The end brings a new beginning. Today marks the start of racing at the 20th anniversary WHPSC in Battle Mountain. It’s with great sadness that I’m not in Battle Mountain this week as I desperately want to see everything I missed last year, and catch-up with the many wonderful people I met that helped to put on and support the races. Plus, this year it looks like there are some really amazing bikes, teams, and riders.
As I write this, it’s 1:35 pm in Battle Mountain. The morning qualifying runs have taken place and I’m waiting for the results. Of course I’m excited to see how the University of Liverpool do with their new trike. And just now is the time when the engineers will be fine tuning and adjusting their bikes and the riders recovering, prepping for tonight’s runs, starting around 5 pm Pacific time (if memory serves). There are some exciting thing happening in Battle Mountain this year and I wish all the teams the best of luck. For the rest of you who, like me, can’t be there I’ll be trying to repost the results. Also check out the WHPSC page and give all these teams, the organisers, and volunteers your support!
And now…. Whilst the new race starts, I give you the final day of my record.
Saturday morning rolls around. I’m both exhausted from yesterday’s power bursting effort and yet excited. For the one last chance to prove that my speed on Wednesday wasn’t a fluke. I woke up earlier than necessary, which might not be a good thing, and I’m trying to have my breakfast. All week I’ve had that same meal as it’s a good balance of protein, fat, and carbs to give me energy and strength to ride, and I didn’t want to experiment with any unusual foods that might throw me off. Plus, since I have a massive buffet in my hotel room, thanks to my visiting relatives, I might as well stick with what I have.
But today I just can’t get it down. All week I’ve been able to eat, even if it has been over the bathroom sink like a rat. Yeah, that’s how classy I am! But today, I’m really struggling. My mind is energised, mentally I’m ready for a fight. But my body isn’t. So, I use what time I have to give it a rest. Opening the door to my hotel room, I kick back and put my feet up, feeling the cool morning air and listening to the silence.
The early mornings in Battle Mountain have been so tranquil. Every day we’ve had fantastic clear sunny days and no rain, and the mornings have been a perfect reprieve from the harsh mid-day sun. Today, there is silence; no engineers working, no traffic, no railcars passing, and no A/C. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m sat on the threshold of a hotel doorway, I’d swear I was in the middle of nowhere.
I take the time to relax, truly relax. I can feel that every muscle in my upper body is tight, clenched. Maybe they’re overworked, maybe I’m subconsciously clenching them out of stress, but they’ve worked hard and they need a break. Taking small deliberate nibbles on my breakfast, I try to move each one of my muscles to clench and relax them, and really feel them relax. Concentrating on only the essentials of food I glance up at the blue-black sky as the sun starts to rise and tell myself, “You’ve had a great week, you’ve ridden hard and while you might not have had all the success you wanted, you still have one more shot. Channel all your training, channel all your frustrations at the wind, for one last burst of power to break Wednesdays record. There’s nothing to do after this”
Pep talk done, I get dressed and await my chauffeur. Half my breakfast still sits on the table. I tell myself, “it’s better this way, if I get sick in the bike, I’m going to have to clean it, and I’m not about to do that after ride.” I hop in the truck and my driver and I head out. We’re reminiscing about the week and he’s telling me that so far the winds aren’t looking good. Part of me is glad, the other is very disappointed.
I tell my driver, Derek I believe, he’s done it so often and this has become part of our regular pre-race stress distracting sessions that have evolved. I tell him that regardless of the wind, I still want another shot. I need to prove that Wednesday wasn’t a fluke. I don’t want anyone coming back later to say, “if you only did it once, how do we know it was legitimate?”
Of course, Derek reiterates what the rest of the team have said, “You broke the record, there’s no need to prove it again. Everything is so accurate and calculated that there’s no question. And you don’t need to prove it to us, we know you did it”. I agree. But I don’t believe him. Yes, I’m also quite self-critical.
The drive down the course feels slow and sluggish, it’s like I’m half awake. I’m still trying to do my usual thing: watch the course in reverse, spot the distance boards, look for key features in the road, learn the course. It might be a straight line, but there is a lot more to pay attention to than you might think.
