If Hollywood ever produces the Todd Reichert movie, for sure it will open like so:
Scene: A jerky guy is gunning his Camaro down a flat, straight stretch of the 401. Not another car in sight. He’s blaring Styx from a classic rock station. He taps the gas a little, edges the needle into the expensive ticket zone. He’s shout-singing along: “Come sail away with meeee!” … he glances in the rear view. Not for safety, just grooming his splendid ‘stache. He sees a white, gleaming blob somewhere back down the asphalt. The blob is silent. Melty looking in the heat shimmer. Getting bigger. Camaro man is not one to be overtaken on the highway, but above 140 km/h, his chassis has a bad shimmy, and even with 300 horses, he can only push his righteous IROC so hard.
The blob grows. WTF? whispers our dude … wipes a bead of sweat with a fingerless glove.
The radio crackles. Styx fazes out and a Schubert cantata gently tinkles onto the frequency. The white blob silently glides up alongside, and dude feels the sputtering weirdness of an unearthly moment. He looks left.
He’s getting passed by a man pedaling a bullet-shaped bicycle. Cyclist nods — spandex, spectacles, and a U of T alum sticker on his helmet. He pulls in front. And … scene.
A few hours up the coast from Hollywood, the real Todd Reichert is a Canadian engineer who lives and works in Silicon Valley. He really can pedal a bicycle along flat roads at autobahn speeds. Last year he broke his own world record at 144 km/h.
He was still accelerating when he ran out of pavement. To put that in perspective, Olympic track cyclists high five each other if they hit 85 km/h. Todd is working toward going double that speed.
He is the fastest human powered by muscle alone. No motors, no hills, no sails, no drafting behind trucks, no Acme rockets.
In case there’s any confusion, this is not theoretical speed. Not some “equivalent velocity” generated in a computerized simulation in a wind tunnel. No. This is good old hauling ass on a bike, measured at the annual Human Powered Speed Challenge, on a flat asphalt track in Battle Mountain, Nev.
Reichert is an elite athlete, but he does have a secret weapon, which is his PhD in Aerospace Engineering from University of Toronto. So, even though he has killer legs and vo2 max, the Saskatchewan native excels because his body is in service to a fantastic technical imagination.
If you and I dream of flying like birds, we mumble about it over our cheerios the next morning, and that’s the end of it. When Reichert dreams of flying, he sets to work on his body and then builds a bird-like flying machine. Seriously. He did that.
Exactly the crazy fly-like-a-bird contraption that Leonardo Davinci failed at in 1485. Reichert’s team built one, and he flew it. Just like a bird. People have been trying to do that for at least 500 years. No one else ever succeeded.
I asked Reichert’s business partner, fellow Canuck and fellow U of T Aerospace Engineer, Cameron Robertson about it.
Robertson: Todd and I were on the rugby team together and he kind of threw out this idea … wanting to do a human powered wing-flapping airplane. I think I was the first person who took an interest. And the team grew from there.
CBC Sports: Were you thinking “Experimental flight has gotta be safer than rugby?”
Robertson: They're both very fun. But it was definitely interesting to combine aerodynamics and the opportunity to build something hands on.”
For Reichert, the first step in flying an “Ornithopter,” a plane that flaps its wings like a bird, was to find a sport that would get his body into the correct shape.
He settled on rowing, which is obvious when you see his flying motion. But it was a departure for him, because until then, Reichert loved hockey, and was a super-fast skater. In fact, speed skating is his real passion.
“It is such a beautiful sport. The combination of strength but also technique — it's like a martial art, where you learn for years and years exactly how to balance on that blade and gather your energy, deliver that energy to the ice. When you get a clean push, it's like a nice dive off a high-diving board. You just slice and…I just totally fell in love with it,” he says.
“It felt like a very Canadian thing. Because I bounced around a lot in different sports, I had never really seen my true potential as an athlete. I thought if there was ever one sport where I could really find my true potential it would be speed skating.”
