Week at Battle Mountain #9 Race day Friday

Friday morning has the usual start. Early breakfast but I’m feeling much more refreshed and ready to run. Loaded up in the car, we headed out to the course. Karen had an early start and she’s doing the amazing thing of taking a shot at one of the long courses before we do what we’re really here for this morning.


But, with all the other racers and teams out at the five mile start, we turn off onto a side street… ok a nearby invisible dirt road that seems to lead out to the middle of nowhere… as all dirt roads out here seem to do. I get unloaded as usual and Derek is with me doing our routine pre-race warm-up and chat. Today is a bit different so he’s giving me the brief on the plan while we wait for Karen to do her run and bring Arion4 back to us. We’re a mere 600 meters away from the timing gates and we have the privilege of seeing some of the bikes in their final sprints. It’s quite a treat as I’ve not really seen them up to this point. One of the volunteers stopping traffic is there saying she’s glad we’re starting there too as she gets to see a part of the race she doesn’t get to see otherwise. It’s a morning of bonuses all around!


Karen whizzes by on the long course and I instinctively wave to cheer her on before realising she can’t see me. Soon enough though she’s joined us at our new start point for the day and the engineers are prepping Arion4. This morning’s race is somewhat different as it’s a 600 metre acceleration into the 200 meter timing gates, basically a mad sprint from the start.

The team and I have discussed this race a bit and even made a change to the bike to coincide with the change in our tactics. For the previous races we’ve had a specific plan of how I was to add power, this time it comes down to two techniques: 1) compress the five mile plan into 600 meters and 2) go like hell. Ultimately, they’re both the same plan in the end… and entirely #2


With the compressed plan we’ve decided to not bother giving me a data feed on power requirements. Ultimately, everything is going to happen so fast at there’s going to be no time to focus on specific changes. Today’s technique is simply: Sprint, change gear, sprint, change gear… Cadence is all going to be done on feel; power won’t be critical as it’ll all be max efforts, but speed will. I know there is a target speed to beat and that’s the only thing I have to pay attention too. As a result, Alex and Anwar, the visual and data specialists have reconfigured my data feed to give me speed. This will be the first time since Monday that I’ll actually know how fast I’ll be going down the course.


We wait by the edge of the course watching for the last launched bike on the five mile course to go by and I’m advised we are going to have to get situated quickly as there’s the usual limited time window for the road closure, but we don’t have time to kill before while other bikes launch. Then, we get word that one of the bikes didn’t start, and the next scratched. So, with more time to spare, we get on the course more relaxed.


I’m strapped in and the lid set in place. Taped up and secured the team reminds me, “Go all out, don’t hold anything back.”


I confirm the speed I’m trying to beat.


“28-point-something, right?”


Stephen replies, “Something like that, it doesn’t matter though, just give it everything you’ve got”


Leandre calls out, “Ready Ken?”




5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Arion4 Launches from the 600 metre mark
600 metre course launch. Photo: Michael Head

Leandre gets an extra powerful launch going. I’m not even trying to sync with him, there’s no time. I immediately go into a sprint, spinning in the realm of 140+ RPM I know I need to keep the cadence high to get keep this bike moving. It’s hard to sprint with 37 kilos of bike beneath you and your own mass of dead weight. I feel like a beached whale, already taking its last breath.


Cranking up through the gears I continue to sprint and change, each time the speed building nice and quickly, just as fast as I can feel the burn coming on in my back and arms. I’m targeting top gear in the cadence that I know I can get my best power from, and with each gear change my peak cadence drops just a little bit to hit that mark. I have a short distance to take advantage of every muscle, some work better fast some slow. My plan is essentially to burn them out in groups and let others take over to carry on.


With each gear change my power keeps coming on. Starting like a bat out of hell in a 70’s aerobics video, I’m quickly turning this into a massive strength effort. I know I need to be moving fast enough so that when I top out the gears I’m holding an optimal cadence. But at this point all I’m doing is watching speed and the flags.


With such a short sprint the timing flags come up fast. My eyes quickly shift to speed, flags, and back. There’s nothing else I can pay attention too, there’s no time. Lane position is still critical but I’m taking a big gamble, I’m just making sure that the yellow centreline is flashing just to the left of my peripheral vision. Every ounce of strength and focus is going towards this max power effort.