We roll up to the start area and the team is out with Arion4. They’re a lot calmer than expected. Maybe everyone is having a slow day, maybe we’ve all just hit our limits. The team already has my bike set up and I basically roll out of the truck and dump myself into my bike like a bag of potatoes. I really need to psych myself up again. But the wind is blowing dust in my face as I warm up so apparently I’m going to have to psych myself up blindly.
Karen has had an early launch and as I get started on my warmup, the team tells me that most of the riders have scratched, including Karen. The only one to set off was Jennifer in Velox8. The wind is just too strong to take the gamble on a run that might be dangerous or illegal , wind-wise. And once again, they remind me that Karen has broken the women’s record 4 times now (I think), subtly reinforcing that it’s OK if I have to scratch. This is, after all, icing on the cake. Plus, Karen has a 2nd launch option later in the morning.
Three bikes in heat two launch and by the last one the wind is looking like it’s improving. So, the team and I get ready. I’m psyching myself up, flexing my muscles, trying to get them loosened up and unwound. More so than any other run it’s taking me a lot of energy to focus. Equally, and I don’t realise it at the time, but I’m relying more on the ream than ever before to get things situated with the launch.
Heat three is called to the road and as usual, we are positioned at the back for the last launch. I’m dropped into Arion4 and I grab the pedals, trying to make a connection with the bike. Closing my eyes, I tell myself, “You can do this, one last run, don’t hold back.”
Rather than reaching for my helmet and the safety harness, I find that I’m just a little slow and it’s the engineers locking me in, dropping the helmet on my head, and clipping the radio on. The first bike launches.
The engineers check all the securing straps and the monitors. They ask if I’m ok and good to go. I take a last sip of water and assure them I am. “One more record,” I say as the second bike launches.
Arion4’s lid is lifted over me and lowered. Hands are pushing my feet and knees in, others have the securing clips in had ready to buckle the lid down. The sky starts to go dark…
“WAIT!!” I yell
Arion4’s lid stops and hovers for what feels like an eternity. Everyone around me is silent, the seem to expect the worst… I’m scratching.
“SLEEVES!!” I yell, and shoot my arms out better the two halves of the shell. There’s just enough room.
“I’m damned if I’m going to overheat on the last run,” I say and suddenly I feel hands pulling my warmup sleeves off.
My arms dart back in and I’m on the brake. The lid drops and is knocked into place. Bike three launches. Two minutes to get taped in and rasping of the tape echoes inside Arion4’s shell. I dismiss the panic that I’m trapped in a rolling coffin. I realise I’m the most dehydrated person on the planet. I tell myself it’s all psychological and rustle up a bit of spit for a last wee drink, “this a a cool protein mocha-cino, it’s like at the coffee shop”, I tell myself.
Then I realise that Leandre is trying something new, he’s mounted a camera inside the shell and I realise I must look miserable, so I give it a wave so he can edit out the bad parts and still have something where I look cool. So, this run there’s no real pressure. The record has been broken, no one’s really watching as intently as before, and Mike Sova is no longer in my chase car. And yet, every other race as soon as I’ve launched it’s just been me but this time Leandre gives me an audience for the full run? No pressure, none.
“Ready, Ken?” Leandre asks
“Ready.” It clearly takes exhaustion for me to act like a normal person
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
The push, the sync, the lunge, and it’s on….
I’m immediately focused, I realise it’s just me and Arion4 now, nothing else, no one else. My focus is on power and cadence as I start accelerating and warming up my arms and back. Picking my lane position I notice that it’s eerily calm on the course. The concerns about wind are gone, were clearly in a lull and I’m going to take advantage of it.
I see that speed is still on the display and I immediately recognise the danger of that. Quickly, I develop a plan: just ride this like the 600m, look only at power and cadence and keep a flashing yellow blur just off left, but don’t look at the speed.
The speed keeps building and the power steps keep coming. Gear changes are smooth and reliable as my cadence slows than smoothly builds up.
I pass the 2.5 mile board
My arms are warm and loose, as is my back. I’m feeling far stronger than earlier, and I’m more awake. But I know I’m also exhausted and maybe not as fuelled as previous runs.
