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Faster than a cheetah: Dutch speed record at the World Human Powered Speed Challenge

door Aniek
Human Power Team Delft & Amsterdam, photo by Bas de Meijer

World Human Powered Speed Challenge

“Aniek, are you ready?” I hear over the radio. “Yes!” I say. “Start in 3,2,1, GO!” I push the pedals as hard as I can and speed over the highway near Battle Mountain. In my aerodynamic bike I cycle through the Nevada desert. “The sprint starts in 1000 meters. You have to give everything now.” The last 45 seconds of the race I cycle as fast as I can and after the finishline I start braking immediately. I get out of the bike. Did we get the world record?

World Human Powered Speed Challenge

This is what happened almost every day this week. After 8 months of training in the Netherlands and cycling for a week in California, I’m currently in Battle Mountain, Nevada. A quiet town located on Interstate 80, with a small supermarket, a McDonalds, a Super8 hotel. That’s all. But once a year, the town of Battle Mountain is taken over by world-class bike teams, all of which have the same purpose: cycling the World Human Powered Speed Challenge. In the middle of the desert, the Nevada State Route 305 is turned off for traffic so that cyclists can try to break the 200 meter sprint record on the long, straight and flat road.

That also applies to me. I’m here with cyclist Iris Slappendel and the Human Power Team Delft & Amsterdam,a collaboration between TU Delft and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Together, we want to break the female world speed record that is now set at over 121 kilometers per hour. The students of the Human Power Team want to show that, thanks to technical innovations, man on its own power can be faster than nature. Faster than a cheetah in fact – the fastest land animal in the world with a top speed of 112 km / h.

Video: the preparation and the trip to Battle Mountain

The preparation

You can’t break the record without great effort. Students of Delft University of Technology have built an aerodynamic bike specifically for me and Iris. The Movement Scientists at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam made my training schedules for every training week and analyzed all my data to improve my power output and my sprint. Karin Lambrechtse made customized sports food as our nutrition coach. Sports psychologist Dido Blonk prepared me for the race in the field of mental training. All these people work together to help me get the best out of myself as an athlete.

A lot of training preceded this race. I had to learn to ride a recumbent bike, which turned out to be quite difficult, and then I practiced for quite some hours in the VeloX7, the bike built for me and Iris. We trained at some special venues: the landing strip of the airport of Valkenburg near Leiden, on an oval track at the RDW Testcentre. Last month, even a highway near Helmond was shut off for a couple of hours so we could train for the race. And then I didn’t even mention all the hours spent in the gym, doing sprint exercises and undergoing tests.

We needed this training because the VeloX 7 is not just a regular bike. It’s an aerodynamic and technologically advanced recumbent bike with a carbon shell. That means the bike is heavy and hard to balance. But this design also means that at the start of a race I need to be pushed to speed by a skater and have to be caught after the race, because I can’t start and stop independently. Since there is no window in the shell, I have to look at a small screen inside the bike. Through radio I hear instructions from my coach so I know exactly when to sprint.

Lucky number 7

Right now, at the qualification race at the beginning of the event, we’ll know whether the training has been good enough. The moment we’ve worked for so hard is finally there. In the Civic Center of Battle Mountain, organizer Alice Krause explaines to us: “The road is completely blocked for traffic during the race. Also, the teams can only reach the start in between the runs. Make sure you are on time because if you’re too late you can’t race.” Even though we’re in the middle of the desert, blocking the highway for a couple of hours is quite a logistical challenge.

In the Civic Centre a colourfull crowd of cycling enthusiasts gathered. Quite serious university teams who have prepared everything to break a world record this week and have built a complete workshop in the building. (Yes, we are one of them, together with teams from Italy and Canada, among others) But also smaller teams and individuals that have built their own bike and have been racing for years. They are full of enthusiasm when they see someone they know from the previous events.

