Times caption: After unhooking her bicycle she used the pace car’s slipstream to hit 184mph MATT BEN STONE/GETTY IMAGES
A piece in yesterday’s Times:
Tucked behind an aged dragster roaring across the Utah desert, a 45-year-old mother of three has become the fastest cyclist in history by travelling at more than 180mph.
Denise Mueller-Korenek, a former junior cycling champion who stepped back from the sport and became chief executive of a home security company in California, risked death or serious injury at the Bonneville Salt Flats on Sunday to smash a record that had stood for 23 years.
“Now I know how Evel Knievel felt,” she said after hitting 183.9mph on her bike, almost 40mph quicker than the women’s record that she set in 2016.
The eccentric history of the motor-paced cycling land speed record is strewn with fatalities and mangled limbs. Participants ride, or “draft”, in the slipstream of a motorised vehicle after first being towed by it.
The discipline was popularised by Charles “Mile-a-Minute” Murphy in 1899 when he hit 60mph while drafting behind a steam train. Casualties piled up over the following century, including the Dutch rider Fred Rompelberg who broke 24 bones when he crashed at more than 100mph at the Bonneville flats in 1988. He returned seven years later to set a 167mph record which stood until last weekend.
Ms Mueller-Korenek’s assault on his mark had been thwarted by bad weather in 2016, when she still set the women’s record; by a training crash that broke her shoulder blade and rib in 2017; and by an unfortunate incident later that year when she accidentally shot herself in the leg during a shooting competition.
“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,” according to her coach, John Howard, a former Olympic cyclist who once held the motor-paced cycling record himself. “She was totally ready.”
For the first two miles of Ms Mueller-Korenek’s record attempt she was towed behind the rattling pace-setting vehicle, which had also been used to help set the previous record in the same place in 1995.
Then, with the racing car and bike both moving at about 150mph Ms Mueller-Korenek released her cable tether and pedalled the last three miles in the slipstream of the dragster but under her own power. Her low-slung custom-built bicycle was seven feet long with compact 17 inch motorbike wheels for stability. A pair of 60-tooth sprockets and a 12-tooth cog pushed the bike forward by almost 130ft with every pedal stroke.
As Shea Holbrook, the driver, pushed the accelerator pedal to the floor, Ms Mueller-Korenek was sucked along in the air pocket behind the car, a phenomenon known as the Von Karman effect, after the Hungarian physicist Theodore von Karman. The cyclist calls it “the hand of God.”
After her victorious run Ms Mueller-Korenek was asked what her next goal would be. She waved the question away but her husband, Chris Korenek, interjected. “World record for margaritas,” he said.
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