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Back to the Future


Richard Ballantine on the modern history of the HPV movement

On 7th July 1933, a comparatively unknown French cyclist, Francois Faure, riding a recumbent bicycle designed and built by Charles Mochet, set a new hour record of just over 45 km. Shortly thereafter, a more noted, better and stronger cyclist, Maurice Richard, riding a conventional upright bicycle, set a new record greater than that of any previous rider on an upright – but not as good as Faure’s. Instant controversy. Did the record belong to the best rider, or the best machine? In a landmark edict, the Union Cyclist Internationale (UCI), the governing body of international cycle sport, ruled against recumbent designs, and Faure’s record was disallowed.

As the 20th century progressed and economic and technological development gathered pace, the design of transport machines such as aeroplanes, trains, motor vehicles, and even roller skates became hugely more advanced. We flew to the moon. Yet thanks to the UCI, bicycles remained the same as they were in 1910. A few recumbent designs were produced by small builders, and a handful of determined eccentrics had their own homebuilt creations, but otherwise, no one was interested. Why build a machine for speed, when it could not qualify for a record that could be used to sell it?
Time stood still for bike design until 1967, when David Gordon Wilson launched an international design contest for a ‘better bicycle’ through the British magazine Engineering. The aim was to improve on braking power, weather protection, load-carrying, ergonomic (rider) and aerodynamic (machine) efficiency, reliability and cost. The contest, judged in 1968-69 (our own Sir Alex Moulton was one of the judges), attracted many entries, with quite a number from East Europe, and stimulated fresh thinking about recumbent designs. One particular outgrowth was the inception, in 1970, and then building, from 1972, of a series of recumbent bicycle prototypes which culminated a commercially produced LWB, the Avatar 2000. I purchased an early model, No. 0012, in 1980.


A number of the people involved with early HPVs had experience with model aircraft construction and aerodynamics, and this had an effect on HPV design and construction. Until Bluebell, the standard wisdom for achieving aerodynamic efficiency with an HPV was to present a small frontal area, and hug the ground. In the US, there were a few upright bikes with fairings, but they still had flat bottoms. Bluebell designer and builder Derek Henden opted for a three-dimensional flow shell that like an aircraft, would hopefully move through the air with maximum efficiency, rather than seek to hide from it. The result was a massive fairing, with a large frontal area, and huge wetted (surface) area. The construction was like that of a model aircraft, a latticework wooden frame covered with Mylar. At the 1982 Aspro the new design flew past the competition, and as well, literally into the air. The fairing was indeed a highly efficient airfoil, stalled when upright, but when heeled over for a corner or simply hit with a gust of wind, capable of liftoff. This happened at Brands Hatch immediately after Tim passed the Vector, and the resulting crash smithereened the fairing. The next fairing was also a model aircraft project, and was used for training and record attempts in the UK. From these, we learned, somewhat painfully, that would-be record-breakers had to work hard and do every single thing just right. At this point, it was clear that the design had serious performance potential, and so Derek built a smooth former, or plug, and enlisted the help of Steve Mettam, a dedicated model aircraft enthusiast, in constructing a series of lightweight shells for Bluebell. Derek and Steve came up with a foam sandwich moulding similar to the kind used for little hamburger boxes, reinforced with carbon fibre ribs. Steve built the shell in an epic, non-stop marathon lasting several days, and this is the one that was used when Tim and Bluebell set a new world record at the IHPVA Championships in California in 1982.

The Way It Was

Poppy Flyer, a British HPV and UK speed record holder, competed at the initial Aspro Clear Speed Challenges, and I think also in the US. Needle-slim, sleek, and technologically refined, Poppy Flyer was designed according to the latest thinking in aerodynamics – low to the ground, with minimal frontal area – and looked to be a top performer at the 1982 Aspro. In the sprints, the world record holder US Vector not unexpectedly took the lead, but in a surprise development, Poppy Flyer found itself dicing for place with an improbable newcomer: a large, high machine named Bluebell, fielded by the Nosey Ferret Racing Team. The following day at the famed Brands Hatch racing circuit, Nosey Ferret were preparing Bluebell for the road race when it was discovered that a vital structural component – I can’t remember what – was broken. A fix required a welding outfit, which we didn’t have. Poppy Flyer, professional and well-prepared, did, and despite the fact that the team had plenty of things of their own to do, a fellow with only a hint of a wry expression on his face – I think his name was Mike – took time out to set up his equipment and weld the broken part, which put Bluebell back in the running. In the race, Bluebell and rider Tim Gartside showed their mettle, after a late start storming up from behind to steam past the mighty Vector on the grandstand straight. Although Bluebell left the track on the very next bend and smashed to smithereens, the momentary incredible performance inspired Nosey Ferret and Bluebell to go on to the 1982 IHPVA Championships in the US and victory in the sprints with a new world record bicycle speed. But for Poppy Flyer’s selfless act of kindness, Bluebell’s glory might never have been.

Isle of Wight

For the Isle of Wight Cycling Festival, 1983, I organised an HPV competition which included a new event: a fast downhill race, on a curving road dotted with traffic bollards and all sorts of other obstacles. A tricky bend at the bottom, too. Other organisers were horrified, and objected, convinced that there would be dreadful accidents and carnage, and resulting disrepute for HPVs. I was determined, however, to see HPVs on the street as well as on race tracks. It was time to get serious about practical performance. As the event worked out, some machines did crash, rather spectacularly, but injuries were slight. On the plus side, other entries handled the hairy course with ease, particularly a new recumbent tricycle called the Speedy, designed by Mike Burrows of Norwich. There were perhaps half a dozen of these constantly moving, low-slung, agile machines, which made short work not only of the nefarious downhill, but also the short-distance circuit races.
The Isle of Wight Cycling Festival saw the founding of the first HPV club in Europe, the British Human Power Club, with Mike Burrows as chairman. We’ve never looked back since. Too busy going forward! The BHPC exists to foster all aspects of human powered vehicles, and while members have produced several world-record machines, the club has never fallen into the trap taking itself too seriously. The idea is to have fun, and provide a means for sharing ideas and experiences. There are around ten regular national meetings around the country, where people gather to race, or just socialise and try out machines. There’s a quarterly newsletter filled with technical articles, news and useful tips, edited by the inimitable Dave Larrington. If you are interested in HPVs in any way, shape, or form, then the BHPC is well worth a spin.
Lay down and be counted!