I pass the 2 mile board
The road is smooth and we’ve I’ve passed what I call “flat corner” and I’m still rolling. Good sign. Shift and accelerate
I pass the 1.5 mile board
I can feel my breathing is getting deeper and deeper. The burn in my back and arms is kicking in. Shift and accelerate
I pass the 1 mile board
This is it, no turning back and full commitments now, no more thinking. Shift and accelerate. I sink into the seat and drop my shoulders, it only takes a few millimetres of adjustment to increase my power. My arms and back are on fire at this point and I just stop caring.
I focus everything I have into my arms and back, loose shoulders, relaxed grip: show nothing, express nothing. Shift and accelerate.
I just glimpse the final board and begin my final sprint, it’s like slow motion, the acceleration feels so slow but it should be; there’ll be no sudden movements with Arion4. This is suddenly the 600m sprint: full power is on: triceps, shoulders, biceps, shoulders are burning and ready to burst in that order, over and over and over.
My breathing is deep and controlled and I’m suddenly in a trance watching that flashing yellow glow, lane position disregarded, now focused only on one number: speed.
With every revolution of the pedals I want to quit, to stop the burning, but I have something to prove. I’m watching the speed build slowly but surely, but I know that I’m close to the point where building is no longer the option, what’s left is maintaining. I quickly decide to change my ride plan… treat this like a test run… Try to break the bike
“Sorry, Karen, I’ve got to chance it,” I think. Suddenly I’ve stopped focusing on my display, I’m trying to put so much power into the pedals that somethings going to break; me, Arion4, or the record.
My last glimpse at the speed tells me all I have to do is maintain this, it’ll be close but it looked good. Just maintain, 10 seconds with a safety net…
1, 2, 3, 3,…3,… what’s next?,… 3,… how long on 3 Arrrrgh!
A flash of flags goes by.. 9-10!
And I coast, gasping for air. Gasping like I’ve never gasped before. I’m lightheaded, dangerously lightheaded, this is not good.
I easy the bike over to the centreline, now a very close friend, a friend who’s going to keep me conscious. I stare at the flashing yellow, as long as I see flashing yellow, I’m awake… keep flashing, keep flashing…
My eyelids are heavy… keep them open…keep flashing, keep flashing…
Then, without warning, huge yellow and orange flashes dart to the sides of my display. I instinctively reach for the brake, hoping I’ll find it and I pull hard. The smell of burning discs fills the shell and the bike veers hard right. Suddenly instead of road in front of me I see desert… the thought; “at least I wrecked the bike on my last run, sorry you missed your last run Karen,” flashes I’m my head.
I hear the tape being peeled off faster than I’ve ever heard. I fumble to release the securing clips, in the dark, by touch with exhausted arms. The lid comes off and I take a few urgent deep breaths. Stephen comes up and asks if I’m OK.
“Gonna be sick, get me out”
“Need out, get me out”
“How?” There’s worry in his voice, usually I have to be quite careful getting in and out of the bike.
“Just grab my shoulders and drag me”
In one swift move all the belts and straps are removed and someone grabs me under my arms and pulls, dumping me onto the road. I roll onto the asphalt, thankful that it’s still somewhat cool and I’m not moving. Closing my eyes I try to catch my breath and calm myself. I know I’m the last bike and the road is about to open but I don’t care, the cars can drive around me.
Stephen is kneeling next to me and asks what happened.
“Almost passed out. Run might be good, but it’s going to be close, too close”
And quickly the team realise they need to get the bike to Karen for the final run. It’s rushed off and someone brings me my chair. I wheel over to recovery and chill out while the team get Karen ready. Luckily recovery comes to me fairly quickly and by the time I’m at the recovery area I’m feeling reasonably alright, happy I can just kick back and watch the last heat of the morning.
And I wait with baited breath. I saw my speed before I entered the gates but everything after that was a blur. Plus I don’t know how our data accuracy compared to the stationary race timing system. It’s actually going to be a tense couple hours until the post ride briefing.
