At more than 140 mph, getting knocked off a bicycle is bad, potentially fatal. At such speed, pretty much everything is. It is also where Denise Mueller finds peace.
TOOELE COUNTY, Utah—Denise Mueller, a 43-year-old mother of three, pedals hard atop the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah, making a run at an eccentric land-speed record—the fastest bicyclist on earth.
Barreling a bike at speeds past 100 miles an hour on this stark, white-floored landscape appears terrifying, but it makes Mueller happy. It quiets her mind. For most people, speed is a thrill. To Mueller, speed is peace.
“You can’t focus on anything but what’s right in front of you,” she says. “You can’t think about what you’re doing tomorrow, who you’re going to call, what you’re going to be wearing—anything. When I get into that zone, it’s like a nirvana, that sense of focus when it all comes down to life or death.”
One hundred fifteen miles an hour.
This feels good, Mueller thinks.
One hundred twenty.
The custom carbon-fiber bike, fitted with motorcycle tires, begins to drift a little bit, right to left, left to right. Mueller exhales under her matte-black helmet, steadies herself in her crimson-leather jumpsuit and keeps pedaling. Her red ponytail flickers from beneath her helmet.
One hundred twenty-five miles an hour.
Directly in front of Mueller on this September afternoon is a snow-white Range Rover Sport SVR, driven by race-car driver Shea Holbrook. Moments ago, Holbrook towed Mueller and her bike from a standstill to a spot past the first-mile marker, where, at a speed in excess of 90 miles an hour, Mueller released the tow cable and began pedaling on her own. (Experience Denise Mueller’s ride in virtual reality.)
Now, she rides in the Rover’s slipstream as Holbrook gently accelerates—a practice known as “drafting,” or “motor-pacing,” since the wind protection offered by the Rover means Mueller can go faster.
Make no mistake: She is riding completely untethered, solo.
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Through the Rover’s salt-dusted rear window, Mueller can see into the SUV’s cockpit. Next to Holbrook, in the passenger seat, is John Howard, the venerable American cyclist and Olympian, now 69. It was Howard who discovered Mueller when she was a teenage cyclist growing up in Southern California. Howard himself bicycled 152 mph on these salt flats three decades ago—and it was he who talked Mueller into trying this madness, to become the fastest female cyclist and take a crack at the all-time motor-paced bicycle land-speed record.
Seeing Howard in the Rover makes Mueller feel protected. She wouldn’t have been here without him.
One hundred thirty miles an hour.
Around this speed, strange things begin to happen, Mueller knows. Air flowing off the Rover will rush and swirl to fill the space behind it, which in turn will push Mueller and the bike forward. The phenomenon has a name: the Von Karman Effect, after the Hungarian astrophysicist Theodore Von Karman.
The Vortex, Howard calls it. The Hand of God, Mueller prefers.
Mueller’s ride becomes trickier now. She and Holbrook compare it to a waltz. Holbrook has to be careful with the accelerator to make sure Mueller stays in the Rover’s slipstream. Mueller can’t let the force of the vortex shove her forward too hard into the bump bar at the back of the Rover. She can nudge the Rover a little, but too much could knock her down. Getting knocked down is bad, potentially fatal.
Then again, at this speed, pretty much everything is.
One hundred forty miles an hour.
It is a formality at this point: Mueller has ridden a bicycle faster than any woman ever has.
But she is chasing more.
She keeps pedaling fiercely across the salt flats. The Rover keeps accelerating, into the horizon. Mueller wants to go faster. She always has.
Speed does something to Denise Mueller, Shea Holbrook and John Howard, a trio of Americans who joined in late summer to try to top a staggering human-powered mark: 167 miles an hour on a bicycle.
“We get called crazy, of course,” Howard says. “But it’s what we do. There’s a big difference between taking a risk and calculating that risk. When risks are thoroughly calculated, we don’t see it as dangerous. We see it as adventure.”
The story begins almost 60 years ago, in Springfield, Mo. Howard is a gangly 10-year-old when he walks into the local Schwinn dealership and sees a poster of French cyclist Alfred Letourneur with an intoxicating caption: 108.92 MPH ON A BIKE!
Le Diable Rouge, cycling fans called Letourneur. “The Red Devil,” Howard says.
Young Howard is entranced. He decides he wants a Schwinn just like Letourneur’s—and, maybe one day, that 108.92 mph record.
First, Howard will become the best cyclist in his region, training on roads and trails around the Ozark Mountains. Then he will become one of the best in the country, winning the U.S. road racing championship in 1968, 1972, 1973 and 1975. He will represent the U.S. at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, as well as Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976. In 1971, he will win the gold medal in road cycling at the Pan American Games. A decade later, he will win the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii.
“A true legend,” says Bill Walton, Howard’s friend since the years Walton played basketball at UCLA. “John has literally done everything.”
Howard makes his attempt on the bicycle speed record in 1985. With his credentials, he signs on sponsors like Pepsi and Wendy’s. After he breaks the record, reaching 152.2 mph riding behind a modified streamliner car, he joins Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”
“It got more exposure than anything I’d done in my career,” Howard says. “Winning multiple national championships, being on Olympic teams…it was small potatoes compared to the speed record.”
A couple of years later, Howard is on a training ride not far from San Diego when he notices a red-haired teenager pedaling behind him. Howard isn’t going his fastest, but it’s not like he’s casually pedaling, either. The rider stays with him for miles. Who is this kid? he wonders.
It is Denise Mueller, 14 years old, from Encinitas, Calif. She is out with her father, Myron, finishing a charity ride from San Francisco to San Diego.
“I didn’t know who John was,” Mueller recalls. “I was on his wheel for probably 10 miles before he turned around and introduced himself.”
It is the beginning of a beautiful bicycling partnership. Howard, who lives not far from the Mueller family, encourages Denise to try out bike racing. She does—and wins her first race.
Mueller may be hard-wired for racing, it turns out. Both of her parents are thrill-seekers. When Myron Mueller turned 70, he celebrated by riding a bicycle around the perimeter of the continental U.S. It took him 9½ months. Denise’s mother, Anna, competed in demolition derby racing before Denise was born. On her 80th birthday, Anna sky-dived from an airplane.
Denise wouldn’t be satisfied with a traditional childhood. “My mom tried to get me into piano,” Mueller says. “Nothing really appealed to me.”
Bike racing appeals to her, though. Mueller battles with attention deficit disorder, and the focus and speed of racing settles her. She soon becomes one of the best female bike racers in the U.S., not just on the road, but also in downhill mountain bike, cross-country and track racing. In her junior career, Mueller will amass more than a dozen national titles, and take a silver medal in the downhill mountain bike race at the world junior championships.
Then, at age 19, Mueller stops. The speed doesn’t get to her, but the pressure of winning does. She feels the weight of living up to other people’s expectations, even if those expectations are mostly in her own mind. Racing isn’t fun anymore.
“I’m thinking everyone expects me to win,” she says. “And that anxiety got to the point where I was like, ‘Screw it, I’m getting out of this.’”
She hangs the bike up, cold turkey. She gets married and has children. She runs her family’s home-security business. She is content, fulfilled. “I wouldn’t trade in a million years my life after getting out of cycling,” Mueller says.
Two decades pass. By her early 40s, Mueller is feeling the pangs of a midlife crisis. Her marriage is coming apart. She has become a gym rat and a runner. She gets into so-called LeMons racing, an endurance driving competition in cheap, beat-up cars.
When her 14-year-old son, Michael, starts distance running, Mueller reaches out to Howard to see if her old mentor would coach her son. A partnership is reborn. Mueller gets back on the bike and starts training for another edition of the San Francisco-to-San Diego charity ride she did as a teenager.
At a lunch in 2012, Howard proposes an attempt on the land-speed record.
“Denise, you like going fast,” Howard says. “You like riding your bike. You like drafting…”
It sounds nutty, but Mueller is at the point of her life where nutty sounds right. She will tell this story many times, about listening to Howard propose the speed record, and she describes it as a “match to gasoline.”
“He lit that sucker when he said, ‘You realize there’s no women’s land-speed record?’” she says. “How many things are left in history to be the first one ever to do something?”
She doesn’t need much convincing. Mueller wants back. She wants to go fast again.
There is no official competition to be the fastest bicycle rider in the world. There is no league, no playoff, no championship trophy presented on ESPN. It is a bit of a free-for-all, open to any dreamer or daredevil willing to try. That includes the Brooklyn, N.Y., man credited with launching the idea, Charles Murphy. In 1899, he rode on planks behind a passenger car on the Long Island Rail Road at 60 mph. Mile-a-Minute Murphy, they called him after that.
