Review by Stuart Birch
There was just time to breathe deeply, utter a short prayer which started, “Please don’t let me fall off and rip my shiny new Lycra shorts…”, before attempting to ride what is probably the world’s most expensive and highest technology bicycle. At £25,000, the posh version includes a plethora of sophisticated electronics that monitor bike and rider and would probably help save lives in an NHS casualty department. A puncture outfit is extra, though.
It’s a lengthy, uphill task to become an Olympic-standard cycling hero, but in my case as a usually breathless journalist, I had about 10 minutes, so it definitely wasn’t going to be downhill all the way on BERU f1systems’ Factor 001 race-training bike.
An extraordinary example of technology transfer, from the mighty mechanical power of Formula One to the human power of a bike, the Factor 001, weighing in at a mere 7kg, can reach 45mph on the level and 70mph down a mountain road when powered by Olympian muscles. And, like a Ferrari or Porsche 911, its pell-mell progress can be confidently controlled by hydraulically operated carbon ceramic brakes.
While all this is happening, electronic systems to laboratory and medical standards constantly check and integrate information, including the rider’s heartbeats per minute, the effort that each leg is putting into the pedals - and the ambient barometric pressure of anywhere the bike is ridden, from Neasden to Nepal.
BERU f1systems supplies advanced electronic systems for world championship-winning cars in every major formula and to almost all the Formula One teams. Those systems do crucial jobs and include wiring looms tucked securely inside carbon composite structures, patented as Wire in Composite - which is a nifty bit of brightness that the company says could eventually find its way out of F1 race cars and the exotic Factor 001 and into family cars.
But all this clever stuff is out of sight and largely unappreciated. So two years ago the company’s managing director, John Bailey, decided to show it off to the world and set about creating a carbon composite race-training bike technology demonstrator that incorporated much of the company’s motor racing expertise. Although originally planned as a one-off and not designed to meet UCI (International Cycling Union) regulations, about 300 may be built – each made-to-measure – and F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton will get the first one off the production line, his prize for winning the BERU f1systems- sponsored 2007 Graham Hill Trophy.
And then there was the first ride for a journalist. Which was how I came to be standing, helmeted, Lycra-suited and just a tad tense, on a draughty Norfolk airfield, considering the last time I’d ridden a bike (couldn’t remember), the last time I’d fallen off one (didn’t want to remember) and the moment when I’d said that I wanted to ride this one (seared in my memory).
I like cars that have fat wheels, big engines, sophisticated suspension, seats shaped to grip and coddle, air con, and fine in-car entertainment. The Factor 001 has ultra-thin wheels with treadless tyres pumped up to a virtually solid 120psi, pedals and a chain, a 20-speed “gearbox”, no suspension whatsoever, a narrow seat that may have cost £300 to make but did not look like it – and an eight menu, eight-page touch screen.
So, with the figure £25,000 fixed in mind (in fact, this was the prototype which had cost more than £50,000 to develop, with input from some of Britain’s top athletes), it was bum on seat time as I wobbled away on my first bike ride in years, en route for survival or ignominy, and treating this precious velocipede with the caution and respect I would have given to an F1 car .
But the superlight Factor 001, with its tremendously stiff monocoque, twin-spar frame and eight-spoke wheels, behaved like a pussy cat. Within a mere 30 seconds I had it moving at a whole 10mph and headed for 20.
Turns were accomplished with care, the ceramic brakes applied gently because I didn’t want to punish them from these speeds, gearshifts made with caution but even I, as an Olympian manqué (well, perhaps manky), could appreciate that this was something very special.
As I pounded the concrete of the Second World War airfield at Tibenham, Norfolk, from which movie star James Stewart had flown B-24 Liberators, all my efforts were recorded on a datalogger, although they could have been transmitted real-time to a control centre via telemetry link a la F1.
When it was all over, I looked at a bank of screens that revealed all. The first had a flat line. Had I died? No, said applications engineer James Shingleton, it meant the bike had stopped, not my heart.
My resting heart rate immediately before the ride was 93 beats per minute – which showed that I was tense – rising to a heady 161 as I imagined racing Stewart’s Liberator thundering down the runway on another derring-do mission.
A typical average resting rate would be 60-80, said James, and that of a top athlete or racing driver would be low 30s to 40 but rising to around 200 during a two-hour F1 race. I expect I was on the slowing down lap when my time was recorded.
Next consideration was the torque my spindly legs had generated – and this without the use of pedal cleats. I could see on the screen that my right leg had produced maximum torque of 85.6lb ft, my left 83.3lb ft.
At last, a figure that seemed outstandingly good; I felt it brought new meaning to legging it away from the lights. After all, a Ford Fiesta 1.25 Style can only summon up 80lb ft and the bike weighed about as much as two Fiesta headlight bulbs and the ashtray. So?
James said tea was just being poured.
All right, then, but what about power output? There I was, pedal to the sweat-all, surely something special was achieved? Up to a point, said James: 687W.
Fantastic – sufficient to light a small town, yes? No. An Olympic track cyclist can generate almost 3,000W.
Price/availability: from about £16,000 – a bell is standard but there’s no tyre pump. On sale June (production two per week)
Tested: Factor 001 with full electronic monitoring to laboratory/medical standards: £25,000
Power: 3,000W if you are an Olympian, rather less if you just enjoy walking the dog when it isn’t raining
Top speed: 45mph on the flat; 70mph-plus downhill if you have the nerve
Acceleration: never fear a 1.25-litre Fiesta.
Fuel economy: don’t eat treacle pud if you want to win
CO2 emissions: immeasurably better than almost anything else
VED Band: n/a, it’s free
Alternatives: in-line roller skates; walking very quickly
Verdict: one of the most technologically advanced bicycles in the world – should only be ridden in bespoke Lycra.
On the iPod: Bicycle Race, by Queen.
Star rating: you’ll see five if you fall off at 70mph on a mountain road