The World’s Fastest Bicycles (Recumbents)

 

Titanium Gold Rush Expediton
The Titanium Gold Rush Expedition, by Easy Racers.

 

How fast can a bicyclist go, strictly on his own pedaling power, on a straight, level road with no wind? Would you believe over 80 mph?

In fact, the current world human-powered speed record is 83.13 MPH, set in September, 2013 by Sebastiaan Bowier of the Netherlands. Like all the fastest speed bikes, this one was enclosed in an aerodynamic shell. The Titanium Gold Rush shown above won’t go that fast, but it’s a very fast bike—the titanium version of the first bicycle to exceed 65 mph (with an aerodynamic shell). The original Gold Rush resides in the Smithsonian Institution. This post is about the Gold Rush, its designer, Gardner Martin, the world of human powered racing and the recumbent riding experience—probably the most fun you could have on a bicycle.

When I was living in Japan in the early 1990s, I rode bikes a lot—a “granny” bike when I first got there and later a mountain bike. I was also doing a lot of judo, aikido and karate, zipping around on my mountain bike with a computer in my backpack. My back was killing me.

One night, riding through the old shogun’s castle in the dark, I sat up straight and rode the mountain bike with no hands. It felt so good for my back, I thought, “I wish there was a bike you could ride sitting up straight!” And then it hit me. There was a style of bike with a seat like a lawn chair. It was called a “recumbent.” I thought, “Man, I need to get a one of those.”

The first thing I learned about recumbents was that there were almost none in Japan. I looked for weeks for any information and there was just nothing.

The second thing I learned was that a good friend of mine in the same town owned a recumbent. He’d been riding it around town for months but I’d never seen it!

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My friend, David, in Japan, around 1992, with his short wheelbase recumbent bike.

He let me ride it and it was surprising, but not really what I was looking for. It didn’t help my back to have my legs out in front like that and I didn’t really like having my hands down by my sides, but I did like the recumbent seating. David introduced me to Recumbent Cyclist News, a pulp magazine published in Renton, Washington, with all the news on every kind of recumbent known to humanity. I subscribed and bought back issues and learned that recumbents had been around since the beginning of bicycle design. There are only so many ways to put two wheels, pedals and a seat together to make them go. The traditional “diamond frame” is only one. A number of generally similar recumbent designs were created over several decades but they tended to be heavy and none caught on until Charles Mochet, in France, made a recumbent bicycle from a four-wheel pedal car design and got an undistinguished rider named Francis Faure to ride it. In 1933 and ’34, Faure broke the hour, one mile and one kilometer speed records on Mochet’s Velocar bike.

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Francis Faure breaking records on the long wheelbase Velocar.

Clearly, the recumbent design is more aerodynamic than an ordinary bicycle, even without a streamlined shell. Traditional bike manufacturers were embarrassed that such an efficient machine could put a second-rated cyclist ahead of the champions on their machines. The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) responded harshly, redefining the concept of “bicycle” so that no recumbent arrangement of wheels, pedals and seat could fit the required dimensions, leaving us with the famous “diamond frame” design shared by the 10-speed, the mountain bike and all standard racing bikes in the modern world.

The recumbent design is also far safer than the diamond frame, which recumbent riders call “launch vehicles.” You can’t go over the handlebars of a recumbent; if you fall, you’re more likely to fall sideways, but on most recumbents, the rider can put both feet flat on the ground at any moment. The seat is comfortable, with no strain on the shoulders, neck or arms, and being able to put both feet down is such a secure feeling! Ah…but the money interests held humanity back nearly 100 years—41 years, to be precise, until 1975, when Gardner Martin, in the United States, wanted to make the fastest bicycle he could. He’d never heard of Faure or Mochet, yet he created something not unlike the Velocar…after he made a bike to be ridden on one’s stomach. What he finally came up with was the Gold Rush, which was literally a chopper, welded together from pieces of other cut-up bikes, into one relaxed lean-back bike with the feet forward and down behind the front wheel. When they made a Gold Rush from aluminum, put it in an aerodynamic shell and got Olympic rider, “Fast” Freddy Markham inside, they won the DuPont prize by breaking 65mph under sheer human power.

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Leaning back in the wind…without Jack Nicholson…

Easy Racers actually used to sell the plans for cutting two “ten-speed” bikes in half, flipping one around and upside down, then welding the pieces into something that looks like a rib of an airplane wing. Add forks, handlebars, a large rear wheel, smaller front wheel, and a seat with a back like a lawn chair—that’s basically the Gold Rush, but they called it the Tour Easy. They sold lots of those plans and they manufactured lots of Tour Easy bikes, each hand made from original metal, of course. Quality was Gardner Martin’s hallmark.

From those roots, Gardner Martin became both the father of modern human-powered speed vehicle design and the laid back daddy of relaxed, comfortable, heads-up, look-around-at-the-scenery bicycle riding for ordinary people.

This promo video from 1992 features the late, great Gardner Martin.

Here, you can get a better look at Easy Racers’ heritage of racing.

And here’s a look at the general field Easy Racers was facing in early days.

Since then, both the field of human powered speed competition and the bicycle designs of Easy Racers have evolved, sending ripples through the mainstream cycling world, changing designs and the total riding experience. It’s now not uncommon to see recumbents out and about. And now the Gold Rush is available in aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber. The whole subject is a tribute to human creativity and the fun of applying an inquisitive mind to the question of human limitation.

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Riding my “experimental” first recumbent in Japan.

As for me, I did go ahead and buy an “experimental” frame and had it shipped to Japan. The seller was kind enough to replace the first one when a weld broke and I could find no one to repair it. I think it cost about $450.00. I rode it around town and with David when he took his bike up in the mountains.

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Climbing the levy of the Abe River.

After several months, I spent something like $1100.00 to have a Rans Nimbus delivered to me. That was a fine bike. It was the best I ever had. You can see just from looking, how much fun these bikes were. And they’re still making them, newer, better, sweeter. I haven’t ridden in years, now. I sold my last recumbent to a guy who works for NASA in Huntsville. Recumbents really are the only way to go.

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Of course, that was a beautiful road…

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