Visiting the Neighbours


By: Dylan Horn


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Tucked away on the fifth floor of 256 McCaul Street—right above where the newspaper is produced—is the working space of U of T’s Human Powered Vehicle Design Team (HPVDT). They are engineering enthusiasts who have pushed the limits of pedal power since their first speedbike, Ace, whipped across the desert in 2008. We caught up with team member and fourth-year material science and engineering student Alan Pettit right before he embarked on a road trip to the flat terrain of Battle Mountain, Nevada.

The custom-designed bikes that are heading out west are able to reach highway speeds of over 120 km/h using pedal power alone. To achieve speeds like that, you need an in-depth understanding of aerodynamics. The bikes are built throughout the year with a combination of used bike parts and custom mechanical work. Everything making contact with the elements on these bikes is carbon fibre. “It’s a cloth, actually,” says Alan, “like papier-mâché. You basically get a cloth and you add the resin. We have a foam core in these ones which is really light but gives you a shape.”

The wheels themselves are customized carbon fibre sandwich boards without any spokes or holes. Alan explains, “If you have the spokes you have a lot of the airflow going through there and that causes drag at high speeds.” Giving the cyclist inside a smooth start and stop has also been a challenge: “We have people launch you and catch [you].… We’ve experimented with different kinds of landing gear [such as] wheels in the back [and] training wheels you can pull up once you get going.”

The team works with several models, but Bluenose is the most technologically-advanced bike travelling with the team, of which he said, “It was originally designed with a window, but we had a lot of trouble designing the polycarbonate so it would get [in]to shape.” Working with multiple materials produces unwanted drag at high speeds, so HPVDT soon scrapped the window on Bluenose, rendering the driver without any physical view.


“This one’s a camera bike,” said Alan as he pointed out two small cameras stealthily drilled into the bike’s top fin, and then continues, “We have two camera systems so in case one fails you can still see stuff.” The driver gets into a very small hatch in the top, and once sealed in, they can easily see the video display.

With vehicles such as these, safety obviously becomes an issue, especially because many of the speedbikes have “very bad” turning radii. “We design all the roll cages and everything so you won’t get hurt [inside]…. They’re all nicely painted up now but we’ve definitely scratched them up quite a bit,” Alan noted.

HPVDT participates in two series of international competitions. They have three-wheeled bikes named Celero and Valkyrie, which are built for completing daily commuter tasks, such as picking up groceries with the best speed to road safety mistakes ratio. “[More recently] we’ve been focusing more on usability,” Alan explained. “Those trikes are a lot easier to ride obviously [but] in Nevada it’s all about speed.”

Later on, we catch up with another teammate, third-year engineering science student Thomas Ulph, who noted that “[U of T] is basically top three every single time,” with Bluenose’s fastest speed being clocked at an impressive 125 km/h. Speaking of UofT’s competition, Thomas noted that “there’s a team from Delft [University of Technology in The Netherlands], so they actually hold the current record.… They get a huge amount of funding.” Estimated material costs for the bikes ranges between $4,000 and $5,000. The club is funded from a combination of U of T, technological sponsors and by out-of-pocket contributions from members. “Since we work with carbon fibre the real cost would be labour,” said Alan. “If you charged for all the hours that [me] and the team puts into them it would be way more.”

Above the space’s small kitchen, amidst old bike projects and used parts, something catches our eye: a large novelty cheque for $250,000 sitting above the doorway. “That’s the Sikorsky prize money,” Thomas explains, saying it was won during a global challenge issued by the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation to build a human-powered helicopter that could reach a height of three metres and stay aloft for 60 seconds within a 10 by 10 metre box.

“It was a contest because no one thought it could be done,” Ulph explained. Thirty years after this challenge was issued, AeroVelo—an aeronautics company established within HPVDT—made history by being the first team in the world to pull it off, building a massive eight-blade human-powered helicopter in 2013 that stayed aloft for 64.1 seconds. Thomas explains that “the trickiest part was to get it up to three metres. It’s really hard to get the height, so you just want to reach the three metres and you hold it until you get the 60 seconds.”

These engineers aren’t ones to bask in their unlikely victory for too long, however. That esteemed trophy now sits unceremoniously on an old wooden shelf above the sink next to the salt and pepper shakers.

Learn more about the Human Powered Vehicle Design Team at

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