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The Quest to be the Fastest Cyclist in the World

The picture above is from 1937. It shows Frenchman Albert Marquet setting a motor paced speed record of 85.3 mph. (139.9 kph.) Drafting behind a Cord car that has been rigged with box like structure behind the rear bumper.

A crude fairing made of fabric appears to be tucked into the rear doors; also note the extended exhaust pipe. The event took place in Los Angeles, California; I guess traffic was a lot lighter in 1937.

The quest to be the fastest cyclist in the world began in 1899 when Charles M. Murphy rode his bike behind a train on the Long Island Railroad, at Farmingdale. He covered a measured mile in 57.8 seconds (60 mph.) and from that day became famous Nationwide, known as “Mile a Minute Murphy.”

To achieve this feat, approximately three miles of wooden boards were laid between the railroad tracks to give Murphy a smooth surface to ride on. He was hauled aboard the pace coach by helpers, just before the track ran out, his feet still strapped to the pedals of his bike.

The next picture (Above.) shows Alf Letourner behind his pace car. On May 18th, 1941. Once more in California, near Bakersfield. Letourner set a new bicycle speed record of 108.92 mph. Note the size of his chainring, so large it almost touches the ground.

Forward to July 20th, 1985 when John Howard set a new motor paced bicycle record of 152.2 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah. This is the same John Howard who was on the US Olympic team, won the Ironman Triathlon in 1980, and marketed a line of bicycle frames I built under his name in 1983.

Unlike the previous riders mentioned here who, with the exception of the massive required gearing, rode pretty standard track bikes.  John however, rode a purpose built machine, built by Texas framebuilder, Skip Hujsak.

As I remember, John had this bike made for a previous attempt on this record, before 1983 when I first met him. He brought this bike to my shop sometime that year. It had a very long wheelbase for stability, the most noticeable feature was the two stage gearing.

The chainwheel mounted on the left side drove a sprocket on a counter-shaft behind the saddle and above the rear wheel. A chainring on the opposite side drove the rear wheel sprocket. The wheels were, I think, were some high performance BMX wheels, probably the strongest available at the time.

John also wore some serious safety gear, a full length, one piece, leather suit and a motorcycle helmet with a face shield. Unlike the previous record breakers shown here. Apart from a helmet, no other safety gear was used; they wore regular cycling clothes. They would have picked up some very nasty road-rash had they fallen at those speeds.

There were many more sucessful record breakers over the years, I have only touched briefly on four of them.

The first two historical photos are from the wonderful collection by Aldo Ross, you can view larger versions of the pictures here and here.

There is also a short video of John Howard's record breaking ride on YouTube.

Addendum Aug 11th, 2008

A commenter pointed out the current record holder Fred Rompelburg, who in 1995 reached a speed of 166.944 mph. (268 kph.) on the Bonneville Salt Flats. I was out of the bike business by 1995 and completely out of touch, which is why I didn't know this. The bike was built by the late Dave Tesch.


Reader Comments (14)

Dave, great post as always.

As far as the "BMX wheels" go: John Howard would have certainly chosen small wheels for the reduced rolling resistance they provide.

Two other cycles that have set records for speed are the Varna Diablo (a recumbent design) and the Alex Moulton AM-7, both are small wheeled bicycles.

They each hold records for unpaced riding, the Moulton for a cycle with a normal (upright) rider position, the Diablo for any category of bicycle. Being unpaced, both were naturally fully faired for all their record attempts.

August 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Fantastic post. It truly boggles my mind thinking about a bicycle going that fast! Thanks.

August 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMarla

Hi Dave,
I remember seeing that bike at Interbike, or whatever it was called (the show) in about 84 and as I recall, it had motorcycle rims and tires (light ones for sure) that had been spin balanced for 150+mph for safety as much as for any other reason. But that's been a while so I could be remembering incorrectly. Not that it matters what or why, just thought I'd share. Thanks for the great blog.

August 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDave H.

I see Hooker Headers was one sponsor in Howard's effort, the sticker being on the cowling of the pace car.
Dave Tesch worked for them after closing shop, didn’t he?