Can we agree that is an interesting attitude for a guy who builds and rides the fastest bikes on earth? Yes, I could have been somebody in skating, as opposed to just, well, the fastest human being in history. I gently steer Reichert from his love of speed skating, hockey, rowing, and rugby, back toward that 144 km/h bike ride. But first, you need to see the bird-plane in flight.
Have you ever seen a more graceful, (or crazy) flying machine?
The only vehicle to rival it for sheer strangeness would be a human-powered helicopter. Oh yes, Reichert’s team designed and flew one of those too. They won the first Sikorski prize for that.
The Helicopter Association wagered $250,000 U.S. against anyone powering a helicopter with their own legs. People had been trying for 33 years. Reichert and Robertson, who were now in business as the Aerovelo company, cracked that nut in 2013. They built it, Reichert flew it.
Does that not take the cake for unusual flying machines? It really looks like a scene from Rendezvous with Rama. Almost every project Reichert and Robertson tackle has that same slightly unreal feel. Robertson says there is focussed method in the madness.
“We build human-powered vehicles that try to achieve something impossible. We really want to challenge the public's perception of what is possible.”
I am starting to think it is possible we will never get around to the story of the world’s fastest bike ride. So I ask Reichert to tell me exactly what it feels like to be strapped into their bicycle, coming up to speed. The cycle is called Eta by the way, which is the symbol for efficiency in engineers’ calculations.
“Before Eta, we had gone to Battle Mountain with bikes that weren't really ready — where we crashed at high speeds,” he says. “Going into the first year that we broke the record with Eta, there was a lot of nervousness. So it has taken time to build the comfort necessary to really be able to deliver all the power that you can. If you're even slightly nervous, your power drops and you don't even notice it.”
Reichert is an enthusiastic talker, and his passion almost derails him when he describes riding Eta.
“Getting up to speed is… the bike is just so incredibly efficient. What it feels like is … you don't even feel the air resistance until you're at incredible speeds. So all you're doing is accelerating this mass. It's like there's no friction — all your effort is going into accelerating. The drive train is so stiff, and so well-tuned, nothing feels sloppy.”
CBC Sports: Can you compare the experience to a regular ride?
Reichert: On a normal bike, you push and 90 per cent of your power goes into the bike. This thing, 100 per cent of your power is going in the bike and you can just feel that energy transfer. You feel like you're on rails. And the thing just slowly accelerates. If you went down to the easiest of pedaling, like just going to get your groceries, you would still be accelerating. You would get to over 100 kilometres an hour, pedaling like it’s an easy errand.”
Even the gears on Eta are dazzling. Get a look under the hood below:
Normal bikes might have 40 teeth on the front chain ring and 15 or so at the back. Pedal once and the wheel goes around almost three times. Eta has a two-stage drive train, so the front chain ring has 93 teeth, and that drops down to a cassette whose smallest gear has 13 teeth. And that drives an entire other set of gears, in which 38 teeth combines with 17. So, pedal Eta once, and your wheel turns 16 times. I think.
“It's hard if you're spinning your legs really, really fast,” explains Reichert. “It’s not efficient. It messes up your steering. At those speeds, if you move the steering wheel a millimetre to the side, you're off the road in a fraction of a second. So your pedaling cadence? I go through the timing traps at 90 to 100 hundred R.P.M. [Revolutions per minute], which is fairly low for sprinting like that. “
Reichert and Robertson like to talk about their flying and racing exploits as having huge constraints on the power side (300 watts is about the most a human can generate — a laughably small engine for a plane) but zero constraints on everything else. So a tiny engine, but NO compromises on efficiency, weight, or design. Eta’s aerodynamics, for starters, is off the hook. The bike employs so-called laminar flow — ultra slippery in terms of air resistance. Aerospace guys love laminar flow, but it is unusual to see it used on land vehicles. How finicky is a laminar flow bike shell? If you get one single bug splatted on it, your drag goes up several times.
Speaking of engines, I asked if they ever considered getting a ringer to pedal for them. The answer surprised me. Robertson described how another team once hired Jason Queally, who won gold in the 1k time trial at Sydney Olympics in 2000.
“They put him in the bike and it was tight and constricting and he was unable to realize nearly his potential, or the bike’s potential because it just was such a new and different experience that he wasn't prepared for.”
