World record: a love story, on wheels

Berkeley professors Molly and Rob Van Houweling are one of UC Berkeley’s power couples — especially if you measure power in watts per kilogram. Married for 18 years, Molly and Rob have shared a passion for bicycle racing since their late teens. Their years of dedication paid off on Sept. 12, when Molly set a new women’s world record by riding 46.273 kilometers (28.753 miles) in one hour on a track in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Molly racing on indoor track

Molly Van Houweling circled the sloped wood track in Aguascalientes, Mexico, 185 times in one hour to set the world hour record.

High school sweethearts in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Rob and Molly attended the University of Michigan together as undergrads, moved on to Harvard for graduate school, headed back to Ann Arbor to teach from 2002-04, and finally joined the faculty at Berkeley in 2005-06. Rob is an associate professor in political science, and Molly is a professor and associate dean at the law school.

Rob was the Michigan junior state cycling champion. Molly’s sport in high school was synchronized swimming, but she caught the bike racing bug while riding with Rob and the local bike club, Ann Arbor Velo. In 2004 the couple won the Michigan State Tandem Time Trial Championship.

In 2005 Rob crashed hard, breaking the neck of his femur. An orthopedic surgeon installed a plate and bolted his leg back together. Several years later the titanium hardware was removed, but Rob decided to end his racing career. Instead he became the strategist, ace mechanic, training partner and logistical wizard for what Molly calls “Team Van Houweling.”

Rob and Molly Van Hoeweling

Rob and Molly, high school sweethearts in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at their senior prom.

With Rob’s support, Molly, now 42, has emerged as one of the world’s best amateur racers. In the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Amateur World Championships, Molly has placed first in her age category five times — three times in the time trial (2011, 2012, 2014) and twice in the road race (2012, 2014). She bypassed those events this year to concentrate on a new goal, the UCI hour record.

The hour record is one of the most hallowed in cycling. A benchmark for men was set in 1972 by the great Belgian racer Eddy Merckx, who circled an outdoor track at 7,500 feet in Mexico City to cover 49.431 kilometers in one hour (30.715 miles). He used a conventional steel-framed track bicycle with wire-spoked wheels, the best equipment available at the time.

During the 1980s and ’90s, the hour record was broken repeatedly by riders using customized aerodynamic bicycles, disk wheels, helmets and one-piece skin suits (and possibly performance-enhancing drugs). In response to these technological advances, in 1997 the UCI split the hour record into two events. The UCI Hour Record would be attempted on a conventional track bike similar to the one used by Eddy Merckx, while the Best Human Effort would allow the use of the latest aerodynamic equipment.

In 2003 Dutch racer Leontien van Moorsel set the UCI Hour Record for women with a distance of 46.065 kilometers (28.623 miles). Like Merckx, she rode the track in Mexico City on a conventional steel-framed track bicycle.

Molly teaching

Teaching a class at Berkeley Law.

Two separate hour record categories seemed to satisfy no one, and the muddled state of the record discouraged new attempts. The event languished until May 2014, when new UCI chief Brian Cookson announced that there would once again be a single, unified hour record.

The new record could be attempted on any bike allowed under the UCI rules for endurance track events. In addition, The UCI would have to oversee the attempt and the rider would be required to be on the organization’s anti-doping Biological Passport program.

First out of the gate under the new rules was retiring pro racer Jens Voigt, an affable, wise-cracking German who was a favorite of bike racing fans, including Molly. He rode with his heart during his 21-year career and was known for saying “shut up legs” when his attacking style began taking its toll during a race. He set a new record for the men, 51.11 kilometers (31.75 miles), in September 2014.

The rule change and Voigt’s accomplishment didn’t slip past Rob unnoticed. Says Molly, “Rob started reading up on the lore of the record, the fastest venues, the optimal equipment, the heart-breaking failed attempts. He clearly had an idea for what my next cycling challenge should be.”

Rob was not basing his assessment merely on the history of the hour record. By then Molly had dominated for many years at the annual Northern California/Nevada district time trial championship. This 40-kilometer event is held in flat alpine valley at 4,900 feet at Sattley, north of Truckee.

