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Gallery: Neil Campbell, the fastest man on two wheels

In-depth
12 Nov 2019
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Words Mark Bailey Photography Adam Roberts and Damian Blakemore

When Neil Campbell pedalled his bespoke £15,000 tandem-inspired bike at 280.5kmh (174.3mph) in the slipstream of a Porsche Cayenne this summer, he became the world’s fastest man on a bike.

His record speed – set at Elvington Airfield in Yorkshire on 17th August – was almost three times faster than the top speeds recorded by riders on Alpine descents at the Tour de France. It was four times faster than a gold medal-winning time in the Olympic team pursuit.

‘Cycling at that speed is like riding a mountain bike with flattish tyres on rollers, but with the rollers themselves on roller skates, so you’re bouncing all over the place with hardly any control, knowing you need to crank out 1,800 watts non-stop or you’re in trouble,’ says the 45-year-old architect from Essex.

‘You know that feeling just before a crash, in the split second when you haven’t quite crashed yet but you know you are definitely going to? It’s like that horrible sensation but drawn out for a whole minute.’

Campbell’s record was the culmination of years of determination, innovation, deadly risks, teamwork and broken road laws (he had to practise somewhere, he says).

Despite racing on an airfield just 3km long, he shattered the 24-year-old Guinness World Record for ‘the fastest bicycle speed in a slipstream (male)’ previously held by Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg, who hit 268.6kmh at the more expansive Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, in 1995.

As part of his Operation Pacemaker project, Campbell hopes to travel to Bonneville’s 11km salt track next year to attack the overall record currently held by female American cyclist Denise Mueller-Korenek, who clocked 296kmh (183.9mph) there in 2018.

‘If we had an extra half a mile we might have broken that too but the risks on Elvington were way higher,’ he says. ‘Trying to reach 174mph and stop again within two miles is insane.’

The bike Campbell piloted was an elongated tandem-style steel bike dubbed the ‘Silver Eagle’, which was built in conjunction with Andrew ‘AJ’ Jones of Cheshire-based Moss Bikes.

The bike features 19-inch motorbike wheels with 82mm-wide tyres. At the airfield he was pulled up to 240kmh by a Porsche Cayenne Turbo with a four-litre V8 engine putting out 550 horsepower.

He then released the tow between the bike and the car and accelerated in the slipstream of the special canopy fitted to the back of the Porsche to punch a hole in the air. When he entered the twin timing gates, 200m apart, he blasted up to 280.5kmh.

‘People think I’m sitting on the bike, getting towed and just smoking a cigar,’ he says with a laugh. ‘But if I don’t put power through the pedals the towing mechanism will pull itself to bits. The car is going at a ridiculous speed and you have to put in huge power just to keep the bike’s centre of gravity low enough not to slide.

‘Even from the first pedal rev, I’m sticking in around 800 watts. Then before the release I’m going nuts, about 40 seconds all-in, proper anaerobic, like a kilo on the track, with a peak power of 1,800 watts. I unleash serious torque as well because I’m grinding this massive fixed gear at 100-110rpm.

‘You’re hit by the fear that if you ease off you’ll get pulled into the dirty air. But the faster you go, the more the air is slapping the bike around so everything intensifies up to this big crescendo. It’s like going into a boxing match knowing you’re going to get battered and that there’s a good chance you’ll get knocked out.’

The speed club

The British daredevil joins a long list of wacky racers. In 1899 the American Charles Murphy became the first cyclist to exceed 60mph (96.5kmh), by slipstreaming a train along a makeshift track on Long Island with wooden boards laid over the sleepers.

In 1941 Frenchman Alfred Letourneur reached 175kmh behind a race car on Highway 99 in California. And in 2018 Mueller-Korenek set her current overall record behind a dragster.

Campbell first learned about speed records in his teens when he was coached by former Olympic track cyclist Dave Le Grys, who had set a British record of 177kmh in 1986 by riding behind a Rover SD1 on a closed section of the M42.

‘On his mantelpiece was this large photograph of him behind a Rover touring car with a big canopy on the back and I thought, “That is insane! I want to do that one day!”’

But despite enjoying success at national race meetings from juniors to masters, Campbell became bored of competitive cycling and gave up on the idea. Everything changed when his mother died and he moved from Cheshire to the southeast for work around six years ago.

‘My personal life was imploding and I needed a focus,’ he says. In 2013 Campbell saw Guy Martin break the British speed record by riding at 180kmh on a custom Rourke bike behind a racing truck on Pendine Sands in Wales, and thought he could do better.

Hooking up with Le Grys, Campbell pimped up an old tandem with motorbike parts and in 2016 set a new British record of 183.5kmh by riding behind a VW Passat at Elvington. ‘Guy Martin’s record had half a million quid thrown at it but we did it with a 20-year-old tandem, a load of gaffer tape and a family car.’

Rise of the Silver Eagle

Campbell’s obsession continued to grow: ‘I was working 50 hours a week so I had to go self-employed to do all this. It’s all self-funded. People dedicate time and support but I’m pretty much paying for it out of my own pocket. I try not to count how much I have spent as it will drive me insane. But this year alone it’s probably about £10,000.’

In order to push new boundaries, Campbell teamed up with Moss Bikes’s Jones to develop the Silver Eagle in 2018.

‘I based the geometry on the Cannondale tandem from the late 1990s and a little bit on the Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle as I knew that could do 200mph,’ says Campbell. ‘So I gave AJ a basic geometry and a load of motorbike parts and said, “You fill in the rest.”’

