Speed Queen: How Denise Mueller-Korenek Became the Fastest Cyclist on Earth
March 13, 2019
This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news, information, and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.
“I was like a ping-pong ball being pushed left and right, doing everything to stay upright. It was a terrifying situation. If I’d fallen off, it’s anybody’s guess what would have happened. But it’s more likely not to survive than to survive.”
When 45-year-old Denise Mueller-Korenek broke the world speed record (for both men and women) on a bicycle in September 2018, she was averaging 183.9mph (296kph). In front of her, guarding her against wind resistance and dragging her along in its slipstream, was a 1,000- horsepower methanol-fuelled dragster equipped with a faring. Beneath her wheels were the sparkling white crystals of Bonneville Salt Flats in the US state of Utah.
Denise’s chosen cycling discipline – known as motor-paced cycling – is extremely niche and even more dangerous. For her record attempt, along a five-mile (8km) course, she was first towed on her custom-built bicycle to a speed of 110mph (177kph) where she then released her towrope and, still within the dragster’s slipstream, pedalled her enormous drive-train, accelerating to her record-breaking speed for the final mile. 183.9mph is around the same speed as a jetliner when it’s taking off.
No room for error
The greatest risk, she explains to Populous magazine, was that her faring was only 117cms (46ins) wide. Err to the left or right and the inrushing air would have torn her instantly from her bike. “It’s like driving 180mph in a car, rolling down the window, and then sticking your arm out. Imagine what would happen to your arm,” she says.
Had the wind separated her from her bike, the best-case scenario for cheating death would have been to slide to a stop in her leather-and-Kevlar racing suit. But a high-speed tumble, she admits, would have been more likely. (And potentially lethal.) Back in 1988, the Dutch world-record speed cyclist Fred Rompelberg (from whom Denise stole the record) crashed and tumbled at 140mph (225kph), breaking more than a few bones in the process.
Fortunately Denise completed her record run without mishap. At the steering wheel of the dragster in front of her (lent to her by Rompelberg) was pro racing driver Shea Holbrook. Denise explains how the delicate balance between dragster and bicycle was “like a magic dance”. Holbrook needed to accelerate uniformly in order to allow Denise to pedal within her slipstream. The high-speed dance between the two women had to be absolutely perfect.
Given the deafening rush of air, radio communication was impossible. “The wind was so huge,” Denise explained. “It’s like being in the middle, I would assume, of a hurricane. You can’t hear anything but that wind, buffeting and howling stronger and stronger, the faster we went.” Instead, the cyclist used head movements and a video link to instruct her driver: nods of the head to speed up, and shakes of the head to slow down. A bump bar, meanwhile, was installed at the back of the faring to prevent accidental collisions between the vehicles.
Bonneville Salt Flats, a 40-square mile (100-square km) salt pan in northwestern Utah, has witnessed more than a few accidents in its time. Since the early 1900s, a section of it known as Bonneville Speedway has staged various motor sports and land speed record attempts. Cars, trucks and motorbikes can regularly be seen tearing up the salt crust surface. Over the years the likes of Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird, Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America, Burt Munro’s Indian Scout V-Twin and Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame have set speed records. Denise now joins this illustrious list.
Not your typical daredevil
A middle-aged mother of three with a full-time job running a security company, she is hardly your typical daredevil athlete. But she has impressive form. As a junior she raced in road cycling, track cycling and, her strongest event, downhill mountain biking. She’s also no stranger to Bonneville, having driven a Mini Cooper at high speed there eight years ago.
Nonetheless, to be crowned fastest cyclist ever, male or female, she must possess some pretty unique skills. After all, she smashed Rompelberg’s record by nearly 17mph (27kph).
Denise points to three key factors. Firstly, there are her cycling skills. She has the fast-twitch muscles required for sprinting and bike-handling techniques gleaned from her mountain biking days. But as she admits, there are plenty of professional track cyclists far fitter and stronger than her, with the physique to beat her record… on paper, anyway. Secondly, there’s her financial backing. Without investors, she could never have afforded the attempt. But the third and most crucial factor of all, she says, is “the mental crazy factor”.
“I like to explain it like this: you could have any group of people, and every one of them is physically capable of jumping out of an airplane,” she explains. “But not everyone wants to jump out of an airplane.”
So, after all the training, testing, engineering and meticulous preparation, it’s Denise’s daredevilry that sets her apart from other cyclists. Her coach is John Howard, a former speed cyclist who set a world record himself in 1985. (It’s an extremely close-knit sport, this.)
“When John first brought up the idea of a record attempt, he mentioned that no woman had achieved this record,” Denise remembers. “It took me less than half a breath to say ‘I’m in!’. I didn’t even have to think about it. It was a no-brainer.”
It seems her need for speed has now been satiated, with no further plans to pursue records. “It was definitely a God-thing that we came out of that alive,” she says. “I’m not wishing to push it to another limit.”