Since then, the “paced” cycling speed record (there are other speed records, like unpaced and downhill) has bounced among European and U.S. riders, including Alfred Letourneur, who reached his 108 mph mark on a track; American physician and cyclist Allan Abbott, 139 mph in 1973; and Howard’s 152 mph. In 1995, Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg topped them all when he hit 167 mph at Bonneville, riding behind a modified dragster.
A run at the paced record is an elaborate endeavor. Beyond the cyclist’s physical capacity, there are technological and aerodynamic challenges.
The bicycle Mueller will use is unlike anything you will see on a casual Sunday ride. To maintain such a high speed, it must generate a spectacular amount of torque. A bike with traditional gearing would spin helplessly: Tour de France racers max out at speeds around 48 miles an hour in a sprint.
Mueller’s bike—with its frame built by fabricator Len Lochmiller and assembled by Chris Garcia of the San Diego shop SD Wheelworks—is a beast. It features two 60-tooth chain rings that work in combination to raise the gearing and allow the bike to travel 125 feet with a single pedal stroke. That drivetrain (made by da Vinci Designs of Denver) is necessary to let Mueller accelerate at speeds surpassing 100 mph.
Built For Speed
Mueller also must find her form again as a top-level cyclist—redevelop her explosive strength, as well as her bike-handling skills. Howard has Mueller dive back into training. On top of her day job, she puts in 15 hours a week on her bike.
Howard gets Mueller to enter races, where, sure enough, she starts winning. Mueller had spent decades feeling bad about walking away from racing as a teenager. “I felt like I was a chicken,” she says. Now, she is back.
For a while, Mueller and Howard keep their mission a secret, worried they could inspire a copycat racer before they are ready. But they need sponsors, so they begin telling people about the coming Bonneville attempt, about what it would mean to be the world’s fastest women’s cyclist. They give their plan a name: Project Speed. Sponsors arrive, among them Hoehn Motors, a Carlsbad, Calif., dealership that agrees to furnish the Range Rover. The tech security firm Cylance Inc. also signs on, as well as bike sponsor KHS. The project’s full budget will be close to $150,000.
Meanwhile, they need a driver. Mueller likes the idea of putting a woman at the wheel—an all-female battery on the flats. She hears about Shea Holbrook, a 26-year-old driver by way of Orlando, Fla.
An entrepreneur with her own eponymous racing team, Shea Racing, Holbrook has won races on the Pirelli World Challenge circuit and driven jet-propelled dragsters, reaching a top speed of 278 mph.
Like Mueller, Holbrook is obsessed with speed. As an only child in a Navy family, Holbrook was raised by a daredevil father and mother and was competing in water skiing at 7 years old.
“Growing up, I wanted to be a roller-coaster tester,” Holbrook says. “I had Barbie dolls, but I didn’t want to play with them, I wanted to drive the car. I was driving at 6, and I was driving the boat before I drove the car.”
Mueller and Holbrook talk by phone. The connection is instantaneous. Mueller is supposed to finish the call and go to an appointment, but she skips it to stay in her car and talk. “It was like she was my sister,” Holbrook says.
A few months later, the two women are on their way to the salt flats, to make a run at history.
“The Mecca of Speed,” Howard calls the Bonneville Salt Flats. People have raced on these flats for more than a century, drawn by the smooth surface that seems to disappear into the horizon.
It is chilly on the morning of Sept. 10, and Howard is watching two men tinker on a Dodge Charger Daytona.
The Project Speed team will make its attempt here at World of Speed, a four-day event that, besides Mueller and her bike, is full of hopefuls chasing records in vintage streamliners, muscle cars and motorcycles. The parking lot is loud, eclectic, a Star Wars bar for motorheads.
There is a hitch this year. Normally, land-speed records are attempted on a 5-mile track. But changes to the flats—fluctuations in the temperature, or the effect of nearby potash mining, some suspect—means there is less surface suitable for racing.
The World of Speed track will be only 4 miles, a worrisome disadvantage. Mueller and Holbrook will have to go faster sooner, which is precarious since Mueller needs to be brought up to speed carefully. Going too hard too quickly could threaten her stability behind the Rover.
