Molly Shaffer Van Houweling chases the most honorable hour


by Mary Topping
Molly Shaffer Van Houweling hunched over a lean bike to tackle her newest challenge. In the start gate at the Velo Sports Center in Los Angeles, the task at hand loomed large. Steeped in cycling history, the hour record has rattled the bones of legendary cyclists. One attempt, Eddy Merckx said after completing it, was enough.
After the countdown Van Houweling churned the massive single gear through revolution number one. With minimal velodrome experience she faced an intimidating 45 degree banked curve in less than 75 meters; without enough speed, gravity would tug her down into a sorry heap. She mastered it, sweeping around and onto the straight.
To her left in the apron area inside the oval track, the official who earlier conducted a meticulous inspection of her bike began to watch lap times to determine if the existing record would fall. Later he would pick the exact second to conclude the one-woman race.
That day in December 2014 she set a new U.S. women’s elite hour record. Her adventurous spirit, thoroughness, and reliance on her best cycling skills would carry her through two more assaults, each time extending the U.S. women’s elite hour record distance. She also set and re-set marks in the U.S. and world women’s 40 to 44 and Pan American women’s categories.
The 42-year-old Van Houweling will go at it again on September 12 in Aguascalientes, Mexico. With a valid Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) she’ll aim for the highest honor, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Hour Record.
It will hurt. But unlike Eddy Merckx, Van Houweling likes the hour challenge. Looking at the entire effort from preparation to peeling herself off the bike, it’s a happy place.
Getting started
Photo courtesy of Instituto del Deporte del Estado de Aguascalientes
Photo courtesy of Instituto del Deporte del Estado de Aguascalientes
She heard about the hour record when fellow Californian Jim Turner established a new national best time among men age 75 plus. Then her role model Jens Voigt made the first of a flurry of bids to fell the men’s metric after the UCI established new rules in May 2014. Since then on the women’s side only one official attempt has been logged to beat Leontin van Moorsel’s 2003 record distance of 46.065km. World and Paralympic gold medalist Sarah Storey failed by about 500 meters; she hasn’t scheduled a redo.
Van Houweling also suspected she might be good at something akin to her favorite cycling thing: settling into a tight tuck for a long time on a flat course that favors a steady pace and aerodynamics.
“I recognized it seemed to be an event that suited the strengths that had emerged from me in road races and time trials,” she explained. “I like relatively long time trials. And especially for women, an hour is pretty much as long as any time trial that we ever do.”
The perfect angles she formed as a competitive synchronized swimmer in high school and college provided training in maintaining an unnatural position. She’s also perfected her bike position by visiting the wind tunnel.
A runner and triathlete while studying at Harvard Law School, she entered her first bike race at age thirty. Encouraged by her husband, a bike racer when they met in high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she joined the Ann Arbor Velo Club. The newbie quickly shot to the head of the class and become a Michigan state road race champion.
The learning curve steepened when she moved to California, where she now lives in Berkeley.
“I soon found myself at the back of the pack. Or worse, often off the back of the pack,” she recalled. Chasing to catch the group in road races forced her into mini time trial practice. Road race victories came from long solo breakaways.  
World championship results in her age group bolstered an expanding amateur resume: time trial gold in 2011, 2012, and 2014; road race in 2012 and 2014.
Easy minutes
Van Houweling likes the 60 minute test’s gender neutrality. “I do think it’s a unique opportunity to do something at the pinnacle of our sport where women and men do the exact same thing under the same conditions,” she said, all measured by the distance pedaled in an hour’s time.
In her three outings of December 2014 and February and July 2015, Van Houweling covered 44.173km, 45.637km, and 46.088km, respectively.
She still finds the starts laborious and awkward. Once on pace, she said, “For at least 10 to 15 minutes it seems like I could do this all day.” While the official checks for consistent lap count, split times, and overall time between the electronic and manual counters, her husband displays each lap time. She compares it to the record result target lodged in her brain.
In February at Velodromo Bicentenario in Aguascalientes, Mexico she completed what she called her worst attempt. She went out too fast, imagining she could match van Moorsel’s distance given the speed benefit at altitude and lulled into false security by the easy initial minutes.
Cruel finale’s payoff
On her third attempt her pacing improved thanks to studying Alex Dowsett’s successful metric-breaking formula. But like her previous two salvos, the relentless oval promised nothing.
For 45 minutes she motored steadily and pretty much in control. “So I’m thinking, ‘This feels great. I’m going to do just like Alex Dowsett and be able to crush it in the end,’” she recalled. “Instead at the end I really started to fall apart, suffer, and lose time. I really had to gut it out to accomplish my goal.”
As Van Houweling described her three efforts, the event’s personal cruelty took shape. By going out too hard or succumbing to fatigue, at some point she slowed down although it felt like she was working harder. The goal seemed unattainable. Motivation fell screaming off a cliff.
In the final laps the race official remains focused on ending her misery at the right time. As UCI commissaire Randy Shafer explains it, the official rings a bell when just enough time remains for a partial lap on which the hour expires. The total distance equates to kilometers completed through the last full lap plus the estimated partial lap meters, calculated using the time remaining in the hour for the partial lap and the speed established in the final full lap.

"It's unique in that it's about a single person putting tremendous time and resources into a single hour of time," Shafer said. "The pressure on the athlete to accomplish their goal is great and it is a balancing act between letting them have their space and focus and a whole swirling mass of details that have to be accounted for: Watching your bike checked to the nth detail can cause stress; Worrying about live television and personal costs to get there are part of the rider’s equation.  My part of that is to manage the diverse needs of the organization, timing, officials, television and the facility, all while making it as smooth and stress free for the athlete as possible".

Staying on top of the technical requirements and equipment choices is Van Houweling’s husband’s job. She also depends on dozens of friends and experts met while learning more about the discipline.
“Every aspect of it is a fun adventure for me and my husband, Rob. We really enjoy working on it together. It’s very enriching to every aspect of our lives.”
Becoming official
Van Houweling unofficially surpassed Van Moorsel’s kilometers in July. A UCI official attended, but because her ABP wasn’t yet valid, her efforts couldn’t yield a world record for the books.
Unlike men on UCI teams that must hold ABPs, women aren’t obliged to participate in the passport system in 2015. But if they want to go for the UCI Hour Record, they must get an ABP and test months of blood work. The principle on which the biological passport stands partly explains why she’s preparing for a fourth attempt.
“It is of course satisfying to know that I am capable of covering the world record distance based on my U.S. record in July…But the honor of world record status is justifiably reserved for those who go the distance when the pressure is really on, and in compliance with every rule,” she noted.
“Subjecting athletes who want to set the sport’s most venerated record to the most demanding anti-doping protocol is a benefit to clean athletes like me, and it also signifies what a special honor it would be to put my name in this particular record book.”
Given her drive, endeavor number five may follow – why stop chasing excellence? And if Van Houweling establishes a new women’s UCI Hour Record and subsequently gets dethroned, she’d be delighted as a member of a growing club of the world’s fastest women.
See a UCI trailer about Van Houweling’s upcoming record bid and follow her journey on Twitter, @mollysvh with #UCIHourRecord #MSVHour, and at You can also contribute to her KickStarter to help livestream the event.

This Article Updated September 16, 2015 @ 03:49 PM For more information contact: