typically comprise former competitors. Among them are parents, school teachers, engineers and cyclists.

Series chairman Andrew McLachlan got dragged into it 20 years ago via his daughters’ school team. With his late mate Tim Bellotti, McLachlan then designed, built and ran an Open class vehicle. “We won one year – not with me riding, mind,” he said.

I heard about the Pedal Prix through one of my twin godsons, whose Kinross Wolaroi School in rural Orange, NSW is running two cars in Class 2. They have 18 kids here, mainly Years 9-10.

Among their 50-plus rivals in Class 3 is a three-car team from Girton Grammar in Bendigo, Vic. Helper-dad David Stone is an engineer on the Bushmaster military vehicle. “I’m used to making armour-plated vehicles, so this is the opposite,” he grinned. Top Fuel drag racer Robin Kirby is another Girton team guru.

Girton’s machines have custom chassis, but many schools use new or second-hand models from a handful of specialist producers. A ‘Built, Not Bought’ sign on another trike suggests there’s still some resistance to the trend.

Besides, home-made machines can still aspire to the highest echelon. Open class favourite Team Aurora from Maryborough in Victoria uses a one-off machine boasting a carbonfibre chassis designed by electrician Aaron Stewart. Aaron’s father Daryl reckons the trike owes the group of mates about $10,000. It weighs 24.5kg, five kilos lighter than most, and the chassis’ elimination of flex also saves precious tenths in pedalling and cornering.

Aurora’s eight riders are strong and determined, but does Daryl think they’re a bit too serious? There are kiddies out there! “Absolutely there are kiddies out there, and that’s another problem!” Daryl laughs.

“We’re here to go as quick as we can.”

HPV SUPER Series

The University of SA-sponsored HPV Super Series stemmed in 2003 from the annual Pedal Prix, branching into today’s series of mainly six-hour races. In 2015, the six-hour enduros consisted of: a street circuit in Loxton, 250km east of Adelaide; two rounds in Adelaide’s Victoria Park; and one in Busselton, WA.

The Murray Bridge 24 Hour is the series finale.

South Oz doesn’t have a monopoly on HPV racing. A fourround Victorian series includes a 24-hour event in Wonthaggi, while Maryborough holds its RACV Energy Breakthrough 24 Hour in e November. Another 24-hour race is held in Queensland — coincidentally, in a town called Maryborough. To date, NSW has had no HPV enduro, but plans are afoot for an event in March 2017 at Sir Jack Brabham Park, site of the former Gnoo Blas circuit in Orange. hou Ben Goodall from the Trisled team sees a bright future.

“We’re starting to get that motor sport excitement now. The critical thing about HPV racing is that you can bring it to the people.

We could be having Friday night spectaculars with grid girls, beer tents — the whole thing.”

THEY WRITHE AND BARGE AND ATTACK EACH OTHER LIKE FRANTIC SALMON, THE FASTEST OPEN CLASS CARS HITTING 70KM/H

There are a few ‘works’ teams with a commercial motive to go racing – Victoria’s Trisled and Adelaide’s Trump Trikes and Sutton Cycles. Among the eight riders in Trisled’s number 23 lead machine are Jeff Nielsen, a former 24-hour distance world record holder (1107km), and Gareth Hanks, a speed record holder (117.38km/h).

For Hanks, a former automotive fabricator, nothing tickles him like that third wheel. “I’m not just a cyclist – engineering and fabrication is my thing,” he says. “In road bike racing, they’re crapping on about a chain that’s 0.5 Watt better. I couldn’t give a shit. There’s so much more science to these.”

Trisled boss Ben Goodall started building recumbent racers in his parents’ basement 20 years ago. Today, he builds about 85 machines per year, one-third road and two-thirds pure racing versions. The four racing models use chrome-moly frames, with running gear and bodywork increasing in sophistication over the $3500-$9300 price range. The top-line Aquila 2 blends aero-tuned speed and durability from an enclosed body in Kevlar composite, with carbonfibre roll protection and double-layered sides. “The shell takes care of the torsional stiffness and the chassis takes care of the longitudinal and lateral stiffness,” Goodall explains.

“Elasticity is important because these machines have to absorb big crashes regularly.”

This echoes in my ears when, during Friday’s practice, I slot into Trisled’s number 24 ‘B’ machine for a couple of laps. Entering the stick-and-string cockpit is a bit like getting into a kart through a laser field. The 800mm canopy height puts your head at about the same level as an F1 driver’s. Likewise the elevated leg position, with feet clipped into pedals either side of an apparently giant chainring. The hand steering levers, situated at hip level, feel more natural than expected. Independent left and right brakes give ace riders the ability to trail-brake deeper into corners.

On a clear, glorious day, you can see basically buggerall outside of a letterbox slot. I pedal out into the corridor of racetrack, determined to do at least two laps.

Building up to some sort of speed, I have the impression of kicking and buzz-sawing at anything that might have drifted in front of me. I like the feeling.

I survey a shallow dip in a 45-degree left-hander when shrilling and bleating noises assault my ears and something erupts from the corners of both eyes. Two trikes split to either side, passing me at a good 20km/h faster. Exiting the fast kink, the one to my right flares up its inside wheel, symbolically cocking its leg at me.

I power up down the back straight, flipping up through the nine gears with my right thumb. I’m a red corpuscle in a vein, sometimes strafed by faster individuals, sometimes closing in on a meandering clot. I calculate relative speeds, braking points, altered lines, always stoking and saving and never surrendering momentum that I’ve earned, with my legs alone.

I top out at 41.77km/h on the back straight and burn 192 calories, whatever that means. I’m also told that a human can generate about 0.5kW for 5-10 minutes.

Hardly a quad-turbo-exciting statistic.

Goodall points out I’ve been practising with one of the school groups (I think it was the 16-year-olds). “In a race you’ve got four times that many people, and some are going twice as fast.” As it was, my top speed was slower than this group’s 10 fastest average speeds.

Approaching midday Saturday, the sizeable crowd, reckoned to be around 3000 people is whipped into a frenzy by Adelaide radio jock and long-time Pedal Prix supporter Paul Richards. Four-abreast, the 225 vehicles ooze around the course on a seven-minute rolling start lap.

Centimetres apart, the brightly coloured sardines make no mechanical sounds beyond their celebratory piezo-electric bleeping. They stream through the awkward 90-degree left Bellotti Corner – Sturt Reserve’s Eau Rouge – and finally let rip as they go under the footbridge.

Front-row starters Relentless, Toothless, Aurora and Trisled A, all of which had qualified at better than 53km/h, begin lapping tailenders on the first lap. Almost 100 of those tailenders had qualified at least 20km/h slower. The junior school teams seem to cycle their 20-strong teams through just a handful of laps each. The Open teams aim for one-hour stints, indicating to their

ENTERING THE STICK-AND-STRING COCKPIT IS A BIT LIKE GETTING INTO A KART THROUGH A LASER FIELD

TRISLED AQUILA 2Trike

1 Carbon-Kevlar bodywork has integrated carbonfibre roll hoop. Aero design was done on a computer and the moulds directly CNC-milled. Nosecone is replaceable.

2 Chrome-moly 4130 chassis is MIG-welded. HPV rules stipulate max dimensions: 2700mm (l); 1100mm (w); 1200mm (h). No weight restriction.

Aquila’s weight: 29kg.

3 Air management includes a handoperated vent to balance aero versus rider needs. Cockpit sealing is critical aft of the front wheels, a major drag area.

4 Front wheels are 16-inch diameter, either spoked or carbon disc. Carbon’s rigidity aids handling, but can crush bearings over bumps.

Slick tyres run 100-115psi pressure.

handling, 5 Chainring (typically 65-80 teeth) and 115mm pedal cranks drive a nine-speed Shimano 105 derailleur. Brakes are cable-operated discs, independent left-right.

6 Carbonfibre seat includes four-point racing harness, foam pad and hinged headrest to provide rear-wheel access.

MOCHET Velocar

The pedal-powered car ( and, to a large extent, the recumbent bike) dates back to Frenchman Charles Mochet. In 1925, seeking a safer bicycle for his son Georges, Mochet made a four-wheeler.

Two-seater models quickly Th d l d d t followed, along with clever yet simple geared chain-drive systems. A Mochet Velocar was about half the price of the cheapest motorised cycle-cars.

Mochet also refined the recumbent riding position and made very speedy bicycles (left), which were promptly banned from racing in the mid-1930s, and introduced a motorised microcar, but during World War II the Velocars took off all over again.

Son Georges carried on the business, re-introducing motorised microcars after the war. They fizzled out in the late-1950s.

I WONDER WHERE THE TOP RIDERS FIND THE ENERGY. I GO LOOKING FOR THE LANCE ARMSTRONG SNACK-STAND…

pits with a shout or a hand signal when their legs are wilting.

Hanks goes for metronomic consistency. “I pick points on the track where I need to be hitting a certain speed.

Exiting Bellotti, I need to be doing 46km/h. Past the start-finish, around 53km/h.”

The fastest racers are so precise in dissecting the slower machines, I forget there are people pedalling inside. It’s also evident that a pair of teardrop-shaped machines running abreast leave a gap between their tails. To the leading Open class racers, a gap is a gap… Driver changes are no less gentle, riders ripped bodily from the machines as if on fire. Two crew hoist the trike aloft while a third scrambles underneath to check tyre condition; they change up to six tyres in 24 hours.

I see both joy and terror. A dad in a banana-in-pyjamas trike catches my eye as he bounces through the chicane; a young girl laboriously pedals past, lap after lap, sucking on a drink tube and sobbing uncontrollably. Standing trackside, amid the creepy shrilling of their sirens, I hear drivers screaming “N-o-o-o!” as a machine carves in front of theirs, or they snot hard into another’s flanks.

The crashes are truly frightening. Shallow drains and mid-corner bumps bounce a trike onto its side if hit at the wrong angle. A too-sudden swerve has the same effect. When the skidding and grinding stops, upturned trikes sit stationary in the frantically moving stream until marshals rush over to right them.

Crashes don’t even need corners. Trisled A, nudged by another on the back straight, careens head-on into a roadside pole at 55km/h. Alex, the driver, escapes with mild burns from the mandatory four-point harness. A new chainring and wads of race-tape get the machine back out again.

Aurora looks unstoppable as night falls and a variety of LED headlights are switched on. Trisled has banked on their de-fogging system giving advantage in the cold night, but by morning – and despite a heavy shunt – the privateer Aurora leads by a dozen laps.

Kids roll up their tents in the chill morning air, amid the aromas of coffee, bacon and Dencorub. Mingled with them is a now-familiar sound: crunch, scr-a-a-a-pe, thud. “At the start of the weekend it makes you cringe,” a rider shrugs. “But by this time Sunday morning, it’s just like the generators – background noise…” A red flag at 10:35am for an accident forces teams to pull into the first available pit lane. The leading trio of Aurora, Trisled A and Toothless are in close proximity, though a dozen or so laps now separate them. Near the end of the 45-minute pause, a handshake deal is done.

“It’s been a race with quite a few stoppages,” explains Trisled’s Jeff Nielsen. “The Aurora guys aren’t gonna get the distance record. They’re safe from us, we’re safe from Toothless and they’re safe from fourth [Relentless Racing/ Trump]. We’re gonna sit 1-2-3 and have a good dice.”

Watching the three trikes striding again through the still-strong field, rarely separated by more than a few lengths, I wonder where they find the energy. I go looking for the Lance Armstrong snack-stand… Nielsen reckons HPV racing beats cycling hands-down.

“Just the exhilaration of it – to go into a corner at 50km/h, trust yourself that you can get around… On a velodrome, everyone’s doing much the same pace. Racing these at an elite level is like driving on a peak-hour freeway at 160km/h.”

The weather has been kind to the riders in their sealed, sweaty, aero-efficient $10,000 pedal-pods. Fog or rain or extreme heat make these things miserable at best, dangerous at worst.

We drive home with the Fiat’s roof back, basking in the scents of the fields and the life-giving river. In bad weather, we could put the roof up, windscreen wipers would swat rain away, demisting clears the windows, there’s a heater if you’re cold and air-con if you’re hot.

And from Murray Bridge, we could drive non-stop to Melbourne or Menindee or White Cliffs or maybe even to the edge of Lake Eyre, if we wanted. At the press of one pedal.