Shift and power up, speed is increasing and the flags are getting closer! Again! Again! Suddenly I realise I’m so close that there’s nothing more I can do to control the acceleration, whatever I have setup is where this is  going to finish. I slam the cranks forward pushing myself back into the seat. My head gets thrown back and I’m not even looking at the screen. The cranks drop and I I’m full on the pull stroke, my torso straining against the racing harness. Full power goes into every point of the pedalling cycle. I am, quite literally, trying to rip the cranks off of Arion4.


Triceps, then shoulder, then biceps, then shoulders and again. That’s the cycle of burning I’m feeling as I crank over. I try to keep a loose grip on the pedals, so too do I keep my face calm and relaxed, it’s wasted energy otherwise. But as the flags pass I take one last glimpse at the speed… this will not be for nothing!

Arms and shoulders burning, death grip in the pedals (I’m straining so hard I can’t afford to let them slip after all), slammed back into the seat, I’m half expecting to break the bike and then everything suddenly goes into slow motion. Glancing through squinted eyes I see the see the speed fluctuate just so but I’ll be damned if it’s going down, not these last 200 meters.

Battle Mountain desert
Desert blur. Photo Michael Head

The flashing yellow becomes a hazy glow, like the setting sun. The desert, a wash of golden streaks as I pass by. Suddenly I feel nothing, the roar of the bike has gone quiet and I swear I’ve stopped pedalling. I push and pull as hard as I can, my shoulders ticking over between. My breaths are deeper as they’ve ever been, I’m in desperate need of air and suddenly I see the flags pass.

Willing myself to keep the power in just in case I’ve gotten lost, I keep in on. 1, 2, 3… every revolution of the cranks… cranks I’m counting them to distract myself from the pain but it’s no use, I let go, there’s nothing left in my arms and shoulders to give. I coast, looking all over my display  to try to locate where I am on the course. I can see nothing but desert. No flags, no people, nothing… I can only hope that I’ve really passed the flags; that I’ve not imagined it.

Arion4 rides through the timing gates
Through the timing gates. Photo: Michael Head

Wanting to roll on my side and curl up for a nap, no… die, I realise I’ve got a long way to go, I know my speed was good but it’s not enough to just coast to get to catch. Plus, I need to recover, not that I want to, I just want to stop and get someone to take the lid off, but I don’t even know if I have a chase car. So, there’s no choice, I assume I’m on my own and I pop Arion4 in to a low gear and spin out, keeping the blood flowing, hoping for a good recovery. If the claustrophobia wasn’t bad enough at the starts, this is worse; my only freedom is to keep going when I have nothing more to give.


It turns out that the ride to catch is a surprisingly long way away and I actually have to work at keeping Arion4 moving. No rest for the wicked! I get to catch and the lid is off, the fresh morning air is such a relief. But, I’ve been cooking inside Arion4 and the air now feels quite cold. With Karen set for her sprint, the team quickly ask how it was, it tell them it was good, and nod to another record done and dusted (I hope), and they’re off with Arion4 back down the course. No time for an early celebration.


After a while, I’m fairly recovered, the volunteers and teams offering water and bananas. Sitting on a lawn chair, I feel like I’m at a bit of a picnic. It’s a treat that I now get to hang out at catch finally really get to see some of the other riders come in. It’s quite a sight; most of them look to be on the verge of death and having trouble walking. Yeah, I know the feeling. Chatting to some of the other riders, teams and supporters, we finally see Karen pull in to catch. She’s rolled over to the recovery area and we have a catch-up. She’s her usual calm self.


“How’d you do?”


“Yeah, good”




“Yeah, no problem”


Or something like that!

Karen and Ken at catch with Arion4
Karen and Ken suspect two 600m victories. Photo Michael Head

And at post-race meeting it was confirmed. Two more world records: 30.30 mph for Karen and 33.81 mph for me! Four world records between us, and with that we pick our Friday night launches.

