The most delicate aspect of the run is staying within the slipstream. "It gets weird," says Howard, "If I wobble or fade too far behind the car, I lose the vortex and crash sideways in the wind. So I gradually advance the throttle, and I can feel myself being sucked in. I'm trying to pedal steadily, and that doggone windshield seems to get smaller and smaller. There's no side vision; my focus narrows, and my thoughts turn to just one thing. Life preservation."
From off to one side on the Bonneville flats, the visual effect was stunning: The teardrop-shaped race car flashed past in a blur, and pedaling along behind it, well clear of the car but still in its draft, came Howard on the cycle. At that speed, one bobble would send him sliding off the horizon.
For two days Howard and Vesco played this dangerous game, riding the six-mile course on the vast salt desert—a crystalline wonderland 100 miles west of Salt Lake City so hard-packed that it crunches loudly underfoot. On Friday afternoon, Vesco hit 137.614, but he was all alone—Howard had dropped out of the slipstream. "The salt was swirling up," he said. "It was like riding through a storm."
But then, relentlessly, they began to dial it in. On Saturday's first run, which started at 8:40 a.m., they reached a smooth 134.308 mph, with both the car and the bike kicking up high-arching plumes of salt behind them. "The record," said Howard, "is ours."
Not quite. On the fourth run, around noon, Howard was thrown skidding and veering out of control with a flat rear tire. "What was it, a blowout?" his crew asked Howard when they caught up with him stranded in the middle of that vast whiteness.
What happened was this: The centrifugal force at that high speed had driven the air inside the tire against the tire's wall, and the pressure was great enough to push the air out through the valve. What was needed, Howard and his crew decided, was a metal valve cap like the one on the front tire.
At four o'clock, on the sixth run of the day, the record crumbled. At the finish line there was great whooping when the official time came in over the radio, and in the blistering afternoon heat a victorious Howard was bathed by a fizzy spray of champagne that had been stored in Styrofoam ice chests for the occasion.
Howard combed the salt out of his 'stache and allowed that this was one more mission accomplished in his madcap life of cycling. Already, another wonderful new idea was taking shape inside his curly head. What if the magic bike, with a few modifications, were turned into a John Howard signature-model touring bike on which riders could barrel across the country at fantastic speeds? Well, why not? "Imagery is important to me," Howard said. "I try to picture what will happen—and then make it happen."