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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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Melbourne is a cycling city. That was one of the many things that attracted me to moving here. I am a born-again enthusiast of two wheel flight. About a year and a half ago, I split from the cycling church of my youth into a splinter group of of heretics–recumbent and trike riders. Why? Well, aches and pains had a lot to do with it. It made a lot of sense to me to look at the sky instead of the ground. I toyed with the idea of a trike, but I wanted to ride on roads as well as bike paths and trikes seemed to take up too much room. We bought a tandem first. I invested in my own recumbent about six months before the move.

The weekend before last I found a group of fellow heretics. They are part of the OZHPV group (Australian Human Powered Vehicle). They have social rides every Sunday. Last night they met downtown in front of the State Library in an attempt to drum up interest for an upcoming event– this weekend’s cycling challenge at Casey Fields in Cranbourne. There will be a concours d’elegance, a drag race, sprint, timetrial, a one hour roadrace, a twin slalom and a “shopping race.”

The British are tinkerers. It is hard to imagine the industrial revolution without the inventions that came out of Great Britain. In this corner of the commonwealth, one of the spin offs of that sensibility has been the creation of self-propelled machines the likes of which I have never seen before. Tandems, recumbents, ingenious folding trikes. Most of the members of the group build their own two, three and four wheelers.

Last night I looked down at one little grasshopper-colored bike and asked the owner where it came from. He said it was a Japanese design, made in Taiwan, but he had changed almost everything from the steering to the seat. The leader of Sunday’s spontaneous rides took one look at my bike and suggested I switch to underseat steering. He would help me, he said. No problem. They are cycle recyclers, inventive and fun. They are not the lycra set, determined to huff and puff their way to the front of the pack. They are laid back and relaxed, taking in the scenery, chatting and dreaming up new and better designs for the most efficient vehicle ever built.

Maybe it is time the heretics took over the church.

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