On Sept. 16, Denise Mueller-Korenek arrived at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to fulfill a six-year-long journey. The plan: to break the high-speed cycling world record. In 2016, Mueller-Korenek had set the women's record, but now she was looking to beat the overall mark, held by Fred Rompelberg. The record -- 167.044 miles per hour -- had stood for 23 years.
To do it, she would attach her bike to a drag-racing car driven by Shea Holbrook. Holbrook would get up to speed, then Mueller-Korenek would release herself from the vehicle but stay directly behind it, using the draft created to propel the bike faster and reduce wind resistance.
It was a dangerous mission -- a wrong move at such high speeds could easily result in a fatal crash. But 45-year-old Mueller-Korenek already had a lifetime of experience, failures and incredible successes that had led her up to that moment.
Born and raised in California, Mueller-Korenek fell into elite racing almost by accident. On the final day of a charity ride from San Francisco to San Diego with her father, ultradistance cyclist Myron Mueller, she decided to follow John Howard, a three-time Olympian and the holder of the 1985 land-speed record. After nearly two weeks of the trek, the 14-year-old managed to stick close to Howard. Afterward, he approached Mueller-Korenek's father and suggested she consider racing.
"I identified a real athletic prodigy," Howard says.
That ride was in August 1987. By September, Mueller-Korenek had signed up for her first junior bike race with Howard as her coach. She won.
Hooked from that day forward, Mueller-Korenek entered every two-wheeled race she could find. She raced all disciplines, from mountain biking to downhill to road cycling. By her senior year of high school, she had acquired 13 national championship titles as well as snagged two podium finishes at world championships.
"That's when I started to develop huge performance anxiety," says Mueller-Korenek. "I felt a lot of pressure to continue to win. It just wasn't fun anymore." At the same time, her parents were getting divorced, and her family business, Santa Fe Security Systems, was struggling. She found herself breaking into tears on routine training rides. It was one such ride in 1992 when she realized she couldn't continue to compete and stay mentally healthy.
"So I hung up the bike," she says. "And once I hung up the bike, it didn't come back off."
At least until six years ago, when Howard suggested that Mueller-Korenek attempt to break a world record.
"She is the single most driven powerhouse of an athlete I've ever seen," he says. "She never wavers. [She] figures it out and remains effervescent and on top of the world. That drive is part of why she is so successful, and why I thought she could do it."
At the time, after decades out of the saddle, Mueller-Korenek had settled into a regular pace of life. She stood at the helm of her family business, raised three children and spent much of her spare time engaging with the athletic community at her local gym.
"When my son decided he wanted to run 19 half-marathons, I reached out to my old coach," says Mueller-Korenek of the fated reconnection with Howard. "I just didn't want my son to get injured. But by 2012, John was suggesting that I get back onto the bike."
Howard knew that the only way he could get her back into the sport was by creating a goal so ambitious that only she could accomplish it. He planted the seed by noting her love for speed and drive for adrenaline. She immediately agreed to pursue it. Howard told her that, after 20-plus years outside of racing, she had to start by winning a national championship.
"I realized that it could be an opportunity for me to vindicate and reclaim the way I had left the sport. I regretted the way I stopped racing because it felt like running away from my issues," she says.
She started small, doing distance group rides and working on her anxiety. She found success with neurofeedback training and hypnotherapy, and, before she knew it, she was standing on the podium again.
After winning two national championships in the master's division, she and Howard knew she was ready to go for the record. They just needed the right driver.
Holbrook and Mueller-Korenek found each other through another stroke of fate. Two different people suggested Holbrook for the project, and when the two met, they immediately clicked. It took that kind of connection, one where Holbrook could sense Mueller-Korenek surging, dropping, struggling, or exceling, in order for the women to have a chance at history.
But the record-breaking attempt almost didn't happen at all. In a nostalgic nod to automobile history, the dragster that pulled Rompelberg in 1995 had been refurbished in just three months to attempt the record again, but after 23 years of gathering dust, three months was barely enough time to get it back up to speed. Four days before the event, the entire team had to scramble to replace its rare tires. Then, en route to Utah, Mueller-Korenek's trailer broke down.
Then, at the start line, Mueller-Korenek and Holbrook took a record run -- only to discover that the timing apparatus was broken. Once they were cleared to start, the headwind had picked up from zero to 10 mph -- another challenge they'd have to face.
And Holbrook had her own reservations about the risk of the feat. She and Mueller-Korenek had both gotten married since their 147.2 mph run two years before, and with the mechanical issues and start-stop motion of the day, Holbrook understood that more was at stake than just a world record. Both of their lives were in her hands. Something as simple as a speed miscalculation, equipment malfunction or a misreading of Mueller-Korenek's physical cues could leave them both dead.
"I couldn't let Denise see that. I had to instill confidence by being ready to do this," Holbrook says.
But in spite of her uncertainty, Holbrook drove beyond her comfort zone (and out of the regulations for the vehicle, which wasn't supposed to exceed 175 mph), a level that Mueller-Korenek matched.
"She's a totally crazy athlete. She's built for this, trained for this, has an uberpositive personality. She had the ride of her life, and I had the drive of mine," Holbrook says.
"It's like surfing," Mueller-Korenek says of the draft. "You have to pick the exact right moment, the right place, and surf the air."
While Holbrook was driving, Mueller-Korenek surfed the draft, navigating the forces pushing and propelling her across the salt. That day, Mueller-Korenek would smash the record, reaching an average speed of 183.931 mph. The feat sent shock waves through the cycling community but was not a surprise to Mueller-Korenek.
"First, you have to make a goal and never let yourself lose faith that you can do it, no matter what negativity gets thrown at you," she says. "Second, you remember that everything in life gives you something to build upon. Everything you do gives you another element to do something better."