World Human Powered Speed Challenge

The adventure of the “impossible”

It was fall 2016, and I received an email from the Human Power Team (HPT) with the question of if I was interested in setting a world land speed record. “That’s funny”, was the first thing that came to my mind. A few weeks later I met with part of the team at a bike show. I had a nice chat with some very enthusiastic students and checked out their ‘bike’ (it’s hard to call the VeloX a bike, it looks more like an aero helmet with wheels). After the chat I was thinking “This is not just funny anymore… this is a cool project”. At home I started to check out the previous attempts and the videos on their Facebook page. At this point there was only one thought left “over 122 km/h on a bike? That’s impossible!!”. It was exactly the right mind set to reach out to the HPT and let them know I would be joining the selection procedure.

Having been a professional cyclist for more than 10 years I knew all the ins-and-outs of women’s cycling. After I decided to retire as a pro cyclist I was ready for new challenges. As soon as something seems impossible, you’ve got me! The speed challenge was something I was unfamiliar with. I have never ridden a recumbent bicycle before, let alone a highly aerodynamic recumbent bicycle at impossibly fast speeds.

So, that’s how this whole adventure started. While the engineers from the TU Delft were busy designing and engineering the new bike ‘Velox7’, the human movement scientists from the VU Amsterdam made us do a lot of tests and we started with our training program. I’m speaking about us, because I was not the only one going for this record. The HPT had also selected Aniek Rooderkerken. A very strong rider as well, and – also very important – we have similar body measurements so we both fit in the same bike. 

The first thing I had to learn was how to ride a recumbent bike. Next step was to learn riding the previous ‘Velox’ and finally, when the Velox7 was finished, I needed to get used to this new vehicle. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. You have to push power in a very uncomfortable and (for me) unusual position. The only way to see your surroundings is through a little LCD screen inside the vehicle that’s connected to a camera on top of it. You are wearing an air filter mask and the space inside the vehicle is incredibly small. At the beginning, I found it very difficult to keep my balance. We spent many training sessions just on riding the Velox and I hit the deck more times than I can remember! Finally, I got control over the bike and we could focus on the next step; getting it up to speed. Another barrier had to be broken, a mental barrier this time, but once I did, the excitement of pushing hard and driving the bike over 80 km/h, was massive. With the human movement scientists’ students, we trained on different protocols to reach the highest possible speed. We trained our acceleration, sprint, and power, in the Velox7, as well as on the recumbent training bike. The Velox7 was improving every week, and so were we. It was all about the details in the last month coming up to the big event in Battle Mountain. 

Finally, September the first arrived. We were ready to go to the United States! The first week we spent in North California, at Lake Almanor, getting used to the altitude, time zone, and to get some more training in. Then we continued our travel to Battle Mountain, Nevada. The whole set up of the event was actually a bit too complicated to explain here. In short, the first thing that needed to happen was to qualify for a real speed record attempt by racing over 70 km/h on a 2,5 mile stretch on the first morning of the event. Then, there are morning and evening timeslots every day to race on the 5 mile closed course. Aniek and I just made the qualification. Since we both ride the same vehicle, there always needed to be at least one timeslot in between our runs, so the vehicle could be transported back to the start. Aniek was faster in the qualification, and so she had the first pick. During the week, I had a lot of highs and lows. There was the excitement of suddenly riding so much faster than at home (thanks to the altitude > lower air resistance), and for the first time I really believed it was possible to break the record. The atmosphere at the event was very friendly and I really enjoyed it. At the same time, I found it very hard to push all my power into the bike. The sensations of racing at a speed over 100 km/h was so different that I couldn’t give it my all. It felt like there was some automatic break in my body… Then there were some technical errors in the bike; my communication system didn’t work and as well as the feedback of power and speed on my screen. Because of that I didn’t know what I was doing! Lastly, the weather definitely didn’t play in our advantage. Three times the evening run got cancelled because of a storm, and multiple runs weren’t legal because the wind was over 6 km/. Thanks to the coaches and engineers, everything came together on the last night. Although I again did not have a legal run because of the wind, for the first time everything worked and, also for the first time, I could really push, break that mental barrier and got out of the bike with sore legs! I made 115 km/h. Which wasn’t very close to the World Record of 121,8 km/h. 

Aniek was doing great all week and didn’t seem like she had any mental barrier at all. She gave her absolute best in that very last run. Finally, luck was on her side and she had the only legal run of the evening. But… she came in 0,3 km/h short to break the WR! So, I guess there was a bittersweet feeling for both of us. With some luck and 1 or 2 days more, I’m pretty sure we could have set a new WR… 

Now I am back home, there is still a bit of disappointment from not breaking the record. As a sportswoman, you want to achieve the goals you’ve been working towards for all those months. You want a result and you want to win. But honestly, is that record so important? Did I fail? 

Actually, I didn’t. And neither did Aniek or anyone on our team. I joined this project because I was inspired by the enthusiasm of the students. I was fascinated by the scientific approach of the whole project and was challenged by the fact that I had to learn something new. Looking back on all these months, it’s been a great adventure with a really fun and dedicated group of young people. Twenty-four students who spend one year on making the fastest bike and physically preparing two athletes as much as possible. Being ‘just’ the athlete and standing a bit on the side-line, it is great to see how they’ve all grown into this project but also as people during the year. So, no, there aren’t any regrets and shouldn’t be any disappointment. It was a really special adventure, a once-in a lifetime experience and I am very happy to been a part of it.

Check out the pictures from Bas de Meijer.