Jones, a former design and technology teacher, was intrigued. ‘I’m a niche builder,’ he says. ‘I once built a frame with a whisky flask built into it – so I like wacky things.

‘The biggest challenge was the stability. Bike components would just fall apart at that speed, so the whole thing was CAD-modelled, which enabled me to develop 3D-modelled stainless steel parts to increase stiffness.

‘We bought a KTM motocross bike and took the wheels, the drivetrain and the front forks from that, and I set the bottom bracket lower to get his centre of gravity down. At speed, anything that puts him off is a big deal. When Mark Cavendish is sprinting, if the tension on his shoe isn’t right, it puts him off. Neil is the same.’

The bike features a double bottom bracket – as on a tandem – to accommodate an extra-long chain and a single-speed fixed gear with a meaty 65-14-65-13 ratio. This innovative gearing required custom-made bottom bracket cups to take up the slack of the super-long chain between the first chainset and the second.

‘It’s ridiculous,’ says Jones. ‘The bike travels around 600 inches – or 15.24m – per rotation of the cranks. The bike itself is over 2.5m long so I had to make a new jig just to build it.’

The frame is built from bespoke Reynolds 953 tubing. The rear dropouts are 3D-modelled from a motorbike design to accommodate the 19-inch wheels. It’s equipped with motorbike disc brakes and the right-hand grip shift was converted to pull an old car boot release mechanism to release the tow between the bike and the car.

Using this bike, Campbell broke the European record twice in 2018, hitting 217.7kmh and 240.1kmh at Elvington. But he kept training and tinkering ahead of his world record bid this summer with gruelling lactate tolerance efforts on a Wattbike and aerobic conditioning and big-gear efforts on the road. He also conducted test runs on industrial estates and dual carriageways.

‘Some of this involves the breaking of laws,’ he confesses. ‘There’s a hill called the Kelsall Bypass in Cheshire that sweeps up and down, and we started off doing basic tests there.

‘When I slammed on the brakes there was lots of smoke at 70mph and a bad smell. But there were a few instances with Hell’s Angels and caravans and the police so we knew it was time to jump to Elvington.’

Record day

Campbell and his team – which included former pro cyclist and physio Richard Hughes and Harper Adams University aerodynamicist James Croxford – booked a four-day slot in August but faced a barrage of unexpected problems, from bad weather to a no-show from their chosen driver.

‘I was in a dark place because I’d committed so much personal money and made pledges to big companies,’ says Campbell. For safety he wore a Dainese airbag suit and a motorbike helmet, and even fitted the carbon soles of his bike shoes to a pair of motorbike boots. But he had to scrap a special parachute braking device because the mounting system and rear mudguard (designed to stop the parachute touching the wheel) interfered with the bike’s handling.

Yet the biggest problem was that the canopy behind the car was giving excellent shelter to Campbell but slowing down the car so it couldn’t get up to speed. ‘If we made it good for Neil it destroyed the aerodynamics of the car, but when we made the canopy better for the car it became worse for Neil,’ says Jones.

Campbell was caught in the middle of this maelstrom. ‘It was super-turbulent and terrifying,’ he admits. ‘Cars are designed in wind-tunnels to close the air behind them as quickly as possible so the air was catching the back of the bike and I was pushed around violently.’

With the help of Croxford and some computational fluid dynamics, they found a solution. ‘We predicted that this aerodynamic situation would be bad up to 140-150mph but at higher speeds a vortex would form around the back of the canopy in a circular motion and that would actually start to push Neil back in towards the canopy shelter,’ says Jones.

‘To get that sweet spot we added an edge to help the air swirl into a vortex, but still Neil had to fight through it to get up to speed.’

‘It was a leap of faith,’ concludes Campbell. ‘We thought it would get easier if I went faster and sure enough on the next attempt we jumped from 150mph to 170mph. But when I tried to brake I was sliding around and I had to release the rear brake and let the bike straighten itself.

‘I somehow managed to stay upright – I don’t know how. On that run it was technically a new record at 171mph but the cameras weren’t recording so we had to do it again.’

Campbell had to go back into the eye of the storm one final time. ‘We did the record run at 4pm and we were scheduled to stop at 4.30pm. The weather was bad the next day so it really felt like our last chance,’ he says.

‘My first reaction was primarily relief. It was quite exciting on the penultimate run, even though there was carnage with the braking. But then to do it again and survive was pure relief. The planets had to align for this to work.’

He remains quietly confident of going even faster in Bonneville next year. ‘We have this hashtag of ‘220 in 2020’ and we’re pushing towards that. On the salt flats the riders are towed for a minute plus, where we were towed for only 28 seconds in Elvington, so there’s much more to come.’

Jones is confident that with some extra design innovations the Silver Eagle can break new ground. ‘We designed this bike not just to break a record but to put the world record into the long grass,’ he says.

The only problem is he might not be able to watch. ‘What we’re doing really dawns on me whenever I see how fast Neil is towed off the line, as the car goes 0-60mph in less than six seconds. And you wouldn’t believe the grit and stones that come up. If you look closely at the bike, it’s shot-blasted all over by the impact.

‘A stone came up at 130mph and broke through the board at the back so you can see what he’s up against. It’s unfair to compare this to man landing on the Moon or anything like that, but for those of us involved it has that kind of edginess along the way.’

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