There were times last Saturday afternoon when John Howard was setting all the wrong records. Try this one: the world's fastest flat tire on a bicycle, causing the bike to careen sideways at about 150 mph. Or how about the one for the most salt ever caked to a man's handlebar mustache? But Howard, 37, a seven-time national champ, three-time U.S. Olympian and all-around cycling madman, is not one to pedal off into the sunset leaving an intact record behind him. He would give it another try.
And in one shining moment on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, it all came together. His 6'2", 170-pound frame hunched over a strange-looking two-wheeled contraption, his legs pumping out a smooth 130 rpm, Howard set a new world land speed record for bicycles of 152.284 mph.
Howard's triumph marked the climax of a $100,000 campaign to break a record that hardly anybody had heard of in the first place, and now he holds the world mark at both wonderfully obscure ends of cycling's spectrum. In 1982 he set the 24-hour bicycling distance record, covering 514 miles in that time while pedaling around New York City's Central Park.
"A lot of people seem to think I'm crazy," he said Saturday. Well, being crazy works just fine for John Howard. He pulverized the old speed record, a 138.671-mph run at Bonneville on Aug. 25, 1973 by Allan V. Abbott, who rode out in the slipstream of a 1955 Chevy.
The operative word here is slipstream. No cyclist, no matter how mighty of thigh, could achieve such dizzying speeds pedaling alone; he needs the pocket of relatively thin, smooth air that a large, fast-moving object creates behind it.
Start with physics, and then add magic—Howard's bike. "It was years in the making," he says. "Doug Malewicki, the guy who did Evel Knievel's Sky Cycle, designed it. It grew one piece at a time as we figured out how to make it go faster."
Even in repose, Howard's bike seems ready to pounce: It's just 32 inches high and weighs 46 pounds, and features 18-inch wheels; 150-mph-rated tires, each carrying 70 pounds of air; and a fearsome-looking double-reduction gear system with three sprockets and two chains.
"It's a little squirrelly at times," Howard says. "Sometimes I have no idea what's going to happen when I'm riding it at speed."
Even more squirrelly stuff goes on out in front. Howard's pace car is a low-slung, long-nosed torpedo powered by a 350-cubic-inch Chevy engine, a race car with an official top speed of 300.300 mph. Its rear end swoops up smartly to create a boxlike chamber behind which the bike rides. The upper part of the aerodynamic structure has a Plexiglas windshield through which Howard can see the road ahead. Just below the windshield is a rear-facing speedometer and a small sign that says FASTER, YOU FOOL!
Perhaps it's a good thing that world land speed bicycle record runs aren't attempted all that often. Consider the routine: Howard hooks the bike up to the car with a three-foot cable. The car's driver, Rick Vesco, accelerates smoothly, up to 55 mph or so, and then Howard releases the cable. Now comes the crazy part. Howard takes over the car's speed, adjusting it with a radio-controlled throttle on his right handgrip. Vesco merely steers the car—and the two casually discuss their progress by means of their crash-helmet headsets.