It took just two minutes on Sunday to prove that Denise Mueller-Korenek is the fastest bicyclist in the world ... two minutes and six long years of training, testing and team-building to set the new paced bicycle speed world record at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.
On Sunday afternoon, the 45-year-old Valley Center resident was officially recorded pedaling an average 183.9 miles per hour over one mile, breaking the existing 167-mph record set in 1995 by Dutchman Fred Rompelberg.
The only person who’s seriously tried to beat him over the past 23 years is Mueller-Korenek, who set the women’s world record of 147.7 mph during her first attempt two years ago.
In a phone interview from Utah on Monday morning, Mueller-Korenek said she was shocked to learn that she’d not only broken Rompelberg’s record, but smashed it by more than 16 mph.
“I was literally stunned,” she said. “I was hoping to land somewhere in the 170s and we just blew right through them. It’s amazing to have this record.”
Mueller-Korenek is the first woman to hold the overall world title since the record was first established in 1899 by Charles “Mile-a-Minute” Murphy, when he pedaled a bike in the draft of a steam train at 60 mph.
Over the next 100 years, the record gradually rose as the quality of bicycles improved and the shape of the pacing vehicles and the draft or slipstream they provided changed. Few riders attempt this record because it’s so dangerous. Many have died or suffered severe injuries when they hit their pacing vehicle and fell at high speed.
Mueller-Korenek admits to being an adrenaline junkie who grew up in Encinitas racing bikes and cars. The “crazy factor,” she said, runs high in her family.
She said the only moments when she was truly apprehensive on Sunday were when she almost hit the fairing with her front tire during the final ride and then during the fast deceleration process afterward.
“I was praying to God,” she said. “There was a lot of left and right out there and a few times things creep into your head. At the end, there I was, holding on for dear life.”
Without any device to shield a rider from wind resistance, a human-powered bicycle can travel a maximum of 40 miles an hour on a flat surface. Beginning in 1935, speed cyclists began riding behind pace cars fitted with a fan- or box-shaped wind shield known as a fairing.
The fairing creates a capsule-shaped, resistance-free pocket of air behind the pace car that shrinks in size and pressure the faster the car moves. The trick, Mueller-Korenek says, is staying inside that pocket without hitting the fairing in front or getting sucked out of the pocket from behind.
If you can find the “magic of the dance,” as Mueller-Korenek said she did with her pace driver Shea Holbrook of Florida, the pocket feels like a glove pushing you from behind.
Mueller-Korenek said she had no real perception of speed during her record-making ride because she was so busy trying to stay in the draft behind the fairing and trying to watch for the approaching mile markers.
“It was very rough and a very narrow pocket so I was buffeting back and forth and just trying to stay straight and upright,” she said. “It’s sort of like somebody locking you in a box van with no windows. You hear it start up and you know you’re moving but you have no idea how fast it’s going other than the intense vibration and the sound of the wind.”
Mueller-Korenek has been trained over the past six years by cycling legend John Howard, 70, of Encinitas. The three-time Olympian and Ultracycling Hall of Famer holds 14 cycling world championships and won the 1981 Ironman World Championship. He also set two world records, including the 1985 paced bicycle speed record of 152 mph, which Rompelberg broke a decade later.
Mueller-Korenek and Howard met some 30 years ago when her father hired him to train her for cycling races. Performance anxiety led her to quit competing for decades while she raised three sons and took over the family business, Rancho Santa Fe Security Systems.
Then when she got serious about competing again in 2012, she hired Howard, who dangled the idea of breaking the paced bicycle speed record as an incentive, because he knew from experience that she loved a challenge.
Howard believes women over 40 are more capable of long-distance peak performance than men and Mueller-Korenek also has an attribute known as “fast-twitch muscle fiber,” which allows her to accelerate quickly with power on the bike. This is critical in the unusual track test environment in Utah.
The course at Bonneville is five miles long, three for accelerating and two for decelerating. During the first mile, Mueller-Korenek was hooked to the car — a fairing-modified dragster first used by Rompelberg for his 1995 record — as it accelerated to 100 mph.
At mile two, she detached from the car and gradually accelerated her pedaling behind the car as it climbed to 130 mph. In the third mile, she had to summon the strength to keep pace with the fast-accelerating car. It’s that third mile that track officials monitor for the record average speed.
Mueller-Korenek said the key factor in her success was the trust relationship she has built with pace driver, Holbrook, an accomplished race-car driver.
Holbrook’s car had a dashboard monitor that showed live video of Mueller-Korenek’s distance pedaling behind the fairing. During that third mile, Holbrook said she had the gas pedal floored and still Mueller-Korenek kept pace.
“I couldn’t ask for a better person to literally be on the same wavelength with me, matching me move for move,” Mueller-Korenek said.
To fund the record attempt, Mueller-Korenek formed Project Speed, which helped pay for her bike — a 35-pound, 7-½-foot, low-slung cycle specially adapted for high-speed racing — as well as training expenses and equipment, including the pace car, trailers and gear. She never raised enough money to fund the Utah trip, though, so most of her support team came to Utah and worked at their own expense.
“We didn’t have the budget to do this. We were upside down,” she said. “To have people that believe in you so much they’re willing to take time out of their lives to be here is just awesome.”
The group arrived at Bonneville on Tuesday of last week but suffered a series of setbacks with trailer, speedomoter, tire and weather problems that delayed any test runs until Friday.
The only run with the pace car and bike that day failed when Mueller-Korenek released from the car at too low a speed and she couldn’t keep up. Saturday was lost to a wind storm and tire problems.
Finally, on Sunday morning, their first run together resulted in a speed of 155.9 mph, breaking Howard’s 1985 record. They set the new world record on their second run.
Afterward, Mueller-Korenek celebrated her victory over plastic cups of champagne with Holbrook, Howard and her husband, machinist and Project Speed crew chief Chris Korenek.
In Facebook Live videos captured immediately after the record announcement Sunday, Holbrook excitedly said she was ready to go again to push the record higher. But Mueller-Korenek was noticeably quiet.
On Monday, she said she wants to take some time off to savor the victory, rest up and recoup after traveling such a long road to the top.
“It’s easy on the high of all this to put the carrot further out,” she said. “But I know myself well enough to not open my mouth and say yes. I need a break from the intensity of six years getting to this point. There’s been a lot of sacrifice and I went through a little burnout getting here. I need a little break from this for a while.”