Led by Adam Kyte, in the School of Marine Science and Engineering, and spearheaded – almost literally – by former London Marathon winner Sarah Piercy, the team overcame near Hollywood biopic levels of disappointment to set a new speed record for women’s handcycling.
On the long, straight roads of Nevada, USA, in a machine designed in the workshops of Plymouth, the existing record was beaten by 0.1mph, and a certain amount of cosmic karma was restored.
“This record is the result of a five-year rollercoaster ride,” said project lead Adam, Lecturer in Mechanical and Marine Engineering Design. “Sometimes it felt that it was an impossible dream, while at other times it has been one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with. But it has enabled hundreds of students to learn about real-world engineering through the example of handcycle design.”
The University’s association with handcycling started just before it shot to popularity at the London Paralympics, following an approach by Alan Grace, former chairman of the Handcycling Association of the UK. On the back of that, work started in earnest with a view to taking a University team to the 2015 World Human Powered Speed Challenge.
Gaining support from local, national and international businesses, the team designed and built an eye-catching bike, and teamed up with Liz McTernan, ranked in the world’s top eight in her sport, to try and beat the then women’s benchmark of 21.39mph.
When it came to the record attempt, however, a pre-existing injury meant Liz was unable to compete at full power, although she was able to set a new record of 24.72mph on her own conventional racing bike. Adam, who himself proved the design’s effectiveness by piloting it to speeds in excess of 30mph, recalled:
“Having spent many months on the project, it was obviously disappointing not to see it pushed to its full potential. But testing gave us enough data to calculate what might be possible, and for an untrained and inexperienced pilot to reach more than 30mph showed us what it could achieve.”
With that in the back of their minds, the team decided to try again in 2016, teaming up with Sarah – who won the women’s wheelchair race in London in 2000 – and Help for Heroes ambassador Chris Jones. They improved the bike, and began a programme of testing to ensure both athletes were happy with it. In July, however, there was another setback when Chris had to withdraw from the project for family reasons.