A former cycling prodigy chases a record no woman ever has held
For five minutes, the vortex will be home. It’s the retreat from the outside world, where the wind roars in from three different directions, where the salted ground passes inches below, at 150 mph, and a type of immortality beckons.
Three feet in front of her, the Range Rover SVR will hurtle forward, displacing air currents and sending them backward, driver Shea Holbrook watching both the mirror and the fabled salt flats of Bonneville, Utah, as Denise Mueller attempts to claim territory no woman has ever set foot upon: the world bicycle speed record.
That record is 167.944 mph, set in 1995 by Fred Rompelberg, a 49-year-old Dutchman. It previously was held by Mueller’s coach, John Howard. In the small but intensely competitive world of Southern California bike racing, Mueller and Howard have known each other for the best part of 30 years.
Both live in the vast exurbia of northern San Diego County—Howard as a cycling coach, Mueller running her family’s home and business security company, and the household where two of her three sons still live.
Mueller, 43, is a former junior cycling prodigy, seeking what she describes as vindication for the lost years of her athletic career, and the emotional foibles that derailed it. Not that motherhood, divorce, and running a successful business count as time misspent. Rather, it’s the story of a female athlete who, with a little help, looked within and decided it was time to connect the dots of her former life.
The record attempts will be staged between September 10-13 under the handle of Project Speed.
I officially unofficially towed and paced the worlds fastest woman on a bicycle today! 134mph and still climbing! https://t.co/Rp9uh2leMS— Shea Holbrook (@Shea Holbrook) 1473256888
Mueller has long, curly, tawny-blond hair, high cheekbones, and a disarming way of dropping significant biographical facts into ordinary conversation.
Her racing uniform is 12 pounds of tailored, double-ply leather, with Kevlar flex points at the knees and elbows. Red with black inserts across the shoulders, and embossed with sponsors’ names.
The shopworn regulars at Bonneville Speed Week certainly thought so, as Mueller and Holbrook took in the scene there in mid-August. The Project Speed pit was the destination for a constant procession of grizzled, curious, and smitten guys, Howard recalled. “They’re two very attractive women,” he said.
Howard, for his part, fell in love with the history of the record, including the story of the Frenchman Alfred Letourneur’s successful stealth attempt on a state highway near Bakersfield, Calif., of 108.92 mph behind a quarter-midget race car in 1941.
The crashes and broken bones, the science, the speed, the place in history. All of those attracted Howard, and were part of his sales pitch to Mueller over lunch at an establishment called Healthy Creations in Encinitas, Calif., in October 2012.
Mueller had not ridden for 22 years. She played racquetball and ran occasionally, graduating to marathons and then the Ironman triathlon, a progression suggestive of an unfulfilled personality trapped inside a body of limitless physical potential.
In 1991, during her teens, Mueller had shared the ranking of No. 1 U.S. junior with George Hincapie, the disgraced lieutenant of Lance Armstrong in his seven Tour de France victories. She was also an accomplished downhill mountain bike racer. Her more recent pastimes include 24 hour endurance races in a 1962 Mini.
“How long have you been going fast?” Howard asked her, then continued, before she could answer.
“How long have you been racing cars?
“How long have you been drafting cars?
“How long have you been riding your bike?”
“Where’s this going?,” Mueller wondered.
“You know you’re being led to a cliff,” she says, “But you’re not sure what the cliff’s about.”
The cliff was a leap of faith, an attempt at the world speed record on a bicycle, with the sweetener that there was no women’s record.
Mueller and her husband were in the process of divorcing. She told Howard of her plans, “just so you don’t hear it from the boys.”
He looked at her, Mueller said, and then began tallying with his fingers.
“Are you counting the years until I die?,” she asked.
No, he responded, just trying to work out where in school their youngest would be when the attempt was made.
Initially, it was supposed to be 2015. That was pushed back a year. Daniel, 16, the youngest of Mueller’s three sons, began his senior year of high school on the day of this interview, 10 days before the opening of the window at Bonneville for the record attempt.