I’m merely looking forward to the lottery, which will determine my place in the qualification. I’m lucky number 7 and as one of the first I can choose the time for the qualifying race. It’s all about to start!

Alice explains to us once more how the contest is put together. The World Human Powered Speed Challenge takes six days in total. Twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, there are races where the riders can compete. We have to cycle over a 6-mile parcours, so about 9 kilometers long. 5 miles are meant for speeding up to the right speed, and after this the speed is measured over a 200 meter track. After this there is about a mile to brake down before a team catches your bike. Each afternoon, the heats of the races of that evening and of the next day are divided. The closer you get to the world record, the earlier you can choose a heat. This way the fastest teams have first choice in choosing heats where wind and temperature probably are going to be best.

Human Power Team Delft & Amsterdam, photo by Bas de Meijer
Human Power Team Delft & Amsterdam, photo by Bas de Meijer

Rain, wind and storm

This means twice a day I can try to break the speed record. But before doing so, first I have to qualify for the race by showing the organization that I can ride fast enough ánd I can ride safely. Because with a speed over 100 kilometers per hour cycling isn’t without danger.

In the morning, with my coaches I’ve already taken a look at the road where everything is going to happen. It’s a long highway, as far as the eye reaches. Big trucks pass by fast. Apart from the trucks, there is nothing. Nothing at all. Only a road with perfect asphalt where I’m about to cycle faster than I ever did. But soon I will find out that this is not going to happen without some setbacks.

During qualification I reach a speed of 68.41 kilometers per hour. I’m definately not satisfied with that. The evening before the race some adjustments were made in the steering wheel. Something went wrong and during the race it made me unable to steer against the gusts of wind. At these speeds it feels very nervous, as if the bicycle almost crashes. Fortunately, I get to the finish safely. As one of the 12 fastest riders of the qualification I can race again this evening race, but the weather throws a spanner in the works

As soon as we arrive by the road track, we can see dark clouds in the distance. Where in Battle Mountain the weather conditions are often perfect for cycling – low wind and high temperatures – in the next week a lot of the evening rides will be canceled due to the weather. In the distance dark clouds rise. I hear the thunder and soon it starts to rain. All runs are cancelled. Also mine.

Fortunately, there are also plenty of races that do continue. The next day I cycle at a speed of 106.05 kilometers per hour. Wow! More than 100 kilometers per hour on a bicycle … “This is so cool!” is the first thing I shout out when I get out of the bike. The following days things are getting better. The ranking of WHPSC is based on the percentage of how close you get to the current world record. Since I’m cycling faster than the other women and I’m closer to a world record than the men, I’m first in the ranking soon.

A week full of highs and lows

Prior to the race we discussed a lot of possible scenarios, so that Iris and I would know what could happen during the races. We knew what to do when we would crash the bike, and how we mentally could get over a crash to be fully prepared for a next race. We knew it could get hot in the desert, so in the Netherlands I have done a lot of heat-acclimatization workouts. Everything had been prepared in detail, but still some unexpected things happened.

Like at the beginning of the week I was cycling a perfect race.The start went out perfectly and I could build up the speed and stabilize the cadence from the start. The whole race I got feedback: “accelerate now”, “250 watts”, “think of your cadence”. Suddenly I hear “To the right! To the right! To the right NOW!” “What’s going on?” I think… at once I see a black SUV in front of me. I steer to the right and then I also see Yasmin Tredell’s bike. I can safely overtake them both and I try to put out a sprint. At the finish line it’s chaos. There are two bikes and two cars arriving at the same time. The teams don’t know which bike to catch, since at this speed we look alike. Everyone almost had a heart attack from all the stress today, but at least I was cycling fast. If I can save myself from such a situation, I’m sure I can control the bike well enough.

