HPV’s Across America: RAAM Tests More Than Technology

By Chris Kostman
California Bicyclist, October 1989

New to this year’s eighth annual Race Across America was a technologically no-holds-barred four-man relay division. Designed to test the limits of machines, not cyclists, this race was organized in hopes of encouraging new designs and ideas in transportation technology. The basic premise was simple: enter basically any solely human-powered vehicle with four riders taking turns at the helm and no additions or alterations to the bike allowed en route. As with the standard RAAM, which had started six days prior, the first bike to cover the 2,908 miles from Costa Mesa, CA, to New York City would take home the trophy.

Four teams took up the challenge and were on the August 19 starting line, two ultra-hi-tech recumbent HPVs and two streamlined standard bicycles. HPV 1, the Diet Coke Lightning built by Tim Brummer of Lompoc, CA, was a two-wheeled recumbent with front and rear nose cones and an outer, adjustable lycra skin. It was pedaled by ultra-marathon cyclists Pete Penseyres (3 category trans-U.S. record holder), Jim Penseyres (two-time RAAMer), Bobby Fourney (4th in RAAM ‘87), and Michael Coles (Savannah, Georgia to San Diego record holder). HPV 2, the Dupont Easy Racer built by Gardner Martin of Watsonville, CA, was a two-wheeled recumbent completely encased in an ultra-aero kevlar shell. A nearly identical Easy Racer of Martin’s design, the Gold Rush, holds the human-powered land speed record of 65.4 mph with Fast Freddy Markham at the helm. Easy Racer’s riders were Markham, also a former Olympian and National Team member, four-time RAAMer Michael Shermer, Canadian national pursuit champion Dan Tout, and former Gossamer Albatross cycle-pilot and National Team member Greg Miller. HPV 3 was a standard Klein bicycle equipped with a Breeze Cheater fairing with integral lycra body suit ridden by Team Chronos members Randall Olsen, Brian Spence, Paul Anderson, and Thane Hall. HPV 4 was a standard Orbit bicycle also equipped with a Breeze Cheater fairing and its riders were Team Strawberry members Greg Ewing, Mike Haluza, and Alan MacDonald. Teams Chronos and Strawberry hoped to be in the position to take the lead should the more radical HPV’s prove incapable of dealing with 3,000 miles of non-laboratory conditions.

The race departed from the Two Wheel Transit Authority sale at the Orange County Fairgrounds, and soon Easy Racer and Lightning moved to the front, cruising at about 50 mph on flat roads. Heading past Palm Springs across the Mojave Desert the two HPV’s nonchalantly cruised at 60 mph as a brutal tailwind pushed them east. At the 100 mile mark, the course made an abrupt 90 degree left turn up a grade and the tailwind became a battering side wind. Lightning’s more versatile lycra skin was pulled back to reduce the buffeting effects while the less versatile Easy Racer was blown into a ditch with Shermer in the cockpit. After struggling up to the high desert and away from the windy conditions, Easy Racer took the lead as night fell on Day One.

Easy Racer set an amazing pace, changing riders every 20 to 60 minutes, and established a 30 minute lead by the Arizona border. This was stretched to two hours by Gallup, New Mexico and 2:42 by mile 1238 in Ashland, Kansas. Although falling behind further by the hour, Lightning was enjoying a good crossing, but its inherently slower design and more casual two-hour rider rotations simply couldn’t match Easy Racer’s pace. Meanwhile, Chronos was settling into third and Strawberry into fourth.

Easy Racer covered 549 miles the first day, an astounding 685 miles on the second, and reached the halfway point of the race, mile 1455 in Howard, Kansas, with an elapsed time of two days, seven hours, and fifty minutes. With an average speed of 26 mph and a three hour and twenty-five-minute lead, Easy Racer seemed well on its way to Shermer’s prediction of crushing victory: We have the best bike and the best riders. There’s no doubt we’ll win. After 72 elapsed hours, Easy Racer had covered 1847 miles and Lightning rider Pete Penseyres commented, They just gotta slow down, cause if they don’t, we can’t win.

