SEP 17, 2018
It’s a feat inconceivable to most sound-minded mortals: This past Sunday, Denise Mueller-Korenek rode a bicycle more than 180 mph—183.93 to be exact, which is faster than the takeoff speed of an Airbus A340—and crushed the motor-paced bicycle land speed record.
This was not just any other ride, of course. Mueller-Korenek mounted a specially equipped bike with a massive gear and tethered it to a race car, which then accelerated to 100-plus mph—the velocity necessary for the rider to turn over the cranks on her own volition. Then she unhooked from the car and stayed in the slipstream, smashing the pedals around to hit the highest speed possible under her own power.
The whole thing took about five miles, Mueller-Korenek, a 45-year-old national champion cyclist from Valley Center, California, told Bicycling. She and her driver Shea Holbrook, a seven-time Pirelli World Challenge winner, already held the Guinness World Record for the fastest female motor-paced time at 147.7 mph, a speed they hit using a specially adapted Range Rover in 2016. (They had hoped for another record-setting attempt that year, but were rained out.)
Mueller-Korenek behind the race car that would drag her along at 100-plus mph.
Matt Ben Stone
“It’s like a dance,” Mueller-Korenek said. “Behind the fairing, I’m constantly adjusting, floating forward and floating back. Shea is doing her own dance, accelerating and decelerating so she doesn’t drop me as I’m floating back or have me hit the car as I’m coming forward. She has to match my stride.”
It’s a bit of a blind dance, too. “Imagine being in the back of a box truck with no windows,” she said. “Everything is just white with no reference points, like cars or telephone poles zipping by. You can hear the engine start and you can feel them taking off and the sound of the engine, and what you feel tells you when you’re going fast.”
Mueller-Korenek on her custom KHS bike that’s tethered to the race car.
Matt Ben Stone
It’s also not a dance for the faint of heart. Ever since 1899, when Charles “Mile-a-Minute” Murphy set the first paced bicycle speed record of 60 mph while drafting off a steam train, it’s been a terrifying tango that has left many a rider dead or mangled. That was especially true after the 1930s, when cyclists took the game to a new level, riding behind souped-up race cars outfitted with wind-blocking fairings.
One such rider was Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg, who crashed twice going over 100 mph at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, breaking 24 bones in 1988 before returning in 1995 with his custom-made dragster to set the previous speed record of 167 mph. Mueller-Korenek pulled into Bonneville this weekend with that same 1,000-horsepower dragster, which her team had restored.
The KHS bike she rode was a dragster in its own right. The low-slung, chopper-style bicycle is more than seven feet long and outfitted with 17-inch motorbike wheels for stability at insane speeds. It also demands a two-wheel drivetrain to propel the absurdly tall gear.
“The drive ratio is 62:12, twice,” said John Howard, Mueller-Korenek’s coach, who once held the motor-paced record himself at 152 mph back in 1985. “That’s roughly 488 inches, or approximately 128 feet per revolution. She’s traveling nearly 130 feet every time she turns those cranks. It’s pretty mind-boggling.”
Mueller-Korenek, center, with her coach John Howard, left, and driver Shea Holbrook.
Matt Ben Stone
If you’re surprised that a woman set this new record, don’t be. “I’ve been coaching mostly women, including Denise, for the past 35 or 40 years,” Howard, 70, said. “My theory is that women are able to push that aging envelop a little further than men and are more capable of long-distance peak performance.”
“We wanted to finish what we started in 2016.”
Howard coached Mueller-Korenek on and off for three decades, but spent two hard years training her for the speed record attempt after she had spent some time away from the bike.
“So she’s no spring chicken at 45, but she’s a superb bike handler and at the peak of her strength after coming back after taking 23 years off and having three kids,” Howard said. “We were ready to break the overall record last time, but the Range Rover wasn’t quite fast enough and the weather didn’t cooperate. But she was totally ready.”
Mueller-Korenek thought so, too. “After we missed it in 2016, we were so full of adrenaline and piss and vinegar from being rained out, we opened our mouths and said, ‘We’re coming back. We’re coming back next year and we’re going to take the men’s record,’” she said. “We wanted to finish what we started in 2016.”
Finish they did—going nearly 17 mph faster than anyone has ever been gone before.