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There are two or three reasons people take up recumbent cycling. The first two are flip sides of the same reason– 1.) to eliminate the aches and pains that accumulate from riding diamond-frame bikes, and 2.) to cycle comfortably in something like a chair, looking straight ahead rather than at the ground; and 3.) to go very fast.

Most cyclists regard recumbent riders with disdain, figuring, sometimes correctly, that we have come to the world of reclining bicycles because of a bad back or because we are handicapped in some way. When people think of speed, they probably picture the kinds of bicycles they see in time trials or during the big races like the Tour de France. But those are not the self-propelled machines that go really fast. The only way to go fast is to cut wind resistance and that means getting prone or behind another vehicle. When legs and lungs are equal or close to it, wind resistance makes all the difference.

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Last December I invited myself along to the annual meeting of the OZ Human Powered Vehicles group here in Eastern Australia. It was held in Myrtleford, one of my favourite little towns in Victoria, up in Alpine Country. It is fine cycling country because the train that used to run from Wangaratta to Bright has been replaced with a bike path. There is a short, but challenging spur trail up to the old, gold town of Beechworth. Most of the rail-trail is pleasant and parts of it are lovely.

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Myrtleford is in the middle, an ideal place for a meet-up of people coming from all over, but mostly from Melbourne and Canberra. The OZHPV group attracts all sorts, from ingenious tinkerers who build their own bikes, to laid-back, comfort-loving riders who ride recumbents for the sheer fun of it.

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Then there are those who are serious about speed and stamina, cyclists who have circumnavigated Australia without getting much sleep. It seems like the serious ones came from the capitol, Canberra. Too much testosterone, I imagine. I have seen the same thing in Washington DC and even in Ottawa, Canada. Type A people either love politics or the perks of the civil service.

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The annual meeting was long and noisy and consensus was hard to come by following an unsatisfactory dinner. I decided to skip it and settle down with a good mystery in my bunk bed. I had come for the rides and the opportunity to catch up with some of my recumbent buddies, not wrangling over how to collect more dues or spend the modest sums the group managed to collect.

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It is a long way from Australia to Nevada, but that is where the real action is in terms of setting speed records. Every year, phenomenal riders from all over the world head for Battle Mountain, where they compete with one another over a four mile stretch of perfectly flat road. The current male record holder is a Canadian by the name of Sam Wittingham. He has ridden 82 miles an hour (133kph) in a fully-enclosed recumbent velomobile. Barbara Buatois, a French woman, is not far behind at 75.7 mph (121) kph. These speeds were attained without drafting a car or any other vehicle.

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(photo credit Jun Nogami)

You can see the records and find many more photos at: http://www.recumbents.com/wisil/whpsc2012/speedchallenge.htm. They will be at it again soon, from September 10 to 15th, 20112. Australia will have its own contingent this year, two racers led by Ben Goodall, a Victorian based recumbent builder/racer, the man behind the plastic, kayak-inspired velomobile, the Rotovelo featured in my first photo, the blue one with father and child.

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(photo credit Dave Larrington)

The vehicles built to break these records bear little resemblance to what you see in the Tour de France, but they share most of the same parts. They need a push start because the gearing is so high, but they are, essentially, bicycles. The French banned recumbents from the racing world back in 1932, so they are now called “human powered vehicles” instead.

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(photo credit Dave Larrington)

As we were leaving Myrtleford, my car-pool companion asked me if I wanted to make a slight detour to see a dredge on the way home. Alan has been good to me over the years, so how could I resist? He had been hired some time ago to calculate the value of the huge contraption for a Parks Victoria bid. As soon as the Parks people expressed an interest, the owners said it was still valuable and that they might restore and ship it to Queensland for a tin mining operation. The consultants that Alan worked for were bought in to assess the practicality of this idea, and the value of the dredge. They determined that dismantling the beast and shipping it would cost more than the $10 million of a new, more efficient dredge. Then the dickering began.

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The dredge is a combination building, boat and factory. From 1936 to 1954, it slowly moved its own pond up the creek valleys, digging 70,664 ounces (2000 kilos) of gold and 1,383 tons of tin from the alluvial plain of Reedy Creek. With its endless belt of 110 giant buckets on a moveable arm, it was a slow-going chainsaw, slicing open the earth under its gigantic jaws.

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The buckets were made of cast chrome steel with manganese digging tips. Each one weighed over one and a half tons. It was driven by a 6,600 volt cable that ran across the pond on floats. It was a monster, the very antithesis of a recumbent bike.

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During the eighteen years of its working life, the dredge operated all day and all night, send shockwaves of sound and light out over the placid outback. It is peaceful now, abandoned to the elements, way off the beaten track. It was a worthy detour to wrap up a weekend full of odd machines. The ingenuity of man applied to tearing up the earth, or setting world speed records in lightweight, self-propelled rockets.

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If you get out on any stretch of highway in our part of Australia, you might easily come to the conclusion that this is a nation of narcolepts. Road signs leap out at you alerting you to the dangers of dropping off into oblivion. “Drowsy Drivers Die,” reads one not-too-subtle injunction. “A Micro sleep kills,” reads another. “Power nap, now!” I am not entirely sure what a power nap is, but it sounds essential to maintaining one’s consciousness on Australian highways, which seem to have the ability to knock each and every driver out for the count.

It seems a bit much, really, considering where we are. This is the state of Victoria, which is very, very small. Take a look at a map. We are not driving one of those roads in Western Australia where you come across warnings that the next petrol (and beer) is 300 kms away. Where the view out the window is nothing but termite mounds for hours on end. Where you really could nod off and massacre millions of termites with no trouble at all.

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We had decided to make a pilgrimage to the Grampians, a small, but rugged National Park three hours to the west of Melbourne. The only town within the boundaries of the Park itself is called Halls Gap. Since it is winter here, I expected to see more kangaroos than people, but I had not counted on the intrepid Australian campers or dedication of North American and Japanese tourists. For them, it is the height of summer, a fine time to visit Australia without the crowds.

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The Grampians form the western extremity of the Great Dividing Range. The sandstone ranges took shape some 300 million years ago. A series of low-angled sandstone ridges run roughly north-south. The eastern sides of the ridges, where the sedimentary layers have faulted, are steep and spectacular. The southern edge of the Park is nearly 100 kms from the Southern Ocean, due north of Port Fairy, where we once joined hordes of folkies for the famous festival. Forty million years ago the Southern Ocean covered all that land and the waves lapped at the base of Mount Abrupt.

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The ranges were named in 1836 by Surveyor General of New South Wales Sir Thomas Mitchell after the Grampian Mountains in his native Scotland. They are also known by the name Gariwerd, from one of the local Australian Aboriginal languages spoken in the area. It was an inviting landscape for the natives, rich in fresh water, wildlife, medicinal plants and food. They have left evidence of their 10,000 year habitation in one of best collections of rock art sites anywhere in Australia. The elegant Brambuk Aboriginal Centre provides a glimpse into the native heritage.

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The first European settlers used the “gap” to pasture cattle, then grow wheat. They were soon followed by logging companies who came in to take the tall, straight trees. The sandstone was cut and shipped out for the grand buildings going up in Melbourne, Ballarat and Ararat, thanks to the gold rush. Now, the gold arrives in the pockets of bush walkers and climbers, tourists attracted to the area for the spectacular views, wildlife and waterfalls.

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In January, 2006, parts of the Grampians were devastated by fire, five years later came floods that tore apart gorges and sent trees toppling over waterfalls. Many of the famous walks are now closed, pending the time and money to repair the trails. But when Spring rolls around, it will be wildflower season in the Grampians.

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We’ll be back. Now, if only I can stay awake long enough to drive there. The road is a long, drawn out whisper, “You are drowsy, now, you are very, very sleepy.” I must be in Australia. It’s the Dreaming.

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