The record attempt—the moment when Mueller will attach a spring-loaded, three-foot line to her bicycle handlebars from a coupling fitted to the rear of a 2016 Range Rover SVR and gradually be pulled from zero to 90 mph—is the tiniest funnel through which a blizzard of paperwork, physical preparation, scientific calculation, and a lifetime of knowledge are being poured.
The handling and stability of the Range Rover at 150 mph has been the subject of discussions with Dave Warner, the lead engineer for concept vehicles with Jaguar Range Rover in the UK.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"][It] was a leap of faith, an attempt at the world speed record on a bicycle, with the sweetener that there was no women's record.[/quote]
The design, dimensions, and makeup of the cowling that will partially shield Mueller and her bike behind the vehicle at top speed—“the pocket in the wind,” Howard calls it—were coordinated with aerospace engineer Doug Malewicki, president and chief scientist for AeroVisions Inc., and inventor of, among other things, the car-crushing, fire-breathing Robosaurus.
The odds against Mueller are not just history, or numbers like heart rate, cadence, and wattage to measure maintenance of a pair of all-out efforts over two miles (it will take at least a mile to reach the desired, record-breaking speed), clocked about two hours apart, with the average of both times taken as the record attempt.
The endeavor takes place in the most pristine environment possible, with Bonneville’s 12-mile, absolutely level-straight, 80-foot-wide and relatively smooth salt-laden surface. But speeds of this order bring their own problems, from cyclonic, multi-directional winds, to the minute margins of error in balancing, placing, and keeping the bike an otherwise insane distance of three feet behind a large SUV running at the limit of its engine capacity. (Malewicki points out that the Range Rover's top speed of 175 mph was recorded on a fast oval track; now it will be running on a surface with greatly increased rolling resistance.)
Any or all of these variables could do the attempt in, and Mueller with it.
Mueller’s bike looks a little like an upright, compressed chopper, as though a remake of Easy Rider was filmed with Peter Dinklage in the starring role. It has a lower, longer carbon-fiber frame stretched along a 27-inch wheelbase, with motorcycle wheels for stability and durability, and a two-wheel drive train to propel its massive single gear.
Tandem bike designer Todd Schusterman of Denver built the drive train, and believes Mueller’s cadence at the point of the release of the cable between the bike and the vehicle, at 90 mph, will be around 64 revolutions per minute. At 160 mph, that cadence would be around 120 rpm, he said.
Once Mueller is free of the cable, the car will accelerate at a rate as close as possible to her own rate of acceleration. She and Holbrook will be communicating from helmet to helmet, with Mueller indicating when to pick up speed, and Holbrook able to report how fast they are going and whether they are in reach of the record.
All of this revolves around what is humanly, mechanically and engineeringly possible.
In the latter sense, Doug Malewicki, who also helped Howard with his record rides in 1985, hopes that the team has set aside the “PR bullshit” of breaking Rompelberg’s 168 mph record, and will instead set its sights on a more manageable 140 mph.
Even so, he said, there was much about Mueller’s attempt that was trailblazing, in the absolute literal sense of the expression.
“It’s a lot of ‘by guess and by golly,’” Malewicki said, “Pretty much daredevil stuff. She’s like one of those early aviation pilots.”
By way of a cautionary note, Malewicki sent Mueller a still of the Bugs Bunny cartoon character Elmer Fudd, with his trademark warning: “Be vewy, vewy careful.”
Howard represented the United States in the 1968, ‘72 and ‘76 Olympics, and later won the Hawaiian Ironman, turning his back on a professional career (back when there was a distinction between Olympians and pros) for fear of entanglement in the burgeoning performance-enhancing drug culture that had permeated road and track cycling. His world record was 152.23 mph.
That he is alive to provoke, inspire, and guide Mueller is remarkable in itself.
