Sports

CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN

A cyclist from B.C. is the fastest man in the world

CORI HOWARD July 18 2005
Sports

CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN

A cyclist from B.C. is the fastest man in the world

CORI HOWARD July 18 2005

CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN

Sports

A cyclist from B.C. is the fastest man in the world

CORI HOWARD

SAM WHITTINGHAM is the fastest selfpropelled man in the world. Not a bad title for an unassuming 32-year-old from Quadra Island, B.C., but he’s become blasé about it. After all, he’s held the title for 12 years, thanks in no small part to his sleek and super-efficient flying machine. It’s a bicycle, really, the fastest one on Earth, but it looks more like a plastic capsule. It feels, to Whittingham, like a jet engine. But it sounds, according to its maker, like silence.

Whittingham has come to know this machine, which he races in a reclining position inside its Kevlar and carbon fibre shell, intimately over the past decade. He’s ridden the Varna Diablo—created by Bulgarian-born sculptor Georgi Georgiev—to win the World Human Powered Speed Challenge since its inception in 2000. The little-known international competition pits man and technology against a flat stretch of the Nevada desert to determine the top human-powered speed over a distance of 200 m.

Whittingham’s current record, set in 2002, is 130.4 km/h. “It’s not just cycling,” he says. “It’s more like trying to fly a plane on the ground. We call ourselves pilots. The bikes are finicky and don’t really steer. It’s a terrifying experience.” But it’s one Whittingham obviously can’t live without. When he’s not trying to beat his own speed record, he’s in Europe setting endurance records for how far a human can go in one hour. Last summer in Germany, he rode 84.22 km in that time period, beating his own record from the year before by about 0.5 km.

He also has another life—as father to two grade schoolers and husband to Andrea

Blaseckie, 32, who until last year was the fastest self-propelled woman in the world. He supports himself building custom bikes from his shop on Quadra, one of B.C.’s northern Gulf Islands, and occasionally he freelances as a set designer for theatre companies across the province.

At the same time, he and Georgiev are trying to build a new bike—an even scarier, faster bike. “We are basically at a loss now,” says Whittingham. “We have pushed me and the Diablo to its limit and we’re not sure how to make it go any faster.” One way

to try is by removing the windshield. Without the bubble used by the rider to navigate, the new bike—it doesn’t have a name yet—will be smaller and, presumably, even more aerodynamic. But this means the rider will have only a small video screen inside the shell to see where he’s headed. “It terrifies me, to be honest,” says Whittingham. “On a small screen, the image isn’t that great and there’s the possibility that bumps will short it out and then you’re hurtling down the road blindfolded and taped in. It’ll be like being nailed into your own coffin.” Still, it seems Whittingham likes to be terrified, even as he calls his obsession with

speed and efficiency “stupidity.” In 2003, he crashed on the Nevada track going 130 km/h. A flat in his front tire sent him off the road, and a crosswind lifted him up in the air and then into sagebrush, still holding onto the handlebars. While he still won that day, he didn’t beat his record from 2002. And the following year, 2004, was so windy that times weren’t official.

For Whittingham, those are minor setbacks, and he says nothing will stop him from riding the new, windowless bike in October in Nevada. (Blaseckie is going too—she hopes to get her record back in the Diablo.) “We’re building the most efficient vehicle in the world,” says Georgiev, who lives on nearby Gabriola Island and spends most of his time making bikes for people with disabilities. It will have to be. The fastest woman in the world rides another builder’s version of the Diablo. And the second-fastest man rides an earlier model of the Diablo.

But he’s still eight to 10 km/h behind the champion. Even Georgiev admits it’s not just the bike—it’s the rider as well. Whittingham agrees that a combination of man and machine has given him the record so many years in a row. “What takes each machine from going fast to really fast,” he says, “is the person inside it.” And Georgiev is honoured to have him ride it. “What he’s doing is mindlessly courageous,” he says. “Last time I saw him, I was shaking so much I couldn’t film it. Standing on the highway, from a kilometre away, you see a dot approaching. Within only a few seconds, that dot zooms by you like lightning. Most people wouldn’t believe it’s a bike.” 171