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Fastest cyclist ever: Setting a World Record speed of 183mph on a bicycle

1 Sep 2019

This article was originally published in issue 81 of Cyclist magazine

Words Jack Elton-Walters Photography Matt Ben Stone

‘Mother-of-three becomes fastest human being on a bike at 183.9mph’. That’s how The Daily Telegraph announced the news that Denise Mueller-Korenek from San Diego had just smashed the world land speed record for riding a bicycle in September 2018.

No human – man or woman – had ever travelled at a higher speed under their own steam on a bike, so was Mueller-Korenek annoyed that a lot of the media coverage seemed to fixate on her being a mother in her mid-forties?

‘You know, I don’t see that as demeaning in any way,’ she tells Cyclist in the days after her record-breaking ride in September. ‘It’s just part of who I am. It’s a descriptor, just like my name.’

Despite beating the previous record held by Dutchman Fred Rompelberg, who set a speed of 268.8kmh (167mph) in 1995, Mueller-Korenek’s achievement is still being documented as the ‘women’s record’, with Rompelberg’s time still standing as the ‘men’s record’.

It may seem anachronistic, even sexist, to separate the records, but in a twist of irony Mueller-Korenek has only herself to blame.

Back in 2016, she managed a speed of 237.7kmh (147mph), and it was declared a ‘women’s record’ by virtue of her being the only woman ever to have attempted it.

As such, having split the records along gender lines, they are set to stay divided despite Mueller-Korenek surpassing the men’s record by almost 30kmh.

‘Because of what I did in 2016, they created the women’s record and made Fred’s the men’s record, and once they are separated the two shall not come back together again,’ she says.

‘This year I’m talking about, “Hey, it’s an overall record, it doesn’t matter whether it’s man or woman,” which is different from what I was saying two years ago.

‘Still, I’m just hoping to inspire people, whether they be female, male, children. Just get back into the game of life and build something.’

Salt and speed

To achieve her new cycling speed record of 296.01kmh (183.932mph), Mueller-Korenek took to the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah in the USA.

It would be virtually impossible to accelerate up to that speed by pedalling alone, so she was initially towed up to speed by a dragster before releasing the tow line and covering the final mile at full tilt under her own power, with a wind shield behind the car helping to reduce aerodynamic drag.

‘The pace car driver is named Shea Holbrook. She races Lamborghinis,’ says Mueller-Korenek. ‘It’s sort of a tandem effort, because I need to conform to what Shea is doing with the accelerator.

‘When we got to the much higher speeds I was literally hanging on for dear life and just staying in the pocket of air.’

According to Mueller-Korenek, this kind of paced speed cycling is not simply about how much power a rider can generate.

‘I view it a bit like surfing,’ she says. ‘You have to be in shape to be able to accomplish what you’re going to do physically, but there are all these other elements and it just doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman.

‘So much of it is about technique, being able to balance, like riding a wave, and not get shot out the back. You’ve got to be able to buffer yourself left and right and stay in that pocket of air.’

Technique and guts may be the essential ingredients for a successful record attempt, but Mueller-Korenek also had to do the physical work to get in shape for the ride.

‘With my coach, John Howard, I had very specialised on-the-road training. As well as group rides and intervals, I’d do motorpacing behind an electric motorcycle at the velodrome. I also had a separate fitness coach to help me with strength training in the gym.

‘I would do pretty extreme heavy lifting, including doing deadlifts with a hex bar of up to 230lb [104kg], and I did inverted leg presses, Romanian deadlifts and weighted lunges with 30lbs [13.6kg] in each hand.’

Mueller-Korenek credits coach Howard as her inspiration to take on the record attempt. He was the one who first got her into bike racing as a teenager, and then persuaded her back onto the bike after a 23-year lay-off to focus on career and family.

‘All this is thanks to my coach and the vision he had, because he knew me and what I was capable of, even when I didn’t believe myself,’ she says.

‘He saw something in me that I didn’t even know was still there – that spark. He knew I had this capability and the guts to do the land speed record. It takes a special crazy to do it.’

All about the bike

As much as the speed record was a feat of human endeavour, the equipment had to be up to the challenge too. Mueller-Korenek’s bike for the run was a reinforced version of the one she rode in 2016, which was itself based on the one used by Rompelberg in the 1990s.

‘The carbon fibre is, I believe, around five times thicker than you’d find on a standard carbon bike. We utilised the same geometry as Fred Rompelberg used for his bicycle, and the motorcycle tyres and rims we used are already rated for more than 250mph.

‘There was no way to truly test the bike as a whole, however we were able to know that the different components we had would be able to withstand that speed.’

Even so, the longevity of the equipment was limited to the record, as became clear soon after: ‘Everything has its weak points. Just five days after the event the flange on the rear hub completely popped off.

‘One side of the rear wheel just snapped off the hub. That could have been a catastrophic situation.’

Having survived this attempt, and ridden herself into the record books, would Mueller-Korenek consider returning to the Utah Salt Flats to try to go over 200mph?

‘It’s a very alluring prospect to go for that,’ she says. ‘However this was very different from what I experienced in 2016 doing 147mph.

‘This situation was a lot more terrifying and violent, and I wouldn’t want to take it up another 16mph unless I had a lot more aerodynamic testing and wind-tunnel testing, which we didn’t do at all.

‘It’s not only that. I’ve committed so much to the training for the past six years to prepare for this, I’m a little tired and I need some time off.

‘It’s something I might possibly think about down the road, but right now, nope, I’m willing to hang it up and help somebody else take it to that next level.’