Human-powered vehicles and the Race Across America

There’s more to it than speed

By Chris Kostman
Originally published in VeloNews, September 8, 1989

There’s more to bike racing than speed, and this year’s first ever human-powered vehicle [HPV] four-man relay division of the annual transcontinental Race Across America proved this quite dramatically. The event was originally the brainchild of Bicycling Magazine, but when a plethora of corporate-sponsored teams didn’t appear out of the woodworks to enter, Bicycling withdrew and the folks at the Race Across America and its parent the Ultra-Marathon Cycling Association decided to stage the event regardless of field size or depth. Much like the recent trans-Australia solar-powered car race, this event was designed to encourage and foster exciting new innovations in transportation technology. The focus was definitely on the bike and not on the athlete propelling it.

Numerous teams expressed an interest in competing, but when push came to shove just four teams showed up on the August 19 starting line of this historic event. The four teams could immediately be divided into two camps, the hi-tech, heavy-sponsored recumbent HPVs and the lo-tech, limited-sponsorship streamlined standard bicycles. The first camp included HPV #1, the Diet Coke Lightning built by Tim Brummer of Lompoc, CA, and consisting of a recumbent cycle with nose cones on either end and adjustable lycra body surrounding the entire set-up with the rider’s head projecting out from the top and sitting behind a clear windscreen. Lightning’s riders were ultra-marathon cyclists Pete (3 category transcontinental record holder) and Jim Penseyres, Bobby Fourney, and Michael Coles. HPV #2 was the Dupont / The Sharper Image/ Easy Racers/ Gold Rush America built by Gardner Martin of Watsonville, CA and consisting of a recumbent cycle completely enclosed by a ultra-streamlined Kevlar body. Its riders were ultra-marathon cyclist Michael Shermer, Canadian National Team pursuitist Dan Tout, former US National Team member and Gossamer Albatross cycle-pilot Greg Miller, and land speed record holder (65.4 mph on a lightweight version of the Gold Rush), former Olympian and US National Team Member “Fast Freddy” Markham.

The second camp of teams hoped that the recumbent HPVs would prove incapable of navigating and surviving 3,000 miles of real world roads and conditions and hoped to be in position to take the lead when the HPVs “crashed and burned.” HPV #3, Team Chronos, used a traditional Klein road bike equipped with a BreezeCheater fairing with integral lycra body suit and was comprised of HPV tinkerers, professionals, and more traditional cyclists Randall Olsen, Brian Spence, Paul Anderson, and Thane Hall, all of California. HPV #4, Team Strawberry, used a traditional Orbit road bike also equipped with a BreezeCheater fairing and its riders included Greg Ewing, Alan MacDonald, and Mike Haluza. These four teams' route would take them from the Two Wheel Transit Authority summer sale at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, CA to Battery Park in Manhattan over a route 2,908 miles in length crossing 15 different states. This was the identical route over which the 8th annual standard division of the Race Across America was concurrently progressing, having begun six days prior.

The race began at 3 pm Eastern time and immediately headed out across the hot and windy Mojave desert. Riding the interstates and with hellatious tailwinds, Easy Racer and Lightning were cruising at speeds of up to and over 60 miles per hour. One hundred miles into the race, the route took an abrupt 90 degree left turn and the bikes were now pummeled with the same hellatious wind to their side. The more adaptable Lightning simply peeled back its lycra body to make less of a wind block, while the Easy Racer was buffeted back and forth furiously until finally thrown into a ditch with Shermer at the helm. Race rules required that the identical fairing and structure of the HPV be used for the entire race, thus Lightning was able to utilize its adjustable lycra body as conditions dictated, while Easy Racer was stuck with its faster but more ungainly and unmodifiable Kevlar body.

After climbing up to the high desert and leaving the windy conditions behind, Easy Racer took the lead from Lightning and the “race” was apparently over for the next 2,500 miles. With riders switching every 20 to 60 minutes, and utilizing the fastest human-powered vehicle ever built, Easy Racer stretched its lead to over a half hour by the Arizona border, two hours by Gallup, New Mexico, and two hours and 42 minutes by mile 1,238 in Ashland, Kansas. Without so much as a flat tyre, Easy Racer covered 549 miles its first day, 685 miles their second, and reached the halfway point of 1,455 miles with an elapsed time of 2 days, 7 hours, and 50 minutes. Lightning rolled through the same point three hours and twenty-five minutes later. Shermer’s pre-race prediction that “We have the fastest bike and the fastest riders. There’s no doubt we’ll win” seemed to be coming true.

After three days, Easy Racer had covered 1,847 miles and was maintaining close to a three hour lead. Lightning was also enjoying an excellent crossing, although battling a continuing problem with front tyre blow outs, but simply couldn’t ride fast enough to catch the Easy Racer. After three days, Lightning rider Pete Penseyres commented “They just gotta slow down, because if they don’t, we can’t win!” Hereafter the Lightning team would rotate their riders every hour, rather than every two hours, allowing a slightly higher average speed. This was the first nail in the coffin of the Easy Racer. Three more nails were pounded in within the next 24 hours as a train stopped across Easy Racer’s path in Missouri, halting their progress for some 15 minutes. Shortly thereafter, nearing the Mississippi River, the Easy Racer team got lost during a road construction detour, and then that night near Casey, Illinois they were halted for 22 minutes by an irate local cop. Pete Penseyres' famous statement “The race doesn’t begin until the Mississippi” was becoming the quote to live by.

With the Lightning’s new rotation schedule allowing a faster average speed and Easy Racer encountering numerous time consuming problems, Lightning moved to a much closer 2 hour and 15 minute deficit behind Easy Racer. Entering hilly West Virginia, the Easy Racer covered 559 miles on its fourth day, but as the terrain became hillier their lead fell to 1:48 with 480 miles remaining. After four days of racing, the riders and crew of all the teams were becoming completely exhausted and the Easy Racer team especially began making mistakes. Unlike the Lightning team with their cumulative experience of some 30 transcontinentals, the Easy Racer team had never before competed in an event of this magnitude, and the difference was beginning to become readily apparent. Even on roads without a turn for 100 miles, the Easy Racer team began to take wrong turns. Also, the hills of West Virginia slowed their progress as the burnt out riders struggled to guide their 50 pound machine eastward. The 20 to 60 minute rotation struggle was proving to have been too fast and didn’t allow enough rest. Additionally, Greg Miller had gotten sick and for a third of the race had had to sit out of the rotation schedule completely. As the Easy Racer struggled through the hills, frantically rotated riders, and took one wrong turn after another, the calm and steady Lightning team narrowed the gap. By Grantsville, Maryland, with 352 miles remaining, the gap was narrowed to 1:15.

Navigating through Gettysburg and then York, Pennsylvania the Easy Racer team took several wrong turns and with 192 miles remaining, their lead had fallen to a mere 26 minutes. After 2,700 miles with basically no sleep, not one cooked meal, not a shower, and hardly a change of clothes, the Easy Racer support team was “emotionally disintegrated, enormously fatigued, and essentially afunctional” said Shermer. Flailing like a group of drowning rats in a whirlpool, Team Easy Racer had reached their limit and so it was that entering Reading, PA, the calm, cool, and collected Team Lightning pedaled right on past the Easy Racer just 150 miles from the finish. Immediately thereafter, Easy Racer took another wrong turn, this one straight onto an onramp which entered the fast lane of a local freeway. With Greg Miller at the helm and unable to look behind because the rear view mirrors had been shattered during a fall at a traffic light, the Easy Racer was narrowly missed by a speeding 18 wheeler. White with fright, Miller halted the bike on the shoulder and declared he would not ride it again. Shermer, Tout, and Fast Freddy agreed and so the team exited the freeway and during an emotional crew pow-pow in a parking lot decided they simply could not progress eastward in a safe or reasonable manner. They checked in at the next time station with 135 miles remaining and officially withdrew from the race.

After Team Lightning crossed the finish line with a 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.” Lightning crew chief and wife of Pete, Joanne Penseyres commented that Team Lightning was “very disappointed with Easy Racer’s withdrawal and we feel a lot of empathy for them. We wish they would have finished for their own sake. We have an awful lot of respect for them.”

Team Chronos placed second with a time of 6 days, 7 hours, and 40 minutes and Team Strawberry placed third with a time of 6 days, 14 hours, and 3 minutes. Staff and directors of the HPV RAAM commented that they would probably not stage this event again because of the extremely high level of danger involved.

And so in a classic tortoise and hare race, it was once again dramatically demonstrated that fast riders and fast bikes are not the only prerequisites to victory in any race, and certainly not in the HPV Race Across America.


1989 RAAM articles: