Taking a speed record: Denise Korenek on what it’s like to ride at 183.9 mph

Denise Korenek rode at an astonishing 183.932 miles per hour (296 km/h) earlier this week, going well beyond the previous world paced bicycle record as she flew along the salt flats of Utah.

Korenek (formerly known as Mueller) committed to taking a tilt at Fred Rompelberg’s 1995 record of 167 mph, after two years ago setting the women’s record of 147 mph. The mother of three and 13-time national champion walked away from that first achievement confident there was more in the tank.

Now two years on, the target for her and driver Shea Holbrook was to add over 20 mph to their pace so they could beat the men’s record too. Ultimately they didn’t just beat it, they smashed it. This will make it all the more difficult for those lining up with their own world paced bicycle record attempts to beat the 45-year-old American’s record, which was ultimately six years in the making. 

CyclingTips spoke to the mother of three at Interbike just days after her successful run. See below for a transcript we’ve edited for length and clarity to give you the highlights of the interview, or hit play below to hear the full version of James Huang’s chat with Korenek.

CyclingTips: What exactly is your cycling background?

Korenek: It all started with John Howard. I met John [Denise’s coach, three-time Olympian and a former speed record holder] in August of 1987. I was on the San Francisco-San Diego ride and actually got on his wheel. That’s how I met him …  he is the one who basically talked to my dad and said, ‘we need to get this girl racing’.

Within one month [I] entered my first race and I won it and I was so hooked. So that was my racing career [started] and 1991 was my last year. I was able to accomplish 13 national championships in multiple disciplines and second place in the world championships for downhill in juniors for mountain bike racing, and third place for world championships for cross-country.

Downhill mountain bike racing was my favorite. The adrenaline junkie sort of got revealed way early in my career. But I hung the bike up in early 1992, literally, and never touched it — maybe three to five times in like a 20-year period.

You just stopped riding completely?

I cut it cold turkey. I actually dealt with a bit of racing anxiety. I had a bunch of other things going on … I was dealing with a lot of anxiety. Because I was doing so well as a junior I created an artificial pressure on myself that kept getting worse and worse and worse. I’d get to the start line and my stomach would be in absolute knots.

So you hung up the bike for 20-odd years. What made you get back into it?

Well here comes that John Howard thing again. I was a gym rat for many years and then watched some lady friends of mine in the gym do their first full marathon. We saw them do all their training, went down and went to cheer them on and I went, ‘oh my gosh that is so cool’. I set a goal to run a marathon and that was literally the very beginning of setting goals that led all the way to where I am today …

Then my son started doing a lot of running and he wanted to get some training in order to prepare to do 19 half marathons in one year at the age of 16 — it is an overachieving family, totally. I reached out to John Howard and said: ‘Oh how cool is it that you were my coach when I was 16. How wonderful to have you be my son’s coach.’ Well, I didn’t realise that it was also going to be me.

John suggested I get back on my bike and do this charity ride from San Francisco to San Diego again. The irony of that full circle … This was 2012 now and John took me out to lunch one day and was saying, ‘I know you like riding fast. I know you like racing cars …’ and I’m thinking, ‘OK, where’s this going?’ And he said; ‘do you realise that no woman has ever gone after that paced bicycle land speed record?’ He no sooner had the words out of his mouth than I said, ‘I am in’.

Project speed’s John Howard, Denise Korenek and driver Shea Holbrook. Photo: Matt Ben Stone

Did you immediately fall back in love with cycling again?

I did. The other thing that John had suggested for me to do is to get back into bike racing because it had been 20-some-odd years since I’d got my 13 national championships, my world podiums. He wanted me to become relevant again … so he not only wanted me to get back into bike racing, he then said he wanted me to win a national championship.

I did not believe that was possible and the second he brought up getting back into bike racing my stomach went into knots. One thing I’ve always regretted is how I left cycling because I was running away from an issue, which was that performance anxiety. So I really had to grapple with the fact of overcoming that and it became an opportunity to right a wrong.

The very first time he brought it up  …. I just said ‘no I’ll go for the record but I don’t want to get back into racing’. And again [it came down to] what he saw in me and the ability for him to have that confidence in my abilities that I didn’t even have. I went out there in 2014 and did the masters criterium national championship, and I won. I not only won it that year I came back the next year and won it again.

Did you ever think about quitting? Did you ever think about not doing it?