Says Rob, “Molly’s best time at Sattley for 40 kilometers was 53:22, at an average speed of almost 45 kilometers per hour. If she could go that fast on the track for an hour, she would break the U.S. record.”

At about that time a friend who was familiar with the Sattley course emailed Molly, “You should go for an age-group hour record on the track. It’s the perfect event for you. Just like the Sattley time trial, but totally dead flat, no wind, one gear, and at room temperature. What’s not to like?”

Molly’s succinct reply was, “Great minds think alike. I just bought a new track bike.” Adds Molly, “Rob set to work figuring out the rules, contacting the officials, arranging the venue and assembling the perfect equipment for my own attempt at setting an hour record.”

Molly's racing bike

Superlight, superfast — Molly’s Cervélo racing bike

Perhaps it’s fitting that Rob, the political scientist, handled the politics and science of attempting the hour record. It is not simple to deal with the UCI, a foreign bureaucracy on another continent with a very detailed and strict rule book. As amateurs, Rob and Molly couldn’t rely on the backing of a professional team and corporate sponsors. Rob spent many hours at the computer, sending emails to reserve tracks and assemble the right groups of timers and officials to make sure Molly’s attempts would be recognized.

Rob also monitored wind-tunnel testing, installed precision ceramic bearings on Molly’s track bike, found probably the most highly tuned and lowest-friction bicycle chain on the planet, and was there before every attempt to pump Molly’s track racing tires to more than 200 pounds per square inch of pressure.

Molly, the law professor, would have to confront the laws of physics, which for the hour record are immutable and brutal. At the speeds that Molly rides on the track — almost 30 mph — she is riding into an unrelenting wall of air molecules. To judge for yourself, recall the last time you coasted down a steep hill on bicycle at about 29 mph. Molly goes that fast on level ground and can keep it up for an hour.

The hour record requires the ability to produce maximum power while tucked into an extreme aerodynamic body position that most people would find excruciating after just a few minutes. And then the rider must focus on precise pacing calculated down to the nearest tenth of second per lap. At the end of an hour, records are sometimes broken by only few dozen meters.

Molly has now attempted the hour record four times, each time going a little farther. Her first was at sea level at the VELO sports center in Los Angeles. In December 2014, she rode 44.173 kilometers to set a new U.S. women’s record. Two months later, in February 2015, on the high-altitude indoor track in Aguascalientes, Molly rode 45.637 kilometers, setting a new world record for women in her 40-44 age group.

Aguascalientes is an altitude of 6,200 feet, 270 miles northwest of Mexico City. To give Molly a chance to acclimate to altitude before her next attempt, Molly and Rob relocated to Mammoth Lakes on the eastern slope of the Sierra for the summer of 2015. There the couple lived at an altitude of 8,000 feet.

Molly and Rob, after the race

Team Van Houweling: “We did it!”

When training at high altitudes, the thin air leaves muscles oxygen-starved, preventing them from developing their full strength. It can be more effective to live at a high altitude but train at a lower one. For Molly, that meant a 40-minute drive down to the valley floor at Bishop for training rides at an altitude of 4,200 feet.

In addition, Rob had scheduled four practice days at the track in Los Angeles. Rob did the driving, allowing Molly to get her academic work done on her laptop in the passenger seat. It is a routine they had developed during their years of driving back and forth to races in the Bay Area.

Molly’s dress rehearsal for the hour record came in July. By then she had not been monitored under the UCI Biological Passport program long enough for any record to be official. But with Rob at trackside, calling out her lap times and keeping her on pace, Molly beat Van Moorsel’s 12-year-old world’s hour record — by 23 meters. Molly was the new unofficial holder of the women’s hour record.

Showtime for Molly and Rob came on Sept. 12. The UCI had been notified and the officials flew to Aguascalientes. A successful Kickstarter campaign had been completed to pay for a professional simulcast on the web. A small crowd of supporters made their way to the track and cheered from the stands. Hundreds more watched online.