When I brought this up to Reichert, his response made me realize I was asking a slightly insulting question. I was implying, unintentionally, that he is not a real athlete. We started to talk about his training regimen, which is every bit as uncompromising as the bike’s design. He works with elite cycling coaches in Ottawa. They are big into the idea of phasing.
“You build your aerobic capacity on longer endurance rides. That is sort of like money in a piggy bank,” he says. “The more aerobic base you have, the harder you can push on your interval training. Sprint training actually takes away from your aerobic. So, at the end, you break the piggy bank, you go all out with the sprint training, your aerobic fitness gets worse, but because you had a really good base you can push harder in the sprint training.”
CBC Sports: You are obviously a data-driven trainer.
Reichert: I've heard numbers that blew me away. You lose one per cent of your aerobic fitness every day that you don't work out. So If I was training for eight months, I go away for a week and I've dropped seven per cent. It really drove my training in the last couple of months. The most important thing is consistency. That was huge. So, no vacations in the last few months, but it also means I don't have to be training for eight months.
The world’s fastest bike is a product of no-limits thinking. But it still needs to be asked: what might the actual limits be?
Reichert figures 100 miles per hour would be possible. The bike needs some tweaks and he would need six months off of work. Not necessarily to train more, but because stress kills power numbers. They're talking about building a bigger road, and with a longer road he thinks they could probably hit 100 m.p.h. (161 km/h) now.
But before we get there, you have to see what those speeds look like on a bicycle. Here's their run just before Aerovelo's most recent 144 km/h record breaker.
I started wondering if Cycling Canada was looking into any of these radical bike building ideas. I asked Craig Griffin, who is the women's track endurance coach about that. He begged me for patience. He can’t quite talk about it, yet. But he did offer me this.
“We are currently exploring new areas of innovation and design of the bike. As such, we are partnering with a new bike manufacturer [Canadian] to address some of these areas of engineering and performance. This relationship has not yet been made public, so I can’t reveal anything, but hopefully something should be made public in the next month or so.”
Back at Aerovelo. Reichert and Robertson are still thinking big. Bigger even than just being the fastest thing on two wheels.
Robertson: The bike is about the technological possibilities of uncompromised design. So for example, the bicycle that we've built, we did the math recently and it is the most efficient form of transportation ever designed. You know: kilograms of payload per unit of energy? It's more efficient than any other bicycle, more efficient than any airplane. More efficient than supertankers, which unexpectedly, transporting hundreds of thousands of tonnes at 40 kilometres an hour, is actually a pretty good way to move things. Yet our bike is far better than anything that exists.
CBC Sports: What a fantastic achievement. So is the hope that your work rubs off in all sorts of vehicle designs?
Reichert: Realistically, car manufacturers, or anyone working in any of these fields, stuff that actually hits the road will be some small percentage of the way to what people perceive as the limit. And if you can push what people perceive as the limit, you know, they're not going to go and make a car that gets 10,000 miles per gallon. But knowing that 10,000 miles per gallon is possible, when you look at like 60 miles per gallon? You're like, come on guys, what are we doing?”
Robertson: We don't expect everybody to be taking human-powered helicopters to work. We're probably among many people like Elon Musk or others working towards a more efficient and sustainable future.”
CBC Sports: Having proved that a tiny (human) engine can do the incredible, what’s around the corner?
Reichert: Once you've replaced the human power with a tiny electric motor, you can turn this into a little monorail system and you're literally doing 200 miles an hour for a small fraction of the energy of a car.
Robertson: We know we can be lightweight because our bike doesn't handle crash loads like a car does, but one could imagine a future in which all the cars were self-driving, so crashes are less of an issue and maybe weighing only 50 or 100 pounds. You could kind of imagine what a sustainable future might look like.
No one’s arguing, but we don’t even need to look at the future. The present is amazing enough.
Postscript: Just as this article was being published, Reichert and Robertson revealed their latest brainstorm: working with Google’s Larry Page on a radical rethink of the flying car. Robertson is flying the prototype.