Oh, I would say that occurred more towards the 2018 goal than 2016. When we went out there in 2016 it was raw, it was virgin, it was the first time. Everything was new. We had a wonderful sponsor providing the vehicle, doing everything in prep of the vehicle. We had our little challenges but it was like riding this wave.

In preparing for 2018, it extended everything another two years. This idea started in 2012. It took to 2016, four years, to actually come to fruition and then we went and said ‘OK, we’re coming out here to do it again.’ It added two more years. I got a little bit of burnout. We had challenges in the preparation of the car … And when you’ve done something once there’s a little bit of, ‘am I able to repeat this?’

Those were some of those ideas that I had to put aside and keep focussed on the goal.

Tucked in. Photo: Matt Ben Stone

All these years of preparation and you finally get to the day … can you take us back to when the actual run started?

There’s a lot of hurry up and wait. I was ready … the car though. That was really our biggest challenge. There are three different things that had come up that were going to prevent us from even showing up and it was all related to that vehicle in our trailer. So just to get to the salt was huge. Our bicycle was the same bicycle we used in 2016 and it had been refreshed. It was ready to go.

It’s a four-day event out there and I can’t tell you how many people would legitimately just ask … ‘when are you gonna break the record?’ Sometime in the four days I hoped. But you know you just roll with it the first day because I had never had a chance to get behind the vehicle during the days leading up to it, because we had a trailer issue.

So we had three runs that Shea Holbrook did — our race car driver — prior to the event. Now the event starts and I still haven’t gotten behind the car. What we did have to go on was our experience in 2016, so Shea and I were already a team. We’ve done this, but it was a different vehicle so we had that to build upon the very first run on the Friday of this event.

Shea and Denise with their respective vehicles. Photo: Matt Ben Stone

Shea goes and does one run by herself without me behind. Just to check the course the timing and everything and get a shakedown essentially. Then I go out with her and we had picked a very safe speed [130 miles] to go ahead and do it as our own shakedown. We were going to do a release and I’m going to stay with the car. We do not increase speed. Well go figure, the speedometer stops working on the race car. So my first run we have no speedometer.

Shea is having to guess the speed. Now luckily with her experience you know she’s pretty good at that but she has to go at a safer guess and she actually ended up doing 100 miles an hour [instead of 130]. But, I had no idea what was going on.

I release and I am working my tail off because that gear should not even be pushed at 100 miles an hour. I can’t really do anything. It was like trying to go climb a mountain when you’re in the hardest gear on your bike. So I’m trying to push that gear and I literally have every negative thought you can imagine. … I was working my tail off. I wondered how the heck I ever did 147 because apparently … I couldn’t even stay at 130. How the heck was I going to ever go up to 167?

That was my first run behind the vehicle and we also ended up with a flat tyre on the dragster. We ended up not being able to have everything ready till the next morning, which was Saturday. Then the winds kicked up to some 20 odd miles an hour and they cancelled the event for the rest of the day until the winds died down. We lost Saturday completely. Sunday rolls around and we were ready to go for it. And so we get everything in order and we go out there and we do 155.98 mph. We knew we needed to continue to push more, but that was really our first full real run, my second time behind on the bike.

I joked and said ‘well I basically put John into third place in the world’. He was second behind Fred Rompelberg and I had been third so I was basically picking my way up the record board. So then I said: ‘OK next run we are taking Fred’s [record] out. It’s now time to relegate him to second’.

Let’s take a look at the run on Sunday that did actually relegate Rompelberg to second and deliver a new world record:

At what point did you know that you had the record?

My son was in our SUV and he was in charge of Denise retrieval … The very first moment of me finding out was when I pull up to the side of the car, put my left arm on the passenger side window and he goes: ‘Mom I think you did it. I think its 183 miles an hour.’ And you can hear me go ‘what’. Because I was just thinking maybe 169 — I mean if we even broke it. 183! I didn’t even believe him.

What do you feel when you when you realise you have that record?

I mean, I’ve got a great bragging right, I accomplished my goal and it is very self-satisfying … but I want to be able to inspire people to go out and set goals. This all started from running a marathon and I would have never imagined it would have gone down this road. So many people — like I did — do the career thing and do the family thing and then a lot of people just give up. That’s where they say, ‘this is the route of life and that’s how it’s going to be; my athletic days were when I was young.’ Well I did that too, but I got back into the game of life and you just never know where it’s going to lead.

That’s the biggest goal, if I can inspire somebody to go out there and try something that they never thought they could accomplish.

Thanks to Denise Koronek for the chat about Project Speed and to Matt Ben Stone for the stunning images of this record-breaking endeavour.

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