Rob monitored the weather all day long, waiting for the optimal combination of temperature, barometric pressure and humidity. It was 80 degrees Fahrenheit when Molly and Rob appeared trackside. Molly removed her ice vest, took a quick spin around the track to loosen up, wet down her hair and stood with eyes closed, arms out to her sides, while Rob sprayed her with an alcohol-based cooling solution. After a quick kiss for Rob, Molly clipped in to her pedals and jumped out of the starting gate.

Van Hoeweling and other top world bicycle racers

At the UCI gala in Abu Dhabi, Molly Van Houweling is the lone woman among the world’s top cyclists. She’s flanked by 2015 Tour de France winner Chris Froome on her right and world road race champion Peter Sagan to her left, in red.

The rest is anti-climactic. Molly cranked out 185 laps on the 250-meter track at an average of 19.45 seconds per lap. Rob called out her lap times, which barely wavered until near the end, when Molly, feeling a bit of gas left in the tank, cranked up her speed. Says Molly, “On previous attempts I had gotten the pacing wrong, and by the end of the hour I was deep into my pain cave. But for the official record attempt in September, everything fell into place and I kept on pace with a sustainable level of pain.”

At the sound of the gun the hour was over. Molly had broken the old record by 208 meters. Under the UCI rules, she was required to finish her final lap before riding up the railing for her victory lap, a big grin on her face, acknowledging her supporters in the stands.

Next came the trackside interviews and a brief award ceremony with the officials, followed by a flight home and then several days of coverage in the cycling press. UCI President Brian Cookson had special praise for the new holder of the women’s hour record, “Molly’s performance is splendid. It is a blessing for all those who wanted the rebirth of the UCI Hour. This will also remain as a milestone in American cycling history.”

After a few weeks, just life was returning to normal for Molly and Rob, the UCI reminded them that there was just one more obligation that required their attention — the inaugural UCI Cycling Gala in Abu Dhabi, on Sunday, Oct. 11. The black-tie event was organized to coincide with the fourth and final stage of the new Abu Dhabi Tour.

Says Molly, “I was the first person to arrive at the athletes’ meeting, where we would learn about the timing and protocol for the award ceremony. Someone came in behind me and asked, ‘Is this the right room for the athletes meeting?’ I replied, ‘Yes, I think we’re just the first one’s here.’ When I turned around to meet my fellow athlete, he introduced himself matter-of-factly, ‘Hi. I’m Chris.’ I replied, ‘Hi Chris, I’m Molly.’” It was Chris Froome, winner of the 2015 Tour de France.

Molly was the only woman racer at the athletes’ meeting and the gala. Says Molly, “I got a kick out of watching Alejandro Valverde (third at the 2015 Tour de France) help his teammate Nairo Quintana (who came in second) tie his necktie. I got the impression that none of the racers dress up very often. I doubt Peter Sagan (2015 world road race champion) even owns a black tie.”

UCI President Cookson attended as well. “Our inaugural UCI Cycling Gala enabled us to pay tribute to the athletes who made the headlines and graced the podiums in 2015,” said Cookson. “It was a wonderful opportunity to gather together some of the biggest stars of cycling for a true celebration of our sport.”

The UCI gala behind them, Rob and Molly could finally relax. Except that not long after the party, former Australian racer Bridie O’Donnell announced she would attempt the hour record in January 2016 in Adelaide, at sea level. Given that the last two women’s hour records were set at more than 6,000 feet in altitude, beating the record in the thick air at sea level seems unlikely. That’s according to Rob and Molly’s track-racing compatriots.

Rob disagrees. He says, “I figure that if someone actually goes to the trouble of making an attempt you have to assume they have better than a 50/50 chance. Australia is dotted with the fastest sea-level tracks in the world, and Bridie will be making her attempt on one of the best at just the right time of year for fast conditions.”

Adds Molly, “I’m rooting for Bridie because I already miss being on our hour record quest and would like an excuse to try it again.”