This weighs on Holbrook. At first glance, this job is a snap for her. Holbrook could drive a car 175 mph with her eyes closed. But she has never been responsible for someone else before, not to mention someone as vulnerable as a bicyclist riding in the draft of her vehicle.
“I don’t like to sugarcoat it, because the reality is that I’m helping keep her alive,” Holbrook says. The morning has warmed, and she is standing under a Project Speed tent wearing sky-blue sunglasses. “I feel like we’re on the operating table, and if I don’t do my job perfectly, she might not come out of it.”
There are other concerns. An aluminum fairing has been attached to the back of the Rover to create a protected space for Mueller. But in test runs, the fairing’s aerodynamics are off—it kicks up too much salt on Mueller, and creates excess drag for the Rover. It is only after an adjustment by Holbrook’s father, Jeff—and a run to Salt Lake City for parts—that the SUV can get the power needed to reach the land-speed mark.
Mueller and Project Speed are a curiosity here. Visitors stop by the tent to take photos and inspect Mueller’s bike. Jeff Holbrook has driven to Bonneville in the Shea Racing team’s 18-wheeler, which gives the encampment a bit of shade, not to mention a classic-rock soundtrack.
Mueller’s first attempt is on Day One, and it goes well. Holbrook tugs her safely up to 90 miles an hour and Mueller releases and powers forward in the draft. The vortex does its job. Mueller hits the bump bar on the back of the Rover a couple of times, but it’s OK; Holbrook keeps accelerating and Mueller stays upright. The World of Speed timekeepers announce that Mueller averaged 147.2 mph over the final mile of track.
Their waltz is working. “We’re just going to perfect it and get even more out of it,” Mueller says.
But there are problems in the next days. On a couple of aborted runs, Mueller slips out from behind the Rover before they get up to speed. Radio communication between Holbrook and Mueller comes and goes, so they rely on flashing lights on the back of the Rover. The SUV develops a computer issue brought on by the salt, which requires shipping it to Salt Lake City for repair, wiping out a full day.
By the time Mueller is able to make her next run, it is windy and the flats have gotten slushy. Still, she and Holbrook get off to a good start, with Holbrook pulling her faster to the mile-and-a-quarter mark, and Mueller safely untethering. The effort Mueller makes to stay in the draft is less of a single long exertion than it is a series of quick, furious sprints. When the vortex pushes her forward, Mueller can relax for an instant. Then, another sprint. On and on it goes.
When they hit the timing line at the end of the fourth mile, Holbrook squeals happily in the cockpit.
One hundred forty-seven and three-quarter miles an hour.
It is the best run yet. In the pit afterward, Mueller celebrates with her youngest son, Daniel, 16 years old.
The team is so close to 167. “Damn close,” Howard says.
Mueller and Holbrook believe they have found the right formula: a harder start, a sharper acceleration, and Mueller surging in sync with the motion of the vortex.
Bonneville’s shortened track is a headache, however. With another mile to accelerate, everyone thinks Howard’s mark of 152 mph would be easy prey. Rompelberg’s tantalizing 167 mph could be in their sights as well.
But before the final session of World of Speed, the clouds open up and it pours overnight. Mueller and Holbrook arrive at the flats and find them wet and slushy. “It became a lake again,” Howard says. Organizers cancel the final day. Project Speed 2016 is officially over.
Sitting in a car as her father packs up the 18-wheeler truck, Holbrook starts to second-guess herself. “If I could have pulled her harder off the line, if I could have just caught her on those two aborted runs…” Growing emotional, she stops. “I just don’t know.”
Mueller describes her feelings as “cloud nine, but frustrated.”
“We didn’t get to go to that next level, but we all know there is so much more left on the table,” she says. “We had just started getting the dance perfected.”
It is not a failure by any stretch: 147.75 mph is faster than any woman has ever ridden a bicycle.
Before they leave Bonneville, Mueller, Holbrook and Howard are in agreement: They are coming back next year.
Mueller’s training will start soon. Holbrook will be at the wheel. Adjustments will be made. “Build a better mousetrap,” Howard says. If Bonneville isn’t optimal, they’ll try somewhere else.
“I cannot wait to come back and do it again,” Mueller says.