Two friends and two Guinness World Records. Turns out camaraderie is the real secret to becoming the fastest human on a bike
By Tomi Otekunrin
Photography by Matt Ben Stone
Trust is the foundation for any type of relationship. We’ve all seen the friendship test where one person falls back, trusting that their friend will catch them. Cyclist Denise Mueller-Korenek and race car driver Shea Holbrook performed the ultimate version of this test back in 2018 when they broke the world record for paced bicycle land speed with 183.9 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats. In Denise’s own words: “It was like finding the perfect rhythm with your dance partner.”
Denise rode a specialised bike that was tethered to a dragster, which is a pace car fitted with a windshield that helps a cyclist pedal in the car’s slipstream. Holbrook drove the dragster as it accelerated to 100+ miles per hour and this velocity allowed Denise to turn over the cranks of the bike under her own power. Then Mueller-Korenek unhooked herself from the car and stayed in the slipstream of the vehicle. Watching the video of the pair is truly as anxiety-inducing as it is poetic.
The first time the pair ‘danced’ together was in 2016 when they set the women’s record for paced bicycle land speed. Yes, Denise and Shea have made history not once, but twice. Setting the women’s record was no easy feat, it took them 17 tries. “We had been stepping on each other’s toes, two left feet at a time. We had no crashes at all but it just didn’t work and I got hopped out of the draft a couple of times,” Denise recalls. On the third day of the Bonneville Salt Flats event, the two finally got into perfect sync together and set the women’s record.
Being the two daredevils that they are, they attempted to go for the overall record on the fourth day of the event, but the universe had other plans. The competition was cancelled as it rained heavily the night before and the pair left the event frustrated knowing they hadn’t unlocked their full potential. The unfinished business lit a fire in the two of them: “We were on Facebook after the event and thought ‘screw it, we’re coming back next year to break the men’s record,” Denise recalls. This was sidetracked as Denise suffered multiple injuries after a group bike ride in 2017 and another from a gunshot wound in her hip as a result of a faulty trigger at a shooting competition. Luckily the bullet exited six inches down and came back out, otherwise it could have been career-ending and, more importantly, life-threatening.
Setbacks after setbacks changed the way Denise trained in the run up to the 2018 Bonneville Salt Flats event. Her training consisted of equal parts mental and physical preparation, which included weight lifting and biofeedback training three times a week for ten months. Even though the friends live in two different states, they constantly spoke on the phone to keep each other up to date.
Due to the unique setting, even if they lived in close proximity it would have been difficult to train together for the event: “There’s nowhere where we could emulate what we did out at the Bonneville Salt Flats. You can’t just go and train out there because you need permits,” Denise explains. Shea continued to build on her knowledge of salt flat racing and the craft of land speed with the help of John Howard, Denise’s biking coach. “The three of us put a lot of time into calculating and simulating what it would be like but nothing can really prepare you for the real event,” Shea adds.
On the day of the Bonneville Salt Flats event, the pair made up for lost time. Before their run, Shea helped lighten the mood as Denise felt the pressure: “We were just laughing like two school girls,” Denise says. There was definitely a lot to be nervous about; there were issues with Shea’s vehicle, specifically the tyres, so they were running on borrowed time.
When it was go time, Shea hyped Denise up: “I asked her if she wanted to break or shatter the record? Her response was of course, ‘shatter.’ I told her: ‘keep up then.’” The pair proceeded to go for it, really go for it, as they knew this was their last chance. “It was Shea who really pushed the limits and went even faster than what we had originally anticipated,” Denise says. Shea was aware of how fast they were going and knew they had shattered the record, but she needed to remain calm in order to drive the dragster well to keep her and Denise safe on the salts. Denise didn’t know they had broken the record until their run was over and she got off her bike and received the printout. The pair broke a record that was previously held by Dutchman Fred Rompelberg in 1995. “I felt overwhelmed, excited and emotional. We were both screaming,” Shea says.
During the record-breaking run, Denise trusted Shea with her life. When I asked how they built their trust, Denise responded: “I think it was inert in both of us. We didn’t have to ‘build it’ because that would mean we didn’t give it fully from the beginning. Both of us knew that we were fully committed.”
Before this record-breaking moment, the pair had been bound to each other since 2016. The two came together after an event where they were both sponsored by Jaguar Land Rover. Denise had been looking for a female race car driver (to no avail) and Jaguar Land Rover recommended Shea. Soon after, Denise set up a phone interview to see if they would be a good fit. “When she and I spoke on the phone it was like we were long lost sisters, we immediately just gelled with each other,” Denise says. Unbelievably, the pair had only met up four times before they broke the world record; the first time was when they set the women’s bicycle land speed record in 2016. So, in reality, Denise put her life in the hands of someone she’d only just met.
The world record officially belongs to Denise as she was the one who achieved the feat on the bike. Even though Shea was integral to Denise’s success, she is viewed as only the support driver by the press. Denise, however, sees her as so much more: “I bring up Shea every time I have interviews and conversations about this record because she helped me break it.” With Denise in the limelight, Shea is just happy to be mentioned: “Denise shattered the record and I freaking drove the dragster to help her do it. My life was changed forever,” Shea says.
The pair were first teammates and then became friends – real friends. The type that are perfectly in sync with each other and happy to let the other one shine. “I wasn’t competing with Shea, she was almost like my doubles partner in tennis. I’ve never ever had that type of competitive sphere when it comes to the people I’m working with,” Denise says. Shea explains that it doesn’t bother her when she’s only recognised as a result of the record: “Most people introduce me as the driver that drove the dragster for the chick that went 183.9 mph on a bike,” she laughs.
Years have passed since they broke the record and the pair are still as close ever. “We banter back and forth on text all the time,” Denise says. The two of them are very busy with their own lives but that’s not stopping them from planning their next meeting: “We were just talking about setting up a Zoom reunion. We’re going to try and get our whole gang together,” Denise tells me.
Both Denise and Shea are on indefinite hiatus from competing in their respective sports and don’t plan to break their previous record. “I’m very comfortable with my record but my competitive side sometimes thinks it would be great if I went back out. The logical side knows I’m done. We accomplished amazing things and I’ve learnt to know when to walk away and be satisfied,” Denise confirms. That said, she will never say never to competing on a bicycle in the future: “I joke with my coach that I’m going to take another 23 years of retirement and then race again in my sixties.” Perhaps Denise and Shea will hit the headlines once again in their later years, but it’s up to them to egg each other on first.