I have recently had the opportunity to meet Ken Buckley who is the British land speed record holder on a human-powered vehicle. This was at a workshop at the Drummond Physiotherapy Clinic in Maidenhead.
If you are not much into cycling, chances are that you have never heard about Ken until now. Even though I love cycling, I have to admit, that was the case with me, too, however, I was curious to hear his story about how he could achieve such a remarkable feat, coming from a what you would call a ‘perfectly ordinary’ background.
Most of us look at those who are having success in life, and desire the same thing, but end up tossing our dreams in the ‘too hard’ or ‘I’m not cut out for this’ basket. I have to admit, I often feel that way myself. However, I felt intrigued to understand what it takes to go from ordinary to extraordinary; and whether this is within the reach of everyone, or ‘being extraordinary’ is the privilege of only a select few.
Firstly, let me tell you about Ken’s achievements. In 2015, he managed to reach a speed of 75mph in his aerodynamic recumbent bike, unassisted, in the annual World Human Powered Speed challenge in the Nevada Desert. At that point, Ken managed to smash the former British record which had been set at 67mph. A year later, in 2016, Ken raised the bar even further, achieving 76.59mph.
Ken and I at the workshop
As Ken was reciting his story, I found his passion infectious, and a few themes started to emerge:-
Find your hero
To start off with, Ken told us about the people who have inspired him on his journey. Amongst these people is Joseph Schooling, a Singaporean swimmer who beat Michael Phelps at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, in the 100m butterfly. This was no small feat – as we know, Michael Phelps is the world’s most decorated athlete!
Joseph first met his childhood hero in 2008, when he was just an awkward 14 year old school boy. At the time, Phelps and the US Olympic swim team were visiting Singapore and Joseph managed to convince him to pose with him for a photo in a training camp:-
He felt so inspired after meeting Michael, that from then onwards, he decided to dedicate himself to becoming a top class swimmer, making it to the Rio Olympics.
What Josephs’ story tells us is that he could have easily just convinced himself that he was ‘too ordinary’ to aspire to be anything like Michael Phelps. Instead, he decided to focus 100% on his end goal and did not let anything get into his way. This also meant making some sacrifices, such as leaving his home country behind, in order to train in the USA with the best professionals. Fast forward to 8 years, the two of them are posing together for an ‘updated’ photo, this time at the Rio Olympics, with Joseph holding the gold medal:-
Joseph’s example shows that a strong role model, a clear vision, and long term perseverance can lead to success.
Be persistent in pursuing the best opportunities
Ken moved onto telling us how he got involved with the ARION1 Project Team who prepared him and his fellow cyclists for the World Human Powered Speed challenge. He first spotted a nation-wide campaign in the Cycling Weekly magazine. A group of students at the University of Liverpool were looking for riders to attempt breaking the human-powered vehicle world record.
Ken immediately recognised himself in the advert which was describing the ideal candidate as being someone with a ‘small body and powerful legs’. Besides, he liked the sound of the race – namely that it would involve ‘only’ 6 minutes of cycling, and no hills. Every cyclists’ dream, right? Well, not exactly, as you will find out shortly.
Unfortunately, when Ken contacted the project team the first time, he found out that they had already started doing tests with no less than 20 other guys in their lab, and therefore did not need any more volunteers. Ken could have just left things at that, however, he is not someone who gives up easily. He wanted in so much that he hassled the project team for a week until he finally managed to persuade them to take him on board as well. Persistence always pays off in the end!
Do not underestimate yourself
The next hurdle came when Ken found out that the project team had an ace card in hand, Rob Hayles. Rob is cycling legend who at the time rode for Great Britain and England on the track, and in several professional teams on the road. The pressure was on – Ken, a perfectly ordinary cyclist from Caversham was up against a world class cycling champion! Again, at that point, Ken could have chosen to walk away, as the odds looked quite impossible for him to be ever on the short list for the race. However, from that point onwards, he made the conscious decision to live like nothing else mattered, so that he could pass all the vigorous fitness tests, in order to get to Nevada. And so he did!
Practice makes perfect
In the coming months, Ken committed to moulding himself into a first class cyclist by embarking on a vigorous training regime. At the time, he also had a full-time job, so he often ended up training late in the night on his recumbent bike in the back of his garden, after a full day’s work; or doing hundreds of laps around Reading.