Karen Darke clebrates another world record
Karen celebrates victory again (30.30 mph). Photo: Michael Head
Ken Talbot celebrates another victory
Ken celebrates victory again (33.81 mph). Photo: Michael Head

Week at Battle Mountain #9 Race day Friday: PM


Friday evening proves to be interesting. The winds are questionable. There’re no clear trends giving an indication that they might dissipate, and most teams take their shots. Karen launches before me, her third race of the day, that’s dedication! I’m the last rider of the 2nd heat and by the time my launch come up it’s still not clear if the wind will die down enough, but we take the gamble and set off. Later we find that Karen while having another great run, wasn’t wind-legal, so doubts were in order.


By now the launches are routine and I’m off. Everything is smooth and after a good rest and some food, I’ve recovered from this morning and ready to break that long course record again. Apart from a few minor bugs over the week Arion4 has been holding together exceptionally well. Whatever issues have some up the engineers have been able to sort out quickly. So, it’s looking like it’ll be a good run.


I loosen up through the first stage of the power plan. Everything is definitely good, the wind is bumping me around but it’s not unmanageable. Speed is building nicely and, since we didn’t take the speed reading off the data feed, I can see what I’m actually achieving, and it’s actually a very weird experience. I tell myself not to chase it (the speed), I know what happens when I do, and I start to focus on power and cadence again as usual.


The first power step comes in and I step it up a notch; it’s not much, just enough to get things rolling a bit more. But, I’m feeling like I’m dragging a bit, like I’m fighting to get the power down. Maybe I’m more tired than I thought, after all, it was a full-on effort this morning, but I’m still rolling and the speed is still building so I keep going.


A gear change comes up and I’m starting to feel like I’m dragging even more. “It’s all psychological,” I tell myself. “Just keep it going. It’s just pressure, like the rides when JP and Davie were watching and you botched it.” The next power step comes and I follow suit. Power is up; cadence isn’t where it should be though. I look at the speed; it’s not where it should be either. I don’t know literally what my speed should be, but I know it should be higher than moments ago. I watch the data feed for a while as my speed should be increasing. I’m getting my cadence up a bit to prevent bogging down, but it’s slow and thick like molasses.


As the next power increase comes I watch the speed; no change. OK, clearly there’s something wrong with the data feed or the speed sensor. No problem, it’s extraneous data anyway. I realise then that it’s probably the fact that I’m seeing the speed and I can’t easily correlate it with power and cadence expectations, and that’s what’s throwing my mind off.


So, I go back to focusing only on power and cadence as before. The power steps are coming faster and bigger now. Each time I’m matching but each time my cadence is bogging down more and I’m fighting the gears. Everything feels thick and sluggish as I start to struggle to match cadence and power. Not only that, my arms are starting to burn, much more so than on the last long run, they shouldn’t be this early. And I glimpsed the speed… not an ounce of change.


I fight through the last couple steps of the power plan. I’m committed now, half mile to go before the flags, and they’re in sight now, there’s no point bailing now, surely this is just an illusion. But I’m not a happy camper, I’m frustrated, as I really want to not only break the record but at least get close to validate my efforts on Wednesday.


Suddenly my data feed illuminates: MAX!! I put every ounce of frustration into this last effort; it might as well be useful. I’m straining as bad as this morning, everything is burning and I can’t take deep enough breaths. I’m dragging so much and ready to give up but I fight through it, you never know when an illusion might be masking success. My eyes are only on power and cadence. Cadence isn’t ideal but power is looking exceptional, right where it should be. I’ve match them all so surely it’s a good run.


And just as I pass the last flags of the timing gates, I’m suspicious that I was able to spot them this time, I glimpsed at my speed… it’s not changed since the 2.5 mile mark. WTF? OK, I need to talk to Anwar and Alex about the data feed. The 2nd set of flags pass by and just like this morning, I actually have to pedal to get to catch. There’s something very wrong about this. It’s not been a good evening. I’m exhausted, still working hard pedalling to catch, and everything just feels a little wrong. Maybe this is just the end of my week; maybe I’ve just hit my limits.

Ken rides to catch in Arion4
Struggling to get to catch. Photo: Michael Head

I pull into catch and hear the tape removed, more so than any other day I’m desperate for fresh air. The lid comes off and there’s a wee puff of smoke escaping. I hear some of the team ask, “What’s that?” I’m thinking, “Surely it’s just the steam from all my hard work as has usually been around.”

