People power

By Michael Stahl 12 September 2016
Reading Time: 4 Minutes Print this page
Each year, hundreds of enthusiastic speed racers gather at Murray Bridge, SA, to show off their bravery, skill and sleek machines. But with no engines, this race is a quiet – yet lively – affair.

ON THE PACKED race track, the action was focused and frenetic. More than 200 streamlined machines jostled for position, colliding at speed, their riders battling physical and mental exhaustion inside tight, functional cockpits. Those tough enough endure this for 24 hours – the ­ultimate in circuit racing.

But there was no shriek of high-performance engines here; no frantic pit teams and no pyramids of tyres. Instead, just metres away from the competitors, riverboats bobbed serenely at their moorings on the Murray River. If it weren’t for the sudden influx of 30,000 people, the residents of Murray Bridge, in south-eastern SA, might have remained oblivious to the world-class race taking place on their doorsteps.

GALLERY: Pedal Prix 2015, South Australia

The annual 24-hour Australian International Pedal Prix is the oldest, longest, largest and fastest human powered vehicle (HPV) race in the world. At ­Murray Bridge, riders who have gone head to head in the shorter races during the UniSA Australian HPV Super Series gather for one last, gruelling battle. The 2015 competition attracted a staggering 225 teams – each with 8–20 riders – from almost every corner of ­Australia.

pedal prix

A school-entry competitor rehydrates on the run. Some riders radio into their pits and others shout out when they pass to indicate they want to swap riders. (Image: Thomas Wielecki)

It’s surprisingly fast. The Open class machines, the adult riders of which are often of road cycling pedigree, can hit 70km/h on the main straight of the Sturt Reserve circuit. Despite the course’s bumps and trike-tipping corners, the fastest can average better than 50km/h during a 2.1km lap. It is a feat of endurance, too – the 24-hour record stands at 1098km.

IN 1986 THE inaugural 24-hour Pedal Prix at the University of South Australia involved a ragtag collection of home-built machines resembling bike-wheeled bedsteads. As it grew, it moved to its new home in Sturt Reserve, Murray Bridge, in 1997.

Series chairman Andrew McLachlan discovered HPV racing in 1996, when he managed his daughter’s school team. With his close friend, the late Tim Bellotti, Andrew designed and built progressively better machines. Eventually, with a group of mates, they formed an Open class team, Team Bellotti, which won the 24-hour Pedal Prix in 2000 and 2001. “Not with me riding,” Andrew is quick to add.

School teams are the lifeblood of HPV racing, making up about 80 per cent of entries. The youngest teams – those in Year 6 – are allowed up to 20 riders during the 24-hour slog. Most students are involved in the design, maintenance and repair of their machines.

pedal prix dinosaur

Eighty per cent of the 225 machines entered in the 2015 race were from school teams. Pro teams typically do one-hour cycling stints, with eight riders in each team, while primary schoolers are allowed up to 20 riders. (Image: Thomas Wielecki)

David de Bruyn, the design and technology teacher at Kinross Wolaroi School in Orange, NSW, admits he doesn’t need to do much encouraging. “They choose this activity as their winter sport, although there’s a lot of academic application as well,” he says. “We have many farming students who come in and make projects for home – trailers, that sort of thing. A lot of the kids I teach are born with a welder in their hands.”

The school team initially built its own HPV – the machines are essentially recumbent trikes, with fibreglass or plastic bodywork – but its two latest vehicles were assembled from kits. But the teenaged racers need bravery as well as skill. The fastest Open class competitors will outstrip the students by as much as 20km/h over a lap, and the cocooned nature of the machines leaves riders reliant on hearing the chirping, piezo-electronic horns that warn of a fast-approaching rival.

AS THE NUMBERS OF HPV racers swelled, a handful of specialist Australian manufacturers sprang up. Trisled, based on Victoria’s ­Mornington Peninsula, has been building recumbent racers for 20 years. Today, it makes about 85 machines a year, two-thirds of which are racing versions. Trisled’s four racing models range from an open-cockpit, school-friendly kit (from $4750), to the aero-tuned, Kevlar-bodied Aquila 2 model (a hefty $9900).

“The technology in some of these chassis is no different from racing cars,” says Andrew. “The ­development some of these guys are doing, with ­composite materials – it’s all motor-sport derived.”

pedal prix dinosaur

At night windows fog up and some machines channel air over the inside to fight condensation, while shrill horns alert riders ahead. (Image: Thomas Wielecki)

Increasingly, new and used machines and ­components from Trisled, along with Adelaide rivals Trump Trikes and Sutton Cycles, and Bendigo’s ­Wattle ­Racing, filter down to the junior teams. And there’s still plenty of room for backyard innovation.

Open-class favourite Aurora Racing, from Maryborough in Victoria, built a 24.5kg custom machine. Although 5kg lighter than most, the inflexibility of the carbon-fibre chassis saves precious tenths of seconds in pedalling and cornering. The group of eight friends spent $10,000 to build their racer – but it paid off, as they muscled their way to first place after 24 hours.

Despite Aurora Racing’s creative efforts, it was the Trisled team that clinched the 2015 series championship by just two points. The victors have some pretty impressive riders on its eight-strong team. Among them are Jeff Nielsen, a former 24-hour distance world record holder (1107km), and Gareth Hanks, world trike speed record holder (117.38km/h).

With its technical materials and creative design, Trisled director Ben Goodall says HPV racing is a lot like motor sport, minus the noise and pollution. “The critical thing about HPV racing is that you can bring it to the people,” he says. “You can race these things right down the main street of a town.”

This article was originally published in the Jul-Aug 2016 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#133).