In the meantime, in the university lab, the project team was enlisting help from INEOS to build the fastest bicycle in the world, and to arrange the logistics of getting to Nevada. They all worked tirelessly day in and day out to perfect the vehicle by analysing every last detail. They also made sure to gather some intel on what the competitor teams were up to, observing their training techniques and gear, in order to improve their own ways of doing things.
Ken needed to turn to sports nutritionist to get expert advice on what he should eat to fuel his tough workouts – the meals that were on offer at his work canteen were a far cry from proper fuel. He also recognised the importance of recovering hard, not only training hard. However, the main challenge was to make a shift in his approach to training. Up until that point, Ken was very much used to doing road races lasting up to 6 hours, whereas the speed challenge in Nevada included a 6 minute all-out effort. Ken understood the importance of specifity in his training, and finding out what exactly goes into preparing for such an event.
This also meant having to part with his normal bike and sourcing a recumbent one which was very similar to the bike used in the race.
It took Ken months of relentless training and dedication to eventually get onto that plane to Nevada. There were no shortcuts.
Trust the hard work you have put in
The World Human Powered Speed Challenge takes place every year on State Route 305, a 1,408m altitude road in the Nevada desert, Battle Mountain. This allows riders an acceleration zone of over 4 miles, enabling them to reach their maximum velocity before being timed over a 200 meter distance. Teams from all over the world enter vehicles they have designed and built themselves.
In September 2015, when Ken first saw the road which would soon turn into their ‘race track’, the butterflies in his stomach really started flapping their wings – it looked like a never ending stretch into the distance, completely exposed to the cross winds and all other elements. Having only trained in the actual race bike itself a couple of times, this all felt like ‘new ground’ to him.
To start with, the race bike itself was a challenge to ride. Its body being a small shell, the rider sees where they are going using a tiny video camera mounted of top of the capsule, which makes piloting it particularly difficult. You would have to imagine driving a motorcycle looking through your mobile phone, and with nothing but that to show them the outside world and no ventilation. Inside it is extremely noisy and sounds a bit like a jet engine – all the sounds from the chain and the wheels reverberate inside the shell. Needless to say, it can be claustrophobic, but thankfully the rider is only in there for a few minutes, so it is bearable.
At that point, Ken drew strength from trusting his own training and all the hard work the engineers had put into perfecting the bike.
Do not let setbacks derail you
Close to race day, the project team have been thrown a couple of curve balls.
Firstly, Rob Hayles needed to pull out almost last minute, due to some media commitments. What’s more, Ken had to overcome a crash in the build-up to setting the British record. The accident was caused by a sudden gust of wind and an unexpected bump in the road – Ken lost control of the vehicle travelling at 55MPH. Thankfully, Ken and the engineering team were completely unharmed in the crash and the vehicle’s rider protection system kept Ken safe and sound. It would have been very easy to lose heart at that point, however, Ken and the team decided to pull together and worked relentlessly to get back on their feet and to repair the bike overnight. They certainly did not come all that way to give up so easily!
There are six days’ racing in total, and riders do get told their speed until a time after the event. It was one of the happiest moments of Ken life when they found out about the results.
This just shows the importance of never giving up, no matter what curve balls life throws in your way. If something is important to you, you will find a way to get there.
Have a strong ‘team’ hold your back
It also goes without saying that a good team behind you is worth more than gold. Without the sacrifices, the dedication and tenacity the riders and the project team displayed in the lead up to and during the event, I doubt that Ken could have ever come close to achieving what he did.
Shoot for the moon…
…because even if you miss, you will land among the stars.
In 2016, the project team started a new phase, ARION2. This featured several technological improvements to the bike from its predecessor ARION1, including updated aerodynamics, reduced weight, changes to the steering mechanisms and transmission, and a move to front-wheel drive. Their hard work really paid off, as Ken broke his own British land speed record of 75.03mph, which he set in 2015, on ARION1, with a new speed of 76.59mph. Another fantastic achievement!
The world record currently stands at 89.59mph by a Canadian team, so Ken has got his job cut out for him!
Ken’s story has been an inspiration to me about what it really takes to push the boundaries of human performance. Bringing the best of science, engineering and human physiology together can truly produce something really special. Especially if there is persistent and long term dedication and commitment behind it. I hope that Ken’s story has inspired you, too, on whatever journey you are towards becoming extraordinary!
Ken runs his own performance coaching company. If you are interested in learning more about him and how he can help you smash your cycling goals (whether you are an athlete or a first timer), please visit his website on www.buckleyperformancecoaching.co.uk.