His record was set on the second of three passes at Bonneville in August 1985. After the second run, bike and rider were back in the pits for refurbishment and recovery. A mechanic neglected to re-screw a rubber valve cap on to the back wheel as the vehicle was re-assembled.
At 150 mph, centrifugal force depressed the spring in the back wheel valve, releasing its air instantaneously. The bike’s brakes were next-to-useless, Howard remembered.
“You don’t have a windshield, so the wind will want to take you off the bike at that speed,” Howard said. “The sensation was of this 150 mph wind in my face.”
His first thought was to escape the pocket and begin the slowing process. This he achieved with careful, serpentine curves through the salt, a bravura and lifesaving piece of bike handling.
“If we were to put it all in the hourglass and let it float down,” Howard said of the whole record-breaking thing, “there are two words that would be there: exhilaration and terror.”
“I don’t know why you need to do this,” 16 year-old Daniel told his mother, recently.
“Why not?,” she said in a recent interview, adding, “[that reason] sounds so clichéd.”
Turns out, it’s not.
In Howard’s recollection, Mueller suffered from performance anxiety, an attack of nerves afflicting many athletes—indeed, anyone who takes to a stage, to a greater or lesser extent. He knew of Mueller when she was 14 years old and was able to catch up to and then stay behind him on a long ride in San Diego County. Howard suggested to Mueller’s parents that she showed much potential as a cyclist, and he went on to coach her.
Mueller was a senior in high school with her world falling apart. Her parents were divorcing, and she could feel herself fighting a losing battle with anxiety. She also had undiagnosed ADHD, a piece of the puzzle that would not present itself until her sons were diagnosed with it many years later.
The best female junior cyclist in the country was on a training ride in March 1992 when she decided enough was enough. She rode to her coach’s house, sobbing, and told him, “I’m done with this.”
Mueller’s eldest son was born two years later. A month after her 21st birthday, her second son arrived. She gave birth to the third in 1999.
Their diagnoses of ADHD could also be seen as a turning point for Mueller, in that it allowed her to better understand herself.
Howard calls her “a brilliant multitasker,” but Mueller’s self image is less kind, and more knowing.
“My brain is going in a lot of different directions at any given time,” she said. In the worst moments, in her junior racing years, she says, “My brain overtook my feeling and my instinct.”
Ensuring that her return to bike racing, in which she has won two national criterium (street racing) championships, was not a coda to her teenage years, but a reprise, necessitated acquiring “the ability to shut the thinking part off and let the instincts take over, and not let my thoughts take off.”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” in that moment, Mueller said. “The faster I go, the slower I’m going. I get in a zone that I don’t feel anywhere else in life. When it’s life and death, that’s when I’m so focused.”
She loved being first, being the best, Mueller said, but didn’t like “the process” of having to beat other people to do it.
“I like to follow someone,” she said. “I always thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]The faster I go, the slower I’m going. I get in a zone that I don’t feel anywhere else in life.[/quote]
Mueller has thought about it ever since that lunch at Healthy Creations, nearly four years ago, thought about it so much, and run through the process so often, that the realities of that process no longer scare her.
Her cadence will be somewhere between 110-120 rotations a minute. Her pulse rate will be approaching 170. Her speed will be around 150 miles per hour.
And amidst all that—the body, the bike, the car, all redlining—will Denise Mueller be at peace, in the vortex?
“Oh yeah,” she said.
“It’s nirvana. It’s that calm. It’s chasing that calm, and the faster I go, the slower things are going, because they become a lot clearer.”
Everyone else’s blur is Denise Mueller’s pointillist painting.
And that blur could wind up being record breaking.
Update: Mueller has set the women’s paced bike land speed record this weekend at Bonneville. She still is chasing the men’s record. According to her Facebook posts, a mechanical problem with her Range Rover pace vehicle stymied further attempts Sunday. A replacement vehicle was sent from a Range Rover dealer in Salt Lake City and another record attempt was set to be made Monday.