Team Lightning soon decided to take matters into their own hands and picked up their pace by rotating riders every one hour. Unlike Easy Racer’s schedule which allowed only one to two hours of rest between stints in the cockpit, Lightning’s riders paired up and rode double shifts: one hour on, one hour off, one hour on, four hours off. This new schedule, combined with numerous new problems for Easy Racer, caused the face of the race to change as the teams neared the Mississippi. Easy Racer’s problems included rider Greg Miller getting sick and having to sit out of the rotation for 1,000 miles, a 15-minute delay for a stalled train across the route, getting lost in a road construction detour, and being sidelined by a local cop in Illinois for 22 minutes. So much for the lead which had stretched to 3:57 by Fort Scott, Missouri (mile 1,567); Easy Racer’s lead had fallen to 2:19 by Teutopolis, Indiana (mile 1,976).

Easy Racer’s pace was becoming its own downfall as the tired racers struggled to guide their machine eastward in hilly West Virginia, covering 559 miles on the fourth day, and dropping their lead to 1:48 with 480 miles remaining. More importantly, the pace had taken its toll on the Easy Racer support team which was understaffed and had no experience whatsoever in an event of this magnitude. While Team Easy Racer had had no showers, no cooked food, essentially no sleep, nor a change of clothes, Team Lightning headed east in relative comfort due to their vast cumulative RAAM experience, larger numbers, and organized leadership of Pete’s wife, Joanne Penseyres.

This difference was to prove dramatically important as Team Easy Racer’s exhaustion caused one wrong turn after another, even on roads without a planned turn for over 100 miles. Meanwhile, the now faster Team Lightning was burning up the roads and not getting lost. In Grantsville, Maryland, with 352 miles remaining, Lightning had closed to a mere 1:15. In the next 160 miles, while Easy Racer’s delirious crew took one wrong turn after another, especially in Gettysburg and York, Pennsylvania, the calm and steady Lightning narrowed the gap to just 26 minutes. Team Easy Racer was emotionally disintegrated, enormously fatigued, and essentially afunctional, according to Shermer, and so it was that in Reading, Pennsylvania, with now less than 150 miles to go, Lightning rode right on past the Easy Racer. Easy Racer’s last straw occurred shortly thereafter when its support crew incorrectly directed Greg Miller onto an onramp which dumped him onto the fast lane of a local freeway and near annihilation by an 18 wheeler. Visibly shaken, Miller, halted the bike on the freeway shoulder and declared he wouldn’t ride again. Shermer, Tout, and Markham agreed and so during a strained and emotional meeting of team and riders, the decision was made to withdraw from the race. Easy Racer builder and crew chief Gardner Martin commented shortly after their official withdrawal that we beat Lightning to every state line in this race, but obviously that wasn’t good enough. We can no longer safely compete in this race.

After Lightning crossed the finish line with an official time of 5 days, 1 hour, and 8 minutes, Shermer commented They (Lightning) legitimately passed us and beat us. RAAM is a whole package deal of physical, technical, and organizational skills, and they had all three and we had only two. Joanne Penseyres echoed the same sentiment: Speed isn’t everything in an event this long. There’s a lot to be said for strategy and crew experience.

Although they never got the chance to take the lead from the HPV’s, at least not both HPV’s, Teams Chronos and Strawberry crossed the finish line with very impressive times of 6:07:40 and 6:14:03 respectively. For sake of comparison, with their lower tech (than the HPV’s) equipment and more traditional cyclists, they still had managed to beat Paul Solon’s new transcontinental record of 8:08:45 by about two days. And so, in an amazing and historic event, the age-old tortoise-and-hare race once again transpired with Team Lightning playing the tortoise to cruise into victory in the 1989 HPV Race Across America.

1989 RAAM articles: