Too Fast?

Bicycle Guide
December 1989

This year’s RAAM had a new wrinkle — a Human Powered Vehicle (HPV) division. The reason for introducing HPVs, explained race director John Marino, Is to demonstrate the utilitarian nature of these machines. Yet after the event’s completion, Marino was not sure how the erstwhile experimental vehicles figured into RAAM’s future. During the race, the vehicles reached speeds of 70 miles an hour, which Marino — and even some HPV crewmembers — deemed just too dangerous.

Dangerous or not, the four squads of four relay riders were prepared to take the HPVs as far and as fast as they could go. Two fully enclosed recumbents weighing about 30 pounds apiece, Easy Racer and Lightning, contested the race. The Easy Race was designed and captained by Gardner Martin, whose team included HPV speed record-holder Fred Markham, former RAAM competitor Michael Shermer, former U.S. National Team member Greg Miller, and Dan Tout, member of the Canadian National Pursuit Team. The Lightning team included three RAAM veterans — Pete and Jim Penseyres and Bobby Fourney — and Michael Coles, who holds a speed record from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego.

Two other four-man teams, Cronos and Strawberry, acted as controls in this rolling experiment, each squad riding standard bicycles equipped with handlebar fairings, and each waiting to pounce on any mechanical or hill-climbing problems eccountered by the full-bore HPVs.

On August 19th, the HPVs blasted off from the starting line, traversing the exact route of the other RAAM riders. The Easy Racer team dominated almost from the start, but visibility from inside the vehicle was poor, contributing to navigational problems. Furthermore, speeds were frightfully high throughout the race, and the vehicle was literally blown off the road on the first day. Still, it seemed to most observers that Easy Race would hang on to win — until the Pete Penseyres-led Lightning squad organized a strong run at the leaders in Pennsylvania.

At that point, suddenly, the Easy Racer team withdrew from the race, with less than 138 miles to go.

Officially, the group cited safety reasons in its decision to quit. But as crewmember Shermer later explained, Martin literally cracked from the pressure caused by the speeds we were traveling. His difficulties were compounded by our navigational problems, and the brilliant last-day charge orchestrated by Penseyres and Lightning. In a scene reminscent of Mutiny on the Bounty, the crew, sensing their captain was becoming irrational, seized control of the machine and refused to continue racing.

Just as this tragic drama unfolded, the Lightning squad took the lead and never looked back, crossing the finish line in an electrifying time of five days, one hour, and four minutes. — MEM

Lightning HPVs too fast?

1989 RAAM articles: