When Neil Campbell hit 174.3mph on his bike at Elvington Airfield in Yorkshire, UK, on August 17, he shattered a 24-year-old cycling speed record. He was towed up to 150mph in the slipstream of a roaring Porsche Cayenne, going from 0-60mph in 4-5 seconds, then detached the rope between the car and his bespoke bike, and accelerated up to his sensational top speed.
His stunt earned the 45-year-old architect the male Guinness World Record for ‘the fastest bicycle speed in a slipstream’ – a record previously held by Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg, who hit 166.9mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in America in 1995.
But for the next stage of his Operation Pacemaker project, Campbell plans to travel to Bonneville next year to target the overall record, currently held by female American cyclist Denise Mueller-Korenek, who clocked 183.9mph at Bonneville in 2018. He talks to RSNG about making his speed dreams a reality....
RSNG What did it take to ride a bike at 174mph, which is pretty much double the speed of a gravity-assisted rider descending a mountain at the Tour de France? NEIL CAMPBELL, CYCLIST ‘It was tough because the runway is so short at Elvington so there were real risks at every stage. For all the previous world records on the Bonneville salt flat, where the track is about 7 miles long – much longer than the 2 miles at Elvington – they get towed for a minute plus, whereas I was towed for just 30 seconds.’
‘So you have to get up to speed really quickly, which makes it more terrifying. At the start, I was attached to a Porsche Cayenne with a tow rope. Going 0-60mph in 4-5 seconds off the line is pretty insane.’
‘I was then released half a mile before the first timing gate, so at that point I was just pedalling on my own, unassisted, and I accelerated into and through the timing gates. I had to hit maybe 1,800 watts of power at that point.’
I am looking at the bike moving around underneath me and thinking: this is insane
** RSNG What was the most daunting moment? NC** ‘I was far more relaxed when I dropped the tow line than when I was behind this Porsche Cayenne with 700 brake horsepower. When it was accelerating literally as hard as it could, so the pedal was basically floored, it is honest to God the most scary thing.’
‘I had to stop reading some of the social media comments afterwards, like: “Yeah, I could do that on my six-year-old’s bike.” No, you can’t. The amount of stress is incredible. Even at the start, I am pushing hard on the pedals because if I was not putting power through the pedals the whole thing would fall apart.’
‘Even from the first pedal rev I am sticking in around 800 watts and it’s hard to even keep the bike upright. The car goes off like a rocket.’
RSNG What self-talk did you use before the record attempt? NC ‘Initially the big challenge was not to break the record but to test myself – to see whether or not I had the bottle to do it, quite honestly. The first time I broke 100mph I realised we could do this. But the scariest doubt I ever had was before the last run, which broke the record this year.’
‘That was because the subsequent run had not gone well and I was really nervous. But you have to get into a state of full commitment. If this goes wrong, it is going to go wrong in a big way. So even though I had mega doubts, I had to get into the frame of mind to fully commit. To do it and survive was pure relief.’
** RSNG What was so special about your bespoke ‘Silver Eagle’ bike? NC** ‘It is based on an old tandem bike design which has good strength and balance but with a few additions to make it tougher. When I first started testing it, we were using standard road tyres and standard disc brakes, and they were getting chewed to pieces.’
‘So I worked with AJ (Andrew Jones of Moss Bikes in Cheshire) and he helped to make it tough enough to handle what I was planning to do. We did some research and spoke to lots of different people, and we realised bike components would just fall to bits, so it had to have motocross bike parts.’
‘I bought a complete bike, stripped it down and took the wheels and tyres and parts, and I got things adapted. We also had some specific 3D-modelled parts.’
** RSNG How did you adapt the car for your record attempt? NC** ‘The car is fitted with a canopy – like a big screen – to help me cut through the air. But it was super-minimal and super-turbulent. Doing the test run at 150mph was horrible. I thought I had hit at least 160mph because of the sensations.’
‘Cars are designed in wind tunnels to close the air behind them as quickly as possible, so the air was closing quickly behind the car and catching the back of my bike and shaking me all over the place. My adrenaline was through the roof.’
‘So we had to change tactics a bit. We realised that if I rode faster, the problem should actually get easier, because at a certain speed a vortex would form, which would suck me towards the car and away from the dirty air behind it. And miraculously when I did ride faster, it worked. That’s when we did the record run.’
** RSNG When did you first start thinking about the world record? NC** ‘I had known about the record since the 1990s when I was just an amateur racer as I worked with Dave Le Grys who had set the British cycling record (with a speed of 110mph in 1986). But in 2013 Guy Martin got in touch with Dave to help with some background coaching for his own attempt at the British cycling speed record (Martin clocked 112mph that year).’
‘We both got along to watch him do it but I thought we could do better. That is where the concept of breaking Guy Martin’s British record came into it. I got the old tandem and with very few modifications I managed to break his record, just riding behind a Volkswagon Passat Diesel Estate at Elvington (at 114mph in 2016). After that I naturally started looking at the world record.’
RSNG You have now set your sights on riding 220mph in 2020 – what will it take to reach that higher speed and take the overall world record? NC ‘It will make all the difference if we can get to Bonneville. Trying to ride at those speeds in Yorkshire was sketchy at best. We started out training on an industrial estate, then a dual carriageway, then set the record on the runway, so we need go somewhere where the distance isn’t an obstacle and I can get a longer tow.’
‘We also have to work on strengthening the bike parts because, even if I get up to speed, the bike as it is now might not be able to handle that kind of chaos. I have heard other guys are going to try to break my record with some attempts planned in Bolivia and Bonneville. So they will probably break my current male record.’
‘That is why I really want to go big, move away from the 174mph and hit 220mph. It will put it on another level.’
If you have doubts yourself, you have to say: I am not going to be the weak link in this chain
RSNG How will you prep your mind for the big record attempt? NC ‘I tell myself that I don’t want to let the team down. So if you have doubts yourself, you have to say: I am not going to be the weak link in this chain. It is an amazing sensation when you’re riding that fast, but the danger is so real. I am looking at the bike moving around, and the car moving around, and I am thinking: this is insane.’
‘The key is to learn when to switch off and when to focus. It has taken me a lot of time to learn that about myself. In the past, when we did slower runs at 135mph or 150mph, I realised that if I went too fast, too soon, you will scare yourself and it will take time to overcome that.’
‘So, it is better to progress bit by bit so it just feels... not normal but more normal. In the months before, you build yourself up and you manage your own fear so when the moment comes it’s like you just press a button. And then you go...’
WHAT NEXT? Want to see what it’s like to ride a push bike at 174mph? Watch Neil Campbell’s record attempt here.