Soon Karen rolls in to catch and she’s had another good run. But like me we need to wait until the post ride briefing to get the results. But, for now we are done and we can relax. The engineers pack up Arion4 and I think that overall they’re pleased. We had some good results, there were only a few small mechanical issues that needed repairing, and only one, I believe, that kept them working into the wee hours. Plus, since neither Karen nor I crashed, they didn’t have to do any polishing of the shell, just some light dusting. For them, I understand, it’s been one of the least work heavy years. Surely that’s a sign of the great design of Arion4 and the pilots ability to not wreck it. Might have been close a couple times but…
At the post ride briefing, were all pretty relaxed. Yes, we want more records but again this is the icing on the cake. Heat one is called and there was only one launch, and not wind legal. Heat two is called with three launches. The first wasn’t wind legal but the next two were. That’s a good sign for the next two heats with me and Karen.
Heat three is a call and the three runs are wind legal. Good sign for my race, which is called next…
I’m nervous… anxious really. I look at the team, their faces feel like mine. A few shrugs to say, “who knows, it could be anything.”
Speed to beat: 51.58
“Ken Talbot…. university of Liverpool… Arion4…”
The room is silent
“YES! This is a good start, I’ve got it”
“OH, this is going to be so close, it’s unbearable”
“Oh, c’mon, just say it, make it be true, please, please, please”
51.09 mph while trying to beat 51.58 mph. I can say I’m not disappointed, honestly I was hoping for 55, I felt like I was giving that. But I can’t complain at all. I feel like my earlier success was verified, vindicated, validated, and something else cool beginning with “v”. 99.05% of the new record, my new record. Yeah, I’m ok with that.
But all was not lost that morning. Heat four is called with four successful and wind legal runs. Heat five is called with three successful and wind legal launches, the last of which is Karen and she, once again, broke her record with an astounding 46.54 mph, topping her previous record of 46.05 mph. Well done Karen!
The remaining teams pick their final launches for the evening but #ULVTeam are satisfied with our records:
Men’s: 51.58 mph
Women’s: 46.54 mph
Men’s 600m: 33.81 mph
Women’s 600m: 30.30 mph
Much of the rest of Saturday is a blur for me. I was so tired I didn’t even have the strength or care to pack my bike and my gear but it needed to be done; bright and early we were going to be heading back to San Francisco. If I thought I was exhausted and ready to go home at the end of the day on Monday, I can assure you I was way beyond that today.
But pack away I did, along with a little bit of last minute laundry in the bathroom sink so I could look presentable for the awards dinner later in the evening. Did I go watch the final races? I can’t for the life of me remember, I probably wanted to but I may have just crashed. What I do know is that the afternoon was a slow, slow wander through life, thinking back over the week; thinking about how amazing and fortunate it was that everything came together to make it happen; how amazing all the people were who supported me including everyone at the University of Liverpool, my coaches Davie and Bob, Paul and JP who pushed me and reminded me that the record was not going to be easy or “fun”, Pete and who helped with my research, friends and family, and particularly Alan Grace who himself raced his own handcycle at Battle Mountain in 2014 and provided invaluable insight and could very well have been there in 2018 instead of me.
At with the Saturday night awards ceremony kicking in, I was ready for a long sleep. Occasionally getting poked and prodded when my name was called, it was quite a blur and and overload. It was great to have my name called alongside my records, as well as hearing of the other world record:
Ishtey Amminger, in the junior men’s trike. 60.94 mph. Shame he had to return home for school before the awards ceremony, but well done Ishtey!
But, the best part was all the riders from the other teams coming over to congratulate me and have me sign their posters or shirts. With all the hustle and bustle of the week I hardly got to meet or talk to any of the other rider. So often we were all just passing, wandering in a state of exhaustion after our runs, the scurrying off to sort things with our teams. But it was brilliant finally getting to meet them all, if only briefly, and how I wish I’d been more awake so I could do the rounds and visit them for an autograph.
Well done to everyone at the World Human Power Speed Challenge, from the riders, the organisers, teams, spectators, and especially to the volunteers. It’s an experience I’ll never forget and hopefully I’ll be back soon, if not to watch, then maybe to get my name in your books one more time!