Cal Poly Students Set American Collegiate Speed Record with Human-Powered Vehicle
Engineering students’ year-long project shatters 27-year-old mark at international competition in Nevada
SAN LUIS OBISPO — On its last possible run, a human-powered vehicle created by a team of Cal Poly engineering students broke the American collegiate speed record Saturday, setting a mark that hadn’t been bested in nearly three decades.
The new record, 63.68 mph, was set during the 20th annual World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada, held Sept. 8-13.
The previous record was 61.29 mph, set by a team from UC Berkeley in September 1992.
A human-powered vehicle is any vehicle powered by muscular strength. The most common such vehicle is a bicycle. Cal Poly’s vehicle, named Ambition, competed against other enclosed recumbent bicycles that were designed, built and ridden by students. Professional teams also competed in separate categories.
Battle Mountain is an optimum location for the event because of its thin air at 4,619 feet, which reduces aerodynamic drag. Riders travel down a 5-mile stretch outside of the town on State Route 305 — on what organizers say is one of the straightest, flattest and smoothest roads in the world — reaching their maximum velocity before being timed over a 200-meter distance.
The object of the event is to make the most aerodynamically efficient vehicles possible. Meanwhile, the technologies used for the human-powered vehicles can apply directly to all forms of transportation.
Ambition was tailor-made for its driver, Josh Gieschen, a biochemistry major from Davis, California. The vehicle is a front-wheel-drive bike covered with a bullet-shaped shell, made out of carbon fiber and Kevlar, to maximize aerodynamic performance. Members of the Cal Poly team split into subgroups specializing in different areas, such as the shell and drive train. Mechanical engineering seniors Derek Fromm of Seattle and Michael Juri of Fremont, California, developed the drive system.
While Cal Poly has had a human-powered vehicle team since 1978, this was the first time it attempted to break the record at Battle Mountain. After working on the vehicle for a year, the team had to make multiple significant changes in the days leading up to the race, adding a windshield and fixing a chain that repeatedly fell off.
“We had issues, but we knew we had time to fix them,” said Kyra Schmidt, the manufacturing lead. The day before leaving for Nevada, though, they had a promising test run, Schmidt said, which gave them confidence.
Still, there would be other factors — some out of their control. To qualify for a record, the wind can’t exceed 3.7 mph. Some years, it’s simply too windy for anyone to qualify, Fromm said. During the week, Ambition actually surpassed the record Thursday, reaching 66.43 mph. But the wind speed disqualified it as a record-breaking run.
As the final day approached, wind was forecast to be above 3.7 mph in the evening. But the Cal Poly team had a window of opportunity earlier in the day. “It was literally our last chance,” Fromm said.
Gieschen got off to a good start. Nicknamed the “motor,” he had made 10 runs over the week — often racing twice a day — and was tired and battling a cold. But his speed continued to increase until finally exceeding the 27-year record with “legal wind.”
Then, when it was over, Gieschen dramatically crashed at around 50 mph, the vehicle rolling over roughly three times. Fortunately, Fromm said, Ambition was well built, and safety measures worked.
“Not a single thing broke on the bike,” he said. And Gieschen walked away with just a couple of small bruises.
“We are all super proud of everything Josh and the team accomplished,” said Schmidt, a mechanical engineering senior from Irvine, California.
Next year, the team is looking at 70 mph, she said — and, once again, she’s confident they can do it.
“We are excited to continue improving and come back even better next year -- but first, we can all take a well-deserved break,” Schmidt said.
Cyclist Josh Gieschen, a biochemistry major from Davis, California, pedaled Cal Poly’s Ambition to a new American collegiate record, 63.68 mph, during the 20th annual World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada, held Sept. 8-13. The previous men’s record was 61.29 mph, set by a team from UC Berkeley in September, 1992.
Cyclist Josh Gieschen, a biochemistry major from Davis, California, was able to hit freeway speeds and set a record (63.68 mph) during the 20th annual World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada, held Sept. 8-13. He and his teammates worked for a year to perfect Ambition on a quest to break the American collegiate record of 61.29 mph set in 1992.
Cal Poly’s human-powered vehicle team designed, built and ultimately rode their recumbent bicycle, Ambition, into the record book hitting 63.68 mph and eclipsing a 27-year-old record during the 20th annual World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada, held Sept. 8-13. The team hopes to return in 2020 with a goal of hitting 70 mph.
In the photo at top, Cal Poly’s human-powered vehicle, named Ambition, competes against other enclosed recumbent bicycles that were designed, built and ridden by students at the 20th annual World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada, held Sept. 8-13. An HPV is any vehicle powered by muscular strength. The most common vehicle is a bicycle. Ambition set a new American collegiate speed record of 63.68 mph.
Photos provided by Cal Poly Human-Powered Vehicle team.
Contact: Pat Pemberton
(805) 756-7402, (805) 235-0555
September 27, 2019
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