Molly Shaffer Van Houweling sets U.S. hour record

Despite her inexperience on the track, Van Houweling bests an American record that had stood for 24 years

She didn’t start the 2014 season with her eye on the hour record. But that didn’t stop Molly Shaffer Van Houweling from diving into an accelerated track program to take on the U.S. women’s hour record at the end of her summer road season.

Facing a 24-year-old record set in Colorado Springs by Carolyn Donnelly — 44.028 kilometers — Van Houweling rode 44.173km on Sunday at the Velo Sports Center track in Carson, California (formerly the ADT Event Center).

Inspiration struck in early September after she heard that Jens Voigt would attempt the world hour record. As the German rode into the history books on September 18, she set about planning the attempt with help from her husband, Rob, who “likes to geek out about all things bike-related,” she said.

Though Van Houweling’s track experience was limited to a few beginner sessions at the Hellyer velodrome in San Jose, California, she drew on 11 years of road racing to pick up the discipline quickly. The 41-year-old is no stranger to racing the clock, having won the time trial event at 2014 UCI amateur world championships in Slovenia.

The hour effort played to Van Houweling’s strengths, but prior to the record attempt, she enlisted the help of Andy Lakatosh, a 28-time U.S. national champion, to help with one small but crucial track skill: the standing start.

“Up until last week I’d never done it before,” Van Houweling told VeloNews. “I was nervous thinking about it, that I wouldn’t be able to even get my gear up to speed to avoid falling on the corner.

“Hellyer is banked at a gentle 23 degrees,” she wrote in a report for her team, Metromint Cycling. “The Velo Sports Center velodrome is 45 degrees in the corners. My first sight of it on December 6, only eight days before my scheduled attempt at the record, took my breath away. Standing at its edge felt like standing on the lip of a double black diamond ski run having only mastered the bunny slopes.”

Fortunately for Van Houweling, her fears were unfounded, and she rode her way into the U.S. record books, but it wasn’t easy.

“I cannot say that I enjoyed it, although I did try to think as many positive thoughts as I could,” she said. “Lots of friends wished me luck and I tried to think about them out there.”

With seven minutes remaining in the hour, she drew on inspiration from two close friends. “Ellen wanted me to ride like I was on fire, and Beth told me to ‘go at ’em like a spider monkey,'” Van Houweling wrote. “So at my most desperate moment, an image of a flaming spider monkey sprung into my head, along with good vibrations from the rest of my supportive friends and family. I almost cracked a smile.”

When the gun sounded at the end of 60 minutes, she’d held her lead, which had grown as large as 24 seconds at the halfway mark.

“It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t sound that hard … We’ve all raced for an hour … But about 30 minutes in it occurred to me, ‘Now I see what they’re talking about.’ It’s really pretty miserable.”

Yet perhaps it wasn’t that miserable. Van Houweling hinted that she may return to the track to set the bar even higher. “I would be interested in doing it again, since this was my first attempt, and I don’t have a lot of experience on the track,” she said, “maybe see what I could do at altitude as opposed to sea level.”

For now, it’s back to work for Van Houweling, who is a law professor at University of California, Berkeley. In fact, on Monday morning, the day after setting the record, she hopped in the car and drove back to the Bay Area, where she had an afternoon meeting.

After an hour of misery on the track, it’s likely that most drives or meetings don’t feel quite so long anymore.