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Pedals and power

Updated Thursday, 3rd December 2009

Stephen Serjeant reveals all: did the pedal-powered power station experiment work?

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This was the stupidest thing I've done for a long time; keep a house powered with electricity using pedal power only. It's too much for one person, even one as rash as me, so I joined over 90 other volunteers to do this for the Bang Goes The Theory special episode on energy.

I'm a runner, of a sort, and very proud that my best 10K time is less than a factor of two worse than the world record. How different can cycling be, really? Needless to say, I didn't do any bike training beforehand.

The family in the house weren't to know they were being powered by dozens of people in a frenzy of pedalling. They would just have a normal day, and thought they were volunteering for a sort of time and motion study in a house that was specially built, and then, at the end there'd be a ’big reveal’ when they’d be taken round the back and shown the army of cyclists who'd powered them for the day.

We didn't want the family to get wind of the wheeze so we'd all be brought in on a coach and snuck in round the back, which meant that I showed up in Bedford at 6am on a Sunday morning to catch the coach. There was a very big range of people there, from elite athletes to Joe Public. I met a woman who was not a cyclist at all (except for that day) but worked for a very worthy charity who supplies bicycles to low-income families.

We made it to the studio and after a quick breakfast we were shown to the bikes. I installed myself in the second row and immediately noticed the Terminator-like physique of one of the cyclists in front. But I had an apparently comfily padded saddle, so a day's pedalling... how hard can it be?

We were told to keep pedalling to keep the needle on a dial on a big screen in the green. If it went into the red we'd be in trouble. Below the red was black, which meant blackout. It started easily enough, keeping their lights and TV on, but then they wanted breakfast, and a great GROAN went up from the cyclists when they started making toast. Every time they boiled a kettle we saw the needle dip and we pummelled the pedals to keep up. Someone had a power-shower, which we powered with a lot of sweaty work and then, with perfect irony, one of the family started playing on a Wii Fit.

Without this contraption, the family wouldn't have had any electricity. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC
Without this contraption, the family wouldn't have had any electricity.

When they started baking a cake, keeping up with the energy demands of the oven was furious work. I have never worked my body so hard. There were deliberately more cyclists than bikes so it was always possible to take a break, but I was determined to see it through and pedal right to the end.

There was a wonderful feeling of conviviality and shared effort. A kind cyclist next to me (a triathlete and ex-Ghurkha officer) reminded me to drink fluids as the production team wandered round the cyclists with drinks and snack bars.

We were told that the family would be taken out on a trip over lunchtime from 12-2, which would give us a chance to have a break and eat, but that cake was still in the oven so it wasn't until 1:00 that we could stop pedalling. When we did finally stop, I'd been going continuously for about six hours. I could hardly walk.

After lunch and a lot of stretching we came back to the bikes. I looked at mine with new eyes and saw my instrument of self-imposed torture. Perhaps no saddle could be comfy for so long. Oh idiot, why didn't I come with padded cycle shorts? This time though, the production crew instituted a new regime, with some going full-pelt and others resting. This worked fine until the family decided to roast a chicken while watching TV and making coffees, giving us almost no time to rest. On and on we went. It was like having a high fever; there was nothing to be done but endure and wait. I was either too bloody-mined or too stupid to stop. It would end about 7:00pm, we were told, and I found myself counting down the minutes, willing my legs to keep moving. The needle hovered dangerously in the red zone. Yells came out spontaneously from the cyclists enthusing us on. Where did they get their energy to yell? Seven came and went. Finally at about ten past seven, Dallas, the presenter, went into the house to fetch them out. Out they came... but they’d left the oven on, so on and on we cycled. Once they were out the producer rushed in to switch things off, to cheers from us... but “could we please keep cycling when the family arrive, please?”

The family arrived on the balcony above us, slack-jawed, and we cheered again, but it wasn't over. End sequences needed taking, interviews with the family needed filming, oh and “we know you've all worked so hard but please could you all keep pedalling just for these last bits?” Finally, at a quarter to eight, after about ten hours of cycling, it was all done. The production team laid on free beers for all the cyclists, and were genuinely appreciative of all our efforts.

Sometimes for the best of causes people ask for sponsorship for doing silly and pointless things. Here we weren't being sponsored, but our stunt will make a very real and important point on prime-time TV about the extraordinary energy profligacy and waste of our society. At the end, we discovered that if the family had been powered off the National Grid, the cost of the total kWh produced that long, long day would have been about one pound.

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