What I did not realized to happen was the impact of the weather. It turned out to be a tricky factor this week. Often there was too much wind. This maked it harder to stabilize the bike; at such high speed a gust of wind pushes you to the other side of the road and slowes down your speed. There is also often something that’s called a “non legal” wind. In short, this means that you can only have a legal race, if there is little to no wind. The wind speed is measured at each individual race. If there is a “non legal” your race doesn’t count in the results. Even if you have a headwind that actually slows you down.

Already after a couple of days I’m cycling faster than the Dutch national record that has been in the hands of Ellen van Vugt for years. I actually broke the Dutch record four times in a row. But luck was not on my side: all four times I have more than allowed wind speed during my runs. The rides are all declared non legal. If something like this happens once, it’s annoying, but if your record run is declared non legal day by day, it hurts. A lot. I didn’t even knew how to get to the end of the week, with all my races non legal. My coach talked to me a lot, and thanks to him, I again had trust in the next couple of races. Just in time, because the next race were about to start within only a few hours.

Aniek Rooderkerken and Iris Slappendel during the Human Power Team Delft & Amsterdam, photo by Bas de Meijer
Aniek Rooderkerken and Iris Slappendel during the Human Power Team Delft & Amsterdam, photo by Bas de Meijer

Speeding tickets and a record

Even though my runs so far were non legal, they are really fast. A bit too fast, maybe. While group photos are being made at the end of the week, in the distance a siren sounds. A police car speeds up to us and an officer gets out of the car. Calvin Moes, the rider of the Toronto University team, is being arrested. “Where’s Aniek?” I hear next. The agent walks towards me and handcuffs me. Calvin and I now both have to sit down in the police car. At the 305 road where we were racing, the speed limit is 70 miles per hour. We both cycled quite a bit faster. Luckily it turned out to be a joke from the organization, and the police were happy to cooperate.

Fortunately, I’m released again soon. After a lot of trouble with the wind, today I have my very last race. Everything depends on these few minutes in my bike. Because even though I’m the fastest woman so far, all my races have been declared non legal thanks to the wind. In the final standings, in which only races with legal wind count, I’m stillin the very last place of the whole competition.

I decide that right now it’s all or nothing. I cycle as fast as I can and I give everything I’ve got to get to the finish line. I don’t think about steering anymore, I don’t even see the road anymore. All I can think about is getting the speed up, not thinking about the pain in my legs. I cycle so fast that once I stop pedaling after the finish line, I almost black out.I sling across the road and I try to slow down as quickly as possible. Fully demolished, I need my teammates to help me getting out of the bike at the finish line. I’m confident that I cycled as fast as possible, but wether the wind is legal will remain uncertain for at least another couple of hours.

A new record?

At dinner in the evening we finally hear the results. This evening there was only one legal run, and that was mine! After so much trouble with the wind, I finally have a legal run. I cycled 121.52 kilometers per hour. This brings me short 0.3 kilometers per hour to break the world record, but I managed to finally break the Dutch Record and with this final race I won the World Human Powered Speed Challenge 2017!

At the award ceremony the officer from the highway control again calls my name. I get a speeding ticket because I’ve cycled more than 75 miles per hour on a road where only 70 miles per hour is allowed. I dont believe anyone has ever been so relieved with a traffic fine!

The World Human Powered Speed Challenge is an international contest for recumbent bikes in in the US state of Nevada. The aim is to break world speed records. The 18th annual World Human Powered Speed Challenge took place in Battle Mountain, Nevada from September 11th-16th, 2017. Among the women contenders were former pro cyclist Iris Slappendel for the Human Power Team Delft & Amsterdam, Yasmin Tredell for the University of Liverpool, current world recordholder Barbara Buatois and Dutch national record keeper Ellen van Vugt.

A huge thanks to all the team members of the Human Power Team Delft & Amsterdam. You are the best! Also many thanks to the organization of the World Human Powered Speed Challenge, all participants, sponsors, photographer Bas de Meijer and video maker Arnand Sie.

Photos by Bas de Meijer Video by Anand Sie.

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