Considering all the angst we have about motorized transportation, wouldn’t it be nice if we could move out — even attain respectable rates of speed — in zero-emission human-powered vehicles? That’s the premise of the Human-Powered Vehicle Challenge, which takes place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, April 29 to May 1.

The goal, since the founding in 1986, has been to “design and build aerodynamic, highly engineered vehicles that can be used for everyday activities — from commuting to and from work, to going to the grocery store.” There are several classes, for single or multiple riders, and a utility division. There are competitions for design, sprints and endurance, and it's grown so big that there are now both East and West Coast events.

Feet are human-powered vehicles, I guess, but what we’re talking about here is mostly recumbent bicycles, enclosed with lightweight “fairings” to make them more aerodynamic. In one of those, the great Canadian racer Sam Whittingham set a world record of, get this, 82.8 mph, at an annual hairy-chest event called the World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Mont. Here’s what that record run looked like on video. Note the absence of cheering crowds:

The event this weekend, sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), is for student engineering teams, but the Montana contest is for everybody, and put on by the International Human-Powered Vehicle Association.

The team to beat this weekend is from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind. They are three-time national champs, and last year won the unrestricted class at an impressive 46 miles an hour with an ultra-light bike with a carbon fiber and Kevlar fairing. Not impressed by the 46 mph? Can you ride that fast?

Andrew BomarAndrew Bomar is a veteran competitor and Rose-Hulman’s team president. He told me the team (which has to have at least one female member) builds its bikes from scratch, taking the whole academic year to get it just right. It makes most parts, but buys wheels, brakes and shifters. “There’s a lot of tooling, sanding and sculpting,” he told me. Some teams spend just $2,000, but others go as high as $15,000.

There are always innovative designs, including a hand-powered vehicle designed for quadriplegics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a pedal car from Philadelphia’s Drexel that originally had electric assist (both 2009). This year, competitive teams include those from Missouri University of Science and Technology, Cal Polytechnic, the University of Toronto and from much further away — Colombia, Canada, India and Venezuela.

The long-distance competitions cover up to 70 miles, which faculty advisor Michael Moorhead explained to me is a good reason to make the bike recumbent — it’s more comfortable that way. It also helps to have the bike closer to the ground, for better aerodynamics.

Bomar told me he might want to work on electric cars when he graduates, and has an internship doing just that this summer at leading parts supplier Delphi. He’s an avid cyclist, though, and he rides his bike to school every day.

In many ways, these are the best and brightest among America’s youthful engineers, and their work complements the green-themed EcoCar Challenge, which I saw unfold in Arizona last year. Those kids took part in a three-year effort to transform Saturn Vue SUVs into hybrid and hydrogen paragons, fueled by caffeine and junk food. And when they graduated, a lot of them were snapped up by major automaker EV skunkworks. The bike guys are just as good.

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