When Molly and Rob Van Houweling left the University of Michigan to teach at UC Berkeley in 2005, finding a house was at the top of their to-do list.
And not just any house would do for the couple — she’s associate dean at Berkeley Law and he’s an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. It had to have a huge garage, one big enough for two cars, at a minimum, although cars weren’t in the Van Houweling equation.
That’s because Molly Van Houweling is an elite cyclist, one who won the Elite Women’s Individual Pursuit at the USA Cycling Track National Championships in Orange, California, the first weekend of July. She doesn’t know how many bikes she has, only that she needs room to store them.
The bikes seem to propagate. There are road bikes, time trial bikes, mountain bikes, pursuit bikes, triathlon bikes, and multiples in each category. Each has wheels, brakes, chains and derailleurs adapted to the differing demands of Van Houweling’s training and competitions.
Athletic competition is a driving force in her life. That was true when she was a synchronized swimmer back in her high school days in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That drive carried over to her participation in crew and in marathons and, ultimately, triathlons.
Rob Van Houweling was a cyclist — he’d been the Michigan junior state champion in high school — but gave up serious competition after suffering a broken femur in a crash. He bought his partner her first road bike when both were in college at the University of Michigan. But it wasn’t until she moved to triathlon competition that she considered devoting herself solely to cycling.
“I’d continued to stay athletic through law school, even did some (U.S. Masters Swimming),” Molly Van Houweling says. “After I’d done a few triathlons, I realized I was the best at the cycling part.”
And after her law career led to a clerkship for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, her time became so precious that it was clear triathlons weren’t in her future.
“It got to the point where something had to give,” she says. “It was too hard to train to run, swim and bike.”
She chose cycling, and her husband signed off by becoming her strategist, mechanic, training partner and chauffeur.
“I’m not surprised at her success on bikes,” Rob Van Houweling says. “I’ve known her since she was 14, and she’s always had a sport to concentrate on. She’s dedicated, and that’s the way she spends her time.”
In 2004, before the broken femur, the Van Houwelings won the Michigan tandem time trials title. Molly Van Houweling had just begun as a visiting professor at Berkeley; both she and her husband joined the faculty full time in 2005.
They don’t ride together in competitions any more, but Molly Van Houweling says her husband remains by her side throughout her races.
“I’ve benefited from all the time Rob has devoted to my cycling success,” she says. “It’s hard for me to say that he’s 100 percent of the reason for my success, but I know I wouldn’t have had much success without him. He’s a mastermind. He got me a trip to a wind tunnel in San Diego, and after I rode in it, he figured out what I needed to do to be more aerodynamic.”
And then there’s the driving. She says they drive to many of the competitions — “I’m sitting in the passenger seat with my laptop open” doing work for Berkeley Law, her husband at the wheel.
More than that, he says he knows his wife doesn’t like coming down a mountain on a bike. But descending is a crucial part of road racing, so he does what he can to make it work for her..
“Descending is not my strength,” Molly Van Houweling says. “What he’ll do is (repeatedly) shuttle me back up the mountain after I’ve come down so I can get the practice I need. I maybe wouldn’t do it otherwise. It’s hard to train at something that you find frightening. I know in my heart of hearts that I need to do it. Rob makes sure I can.”
At 46, she doesn’t race every weekend from February to September the way she used to. Competing on the San Francisco-based Revolution Racing Cycling Team, she settles on a few key events, like this month’s individual pursuit. She’d finished second the last two years, but won this time. The second- and third-place finishers’ combined ages were less than 46, a fact that brings a smile to Van Houweling’s face.
Next up is the master’s national road championships in Colorado Springs on the second weekend in August. She’ll put her pursuit bike in the back of the garage and haul time trial bikes and road bikes into the hills in quest of the masters’ title in one day of time trial riding and another of road racing.
“The time trial is a race against the clock,” she says. “The road race is a group start with the goal to cross the finish line first. The difference is, in the road race, it’s not always about going as fast as you can every moment. There’s a lot of teamwork that comes into play.”
Win or lose, Van Houweling says she can’t envision a time when she won’t be a cyclist.
“It’s a wonderful way to see the world at a slower pace,” she says. “I love it — you can’t look at your laptop while riding your bike.”