On flat ground, Tour de France cyclists hope to average about 28 miles per hour. Your everyday cyclist is doing well if they hit 18 mph. But for 45-year-old Denise Mueller-Korenek, those speeds are just a rounding error. Bill Chappell at NPR reports that over the weekend the national cycling champion hit 183.932 mph on a custom bike through the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, smashing the world record in the process.
The California native didn’t get to almost NASCAR-level speeds with leg power alone. Instead, she was towed behind a converted drag racer by Shea Holbook, a seven-time Pirelli World Challenge winner. The dragster brought Mueller-Korenek up to speed for the first 1.5 miles, until she reached 100 miles per hour, then the cyclist released the tow and began pedaling her custom bike, which was geared so high that each revolution propelled her about 128 feet (for perspective, an off-the-rack bike gets you about 17 feet a pedal revolution). Riding in the slipstream of the dragster with her front tire just inches from the back of the car, she increased her speed over the next 3.5 miles, hitting almost 184 mph over the last mile of the run. The feat bested the 1995 record of 167 mph set by Dutch speedster Fred Rompelberg.
The speed was higher than the team had planned for and was higher than event organizers would allow. “Oh, shoot,” Mueller-Korenek said in a video after learning of her record-breaking speed. “We weren't supposed to go more than 175. Well, we aren’t going to be let back out, probably.”
Keeping pace behind a car going almost 200 miles per hour is no easy feat for either the cyclist or the driver. Mueller-Korenek had to keep in perfect position behind a box-like fairing attached to the back of the car. Falling behind or wobbling out of the slipstream would have meant being smacked by a hurricane-strength wall of wind and a major crash. In fact, that’s just what happened to previous record holder Rompelberg when he first tried to set the record in 1988, breaking 24 bones. “It’s like a dance,” Mueller-Korenek tells Selene Yeager of Bicycling. “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.”
Mueller-Korenek is no stranger to the Salt Flats, the desert plane, which as its name would suggest, is quite flat, so much so that dozens of various speed records have been set there over the years. In 2016, Mueller-Korenek grabbed the women’s speed record of 147.74 miles per hour by drafting behind a modified Range Rover, also driven by Holbrook. An attempt that year to break the overall record was rained out, and Christopher Ingraham at The Washington Post reports her 2017 prospects were destroyed by a crash that broke a shoulder blade and a rib, as well as an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound she sustained during a shooting competition.
In her younger years Mueller-Korenek was a 15-time national champion in road, track and mountain biking and competed in the World Championships. But the world record-holding cyclist actually took a break from the sport as an adult to run her family business and raise three kids, CNN reports. Her former coach John Howard, once the holder of the motor-paced record, himself, approached her about beating the women’s record several years ago, since he was always impressed with her bike handling. Mueller-Korenek says the suggestion was like “a match being thrown on gasoline.” The two worked together and brought aboard Holbrook to create Project Speed to attempt the record.
Vehicle-assisted bicycle records are believed to have begun back in the bicycle craze of the 1890s when Charlie “Mile-a-Minute” Murphy rode behind a train chugging at 60 mph, to travel a mile in 57.8 seconds—the fastest mile on record at the time.