Toolbox: Motorpacing Lessons from the Salt Flats
Attorney and former professional cyclist Bob Mionske says, “Don’t do it!” Traffic codes universally discourage it, and most rational individuals would consider it ill-advised. If that’s the case, what is the appeal of motor pacing?
By John Howard
I have used motor pacing to sharpen my performance and bike handling skills for many years, but I have noticed that the topic is pretty much ignored in publications when it comes to advising its use. This is likely due to the inherent physical risks involved along with the legality of it in many jurisdictions; however, I find it to be a valuable tool and an exciting activity if it can be safely incorporated into your training.
One of the everlasting appeals of cycling is the thrill of speed. I had the desire to travel faster that anyone had ever gone before on a bicycle, a desire that was fueled by personalities like Mile-a-Minute Charles Murphy who was paced by the Long Island Express to a speed of 62.3 mph with boards laid between the railroad ties at the end of the 19th century. In 1941, Alf LeTourner set the bicycle land speed record at 109 mph behind an open wheel race car. At the age of 12, I remember seeing a comic book in the local Schwinn bike shop depicting LeTourner’s feat – I wanted to go even faster!
Finding a location
From 1983 to 1985, I endeavored to break the 138.7 mph bicycle land speed record set by Dr. Allan Abbott in 1973. At that kind of speed, you very quickly run out of road, and therefore we needed to find as wide open a space as possible! The Bonneville Salt Flats feature a wide, smooth expanse of salt and is the fastest surface on Earth, which attracts speed freaks from every corner of the world. Perfect!
The salt flats were expansive and there was no traffic. If you choose to motor pace on the open road, find the safest expanse of roadway with little or no cross traffic, stop lights, stop signs, or merging of traffic. Essentially, find the smoothest and quietest road you can. There is the safer alternative of a velodrome, however, so explore whether there is the possibility of derny pacing.
Finding a Vehicle and Partner
You’ve likely seen pictures or video, perhaps even live, the derny racing that is often a feature of track 6-days. What I needed was someone who would do the same, but only outdoors and much faster! Therefore, next up was finding someone willing and crazy enough to provide wind-break for a cyclist at that speed, not to mention a vehicle that can do the job. For the numerous attempts, I was paced by Rick Vesco in his 350-cubic-inch Chevy powered Streamliner, customized with a large back attachment that gave me complete draft.
When you’re considering a partner and vehicle for your motorpacing, you should first and foremost be concerned about safety and the experience of the driver. A car can be utilized and provides a larger draft, but you need to ensure that you can still see all around the car for your own safety. In other words, a big pickup truck is not a good idea, because it’s very hard to see around it.
For the sake of practicality, you should consider being paced by a motorcycle that is driven by an experienced rider who can hold a smooth throttle and doesn’t get panicky with the brakes. The machine should be clean running and reliable with a good chain. Smoothness is absolutely critical, unless you really feel like constantly slamming on the brakes, getting out of the draft, and reaccelerating. While this may sound like a typical race, it’s far too dangerous to be messing with those issues when motorpacing. The size of the engine is unimportant, as the speeds you’ll be aiming for are generally within the range of most motorcycles or scooters.
What Bike to Use?
The bike we built was designed for high speeds with a single speed direct drive and gearing from 300 to 350 inches and was equipped with motorcycle shocks. You will need a quick-steering road bike, so leave the time trial rig at home. When you are near the motor, stay clear of any rear obstructions, such as motorcycle fenders or turn indicators, and alter them if they prove hazardous. One nice addition is a “bumper” set of rollers right behind the motorcycle, so that your front wheel taps that and spin the rollers rather than your front wheel hitting the bike itself. At Bonneville, I was protected by leather. You will want to cover yourself with extra lycra in case of a tumble. Although I have never crashed, I still prepare myself for it.
You must practice, practice, and practice even more to hone your technique, increasing your speed only when your skill level can safely handle it. We slowly dialed in the technique on the salt flats, and I rode so close to the car on numerous occasions, that I tapped it. You need to become comfortable being close to your pace vehicle and with the speeds at which you travel. Play the edges slowly, feeling the fore/aft drift of two machines piloted by two different individuals.
At Bonneville, Rick Vesco and I were completely in tune with one another. You and your pace partner must do the same. Be predictable with your maneuvers, and cautiously edge closer to your pace vehicle until you feel the surging draft. At 100 miles per hour, it comes up very quickly, and the response has to be instinctive. At the 30-35 mile-per-hour speeds you’ll be traveling at, there is time to respond logically.
On July 20, 1985, my crew and I set the world land speed record on a bicycle at 152.2 miles per hour. The lessons that were learned during the process have endured. I understood better the importance of mental preparation and meditation in successfully achieving a goal. I prefer to ramp up my speed behind the motor over leaving it in a surge. Holding a gap is just like being pursued or pursuing to close in on another cyclist. I think that it is the closest thing to simulating an actual race without having to pay the entry fee.
Maintain a mental picture of your goal. Imagination rules the world; it is a preview of life’s coming attractions, to paraphrase Einstein. When I trained for the speed record, it was on rollers and behind motorcycles to increase my snap. In events, such as criteriums and circuit races, the action is far hotter than anything you will likely encounter while training behind a motor under predictable conditions. They require a certain degree of fast-twitch responses. A sprint workout behind a motor can improve your final push and your ability to ramp up speed quickly and maintain wattage. This will improve the reliability of your response in a race and your overall versatility, two factors that add professional touches to a cyclist’s repertoire.
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.