Georgious and Stephen un-tapeArion4
Georgious and Stephen rush to get the lid off. Photo: Michael Head

Stephen and Leandre run up, there’s a slight panicked look in their faces.


“What happened? You OK?”


“Yeah, I think I’m just shot, after this morning and the week, I might just be done. Not a good run but hopefully it’s close, but I think the speed data feed was messed up.”


“No, we thought something was wrong, we were expecting you to stop, you were hardly moving”


“My power was good but I was really dragging, I just didn’t feel good, maybe I’m a bit exhausted.”


Then we hear some of the others on the team asking, “What’s that?”


My usual catch team of Harry, Georgious, and Kieran are examining the Arion4. Their hands reach into the bike near my feet and they are looking at something on the tips of their fingers. They’re taking close looks everywhere around the front of the shell.


“It feels like rubber “


“Yeah, but where’s it coming from?”


More close looks and someone calls out for Anwar and Alex to flip the lid over and more examinations ensue, eyes and fingers, the engineers are meticulously looking at everything in detail to see what’s happened. No part is being missed, even parts of my legs and feet. Clearly they know more than me at this point. They know my speed wasn’t anywhere near what it should be and I now know that my troubles weren’t psychological, at least not all of it.

Ken recovers in Arion4
Recovering after the toughest, yet slowest run of the week. Photo: Michael Head

Clearly I’m in the way so I’m helped out of the bike. Everyone is concerned about me, this was clearly a run gone wrong, and they all ask if I’m ok. I assure them that I am and I apologise profusely for failing the team. They keep saying not to worry about it I’ve already broken both records and anything we do now is just icing on the cake. I try to believe that, but I want more for me, and the team. I don’t want our records to fall. Ever.


Assured that I’m alright, the engineers all head off with Arion4, they’re like rats sharing a scrap of chicken, poking and prodding, huddled around, everyone trying to get a piece of it. They know something might be wrong, and they have less than 12 hrs to fix it.


We head to the post-race meeting again. Our team is thin on the ground. It’s mainly the staff advisors, Stephen, Karen and me. We’re not expecting any significant news, and the important thing is that Arion4 gets examined and situated. That’ll tell if it was me or not, and if not, what engineers will be doing all night. Deep down, I’m still thinking I failed and I just want to leave and recover, hopeful that I can redeem myself on Saturday.


Karen’s run is called and it’s not wind legal. My run is called… 36.73 mph not even as fast as my qualifying run. Plus, it’s not wind legal. It’s been a rough night for all: Of 12 possible launches, only 2 were wind-legal. One scratched, one had a dnf, and another crashed. It seems the week it taking its toll, on everybody.

Man insults the wind with a finger gesture
That’s what we thought of the wind! Photo: Michael Head

We’re not out though, we’ve still got tomorrow. As team leader, and as he’s done all week, Stephen helps Karen and me pick our launch times. Steven (Yes, if you haven’t caught on, we have Stephen and Steven, only slightly confusing. The former is the head of the Engineering students, the latter is the Arion (1-x) project supervisor) steps in and advises us that we’ll only be racing in the morning, we’ve already broken both records, this is just a bonus. Stephen clearly a bit tense and agitated quickly scurries off telling us they know what the problem is; they just need to fix it and he practically sprints back to get back to the hotel to assist the rest of the team. Meanwhile the rest of us head off to dinner. Whilst we get to rest, the engineers work has only just started.


It turns out that during my run two support brackets had broken, such was the apparent brutality of the combined riding of me and Karen no doubt! The result was that the front end of Arion4’s shell had collapsed onto the front wheel. We figure this happened somewhere between the start and the two-mile mark when I started to notice the speed wasn’t increasing. So, essentially all of my weight and most of Arion4’s weight was now resting on the front tyre creating a ton of resistance. Not only that it was shredding and burning the front tyre, hence the cloud when the team took the lid off, the shredded rubber in nose of the shell, and why I was so desperate for fresh air… I’d been breathing in burning rubber for about three or four miles. But, the good news, as Stephen pointed out to me, I’d produced my highest power levels of the week during this run!


But, would the engineers have the bike fixed and ready to race for Saturday morning? And how would we fair after five days of intense racing?

Arion4 packed up in a van
Packed up and heading back, one last shot tomorrow

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