How Berkeley law school dean Molly Shaffer Van Houweling set the world cycling record
Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, an associate dean at the University of California, Berkeley law school, teaches classes on intellectual property and serves on the board of a number of legal and technology organizations.
And in her free time, she has set national and world records in track cycling.
In September 2015, she broke the cycling hour record that had stood for 12 years by riding 46.273 kilometers (28.75 miles) in 60 minutes around a track in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Suddenly the international cycling community was wondering: Who is this professor?
"I feel very fortunate to have a hobby that I really love and a job that I really love," she says. "I use the techniques that any busy, multitasking person uses." That means creating detailed schedules, plotting her training into her calendar and sometimes cramming in work in the car on long drives. So far though, it has paid off.
It was Molly's husband, Rob, a professor of political science at Berkeley and a former bike racer, who suggested she go for the hour record. It suited her strengths and was something she could train for in between her other commitments.
She thought he was crazy. But then he bought her a new track bike and started aerodynamic testing bikes, tires, helmets and clothes. Molly, 44, does not have a professional cycling contract, team doctors or high-end sponsors, but she does have Rob, who loves playing around with various mechanical details.
"He's my manager. He does it better and cares about it more than many team managers," she says. "We were devoted to this in a way a pro wouldn't be."
Rob agrees: "Lots of pro teams have mechanics who are excellent mechanics but actually haven't spent as much time thinking about what tires to use, what bike frame to use." At least not as much time as he has spent thinking about those things. He also made the arrangements for the track rental, filled out the paperwork with the UCI, tested the fastest possible chains and bearings, and pumped her tires to just the right pressure. Then, he stood on the side of the track and yelled splits during her world record attempt.
"Was it worth it? Absolutely. But it's very subjective. Did we end up making money off it?" Rob laughs. "No."
Rob had grown up cycling in Michigan, where he was a junior state champion. Then, while they were both at the University of Michigan, Molly started biking with the local club, too, and the two of them won the tandem state title together back in 2004. "Then we moved to California and found out I wasn't a very good bike racer at all," she jokes. As it turned out, the competition was tougher on the West Coast.
But in between her work at UC Berkeley, she started training and racing with a local team. After Rob broke his hip, he stopped seriously racing and became her manager, training partner, mechanic and strategist. In 2007, she won her first Northern California district time trial championship. Since then, she has won countless amateur world titles and set age group records -- and, of course, that overall hour record.
Last year, Molly extended her personal hour distance to 47.061 kilometers (29.2 miles), which was an age group record for 40-44-year-old women, nationally and worldwide. She tried the individual and team pursuit on the track, winning a silver in the individual and a gold in the team race at nationals, then taking the title in both at the masters world championship. She raced on the road, too. "It was a really energizing year," she says, just to have more to learn, more left to improve even now.
"She's such a good role model for women navigating a healthy lifestyle and an ambitious career," says Katie Hall, who used to race with Molly on the club team and went on to compete professionally.
At the law school, there's a class Molly teaches right now called "Satisfaction in Law and Life." She has spent a lot of time thinking about happiness and productivity and efficiency. She talks to her students about making it all work. Even when she's not training, it's not as if she finally cleans the closet, she jokes to them. She's happier and more productive when she has a cycling goal pushing her.
Yes, every now and again, she feels overwhelmed, and quitting the sport has crossed her mind. "But I keep coming back to it," she says. It's always been about seeing just how far she can go on a bike.