August 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

...dave h...i think you are quite right in regard to the wheels having used lightweight motorcycle rims & tires...i seem to recall that from the dark recesses of my mind but i'm only relying on my memory, also...

...152.2mph behind don vesco's streamliner...is that crazy or what ???...props to the much active john howard...i saw him at 'interbike' a coupla years ago...still dreamin' & still doin'...

...& "dave" dave...great look back & wonderful link to aldo ross's fotos...definitely bookmarked those for later perusal...

August 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterbikesgonewild

Have mercy, those chainrings are massive!! You'd need mutant quads to turn those bad boys!

Very interesting Dave!

August 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRichmond Roadie

ahhhh...the need for speed. Having reached 52mph a few times, I can only say WOW. That is some serious wheel turning.

August 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermaltese falcon

I notice the bump bar at the front, different than a roller bar used in motorcycle pacing. Also John had to be towed to a certain speed just to get going and be within the markers for the record.

August 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Interesting topic Dave! I am always amazed at what lengths people will go to when they get it in their head to accomplish some new feat. I personally feel that even though their accomplishments (and speeds they are able to attain) are impressive, but to call them 'speed records' doesn't seem right. Sitting inches behind a giant moving wall at whatever speed you are crazy enough to go for doesn't make it a 'human powered' speed record in my book. The vaccuum effect actually pulls the rider along, the faster you go the more of a vortex you are in. Wind is a physical fact of this world we live in, and any 'record' of human powered speed should include overcoming that. Anybody ever hits 100mph on a flat road on a windless day COMPLETLY on their own, now THAT would be a record!

The real records (in my opinion) are the speeds the pros are able to HOLD during a Time Trial! Not just one mile, but for MANY miles! (ie the recent final TT in the TDF...wan't that like 34 miles?) THAT is some serious suffering! To hold around 30mph for an hour, all by yourself...THAT is totally amazing!

August 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

You're right, Matt, drafting behind a screen like that has little to do with "human power" and a lot more to do with skill, bravery and technology. May as well do it on rollers. However, it's still quite an accomplishment. If it were that easy, we'd be seeing new records every few months.

August 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjohnb

It's a pity that you didn't mention the current record holder: Fred Rompelberg 268km/h from Maastricht, the Netherlands. I met him in person last summer when my friend bought a second hand bike from his Mallorca Bike Team.

A very energetic fellow, a bit too energetic for my liking, and still motivated to break his own record. Despite his 63 years and the fact that when doing a first practice run for his record he tumbled off his bike at 180km/h. He's very proud of his record, showed by the fact that you can find '268' everywhere: on his mallorca bikes, on his cycling wear, and even on the little note next to the doorbell telling the postman not to drop packages at the neighbors but to call him on his mobile, signed 'Fred 268'.

My friend now nevers says that he goes for a ride, or goes cycling, but that he goes out with Fred.

August 10, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterikiro

He brought this bike to my shop sometime that year.

Dave: You had a test ride didn't you?

What was it like?

Surely you pedalled it on the stand?

I can see a market for this kind of "Hooligan Bike", with less extreme gearing, but still able to do say 50mph on the flat.

Get scribbling and brazing again... I'll have a red one :)

August 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterColin

I was an acquaintance of John Howard in Austin, Texas in the early '80s. He had a lot of stories to tell, like almost drowning in the swim leg of the Iron Man. I believe he also set up his Bonneville bike to run behind a stock car at Talledega. I don't know if that was before or after Bonneville.

And, for the record, Jan, all things being equal, larger wheels have lower rolling resistance than small diameter wheels. This is documented in David Gordon Wilson's excellent "Bicycle Science" book.

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Anderson

Indeed Fred Rompelbeg from Maastricht (the Netherlands) made a sucesful record near salt lake city, behind a racingcar with his special bycicle. Since a few years he is an organizer of cycling holidays for those who like to train in the Spanish sun in springtime (Mallorca), instead of training in the cold and often wet spring in the north of Europe. I was a member of his cycling-team in 1994 as a tourguide, had a great time with Fred, his family and all those fanatic cyclists, from Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and many other European countrys. He is still cycling nowardays and slill seems to be very fit for his age.

March 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArie Rommers
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