Interview with UCI World Hour Record Holder Molly Shaffer Van Houweling

Molly Shaffer Van Houweling is the UCI Women’s World Hour Record Holder. On a velodrome in Mexico, she covered 46.273km in sixty minutes – finally breaking the previous distance set 12 years ago by Dutch rider Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel.

We had to hear more about this inspirational athlete, so we got in touch…

You might expect Van Houweling to be a full time, dedicated athlete, who has been pedalling a bicycle all her life. Not so – the 42-year-old combines training with a job as a University Professor, and started bike racing in her 30s.

The Law professor does have some sporting background, but not one that goes back past her teens. She told us: “Until I was a teenager I didn’t think of myself as an athlete at all. I was slow and uncoordinated, always picked last for sports teams, and so on. But my family had a summer cottage on a lake and I enjoyed playing in the water there. So when I learned that synchronized swimming was a middle school sport, I got it in my head to try that.”

Despite being, by her own admission, “ill suited” to the sport, Van Hauweling stuck with synchro for years, joining the high school and college team and training under the watch of coach Jill Starling. She says: “It’s really a testament to my love of my coach, teammates, and the sport, that I stuck with it for so long. Now that I’ve identified my talent for aerobic endurance sports, I realize how ill-suited I was to synchro. The efforts are all 5 minutes or less, and it rewards willowy swimmers whose limbs look elegant held high out of the water. My muscular legs had a tendency to sink instead! But I do credit the sport with many things that have served me well as a cyclist.”

The early experience taught her a lot about the mental fortitude needed for something like an hour attempt – she says: “[The coach] Jill insisted on a strong work ethic and would yell at us to “dig deep” at the end of our routines. I think I still know how to ‘dig deep.’”

It was Van Houweling’s now husband Rob, a talented junior racer, who encouraged her to get on a bike. At first, she wasn’t convinced – saying: “Frankly, I thought his shaved legs and Greg Lemond-style sunglasses were kind of weird. But I did admire that he was a talented athlete and state champion. He didn’t convince me to really give road cycling a try until years later, though.”

We went for a ride in the hills and I was never in the right gear because I couldn’t get the hang of the down tube shifters.

The first bike was a used Cannondale, which he bought her on a whim whilst they were in graduate school in Cambridge (Massachusetts). It wasn’t like a duck to water: “We went for a ride in the hills and I was never in the right gear because I couldn’t get the hang of the down tube shifters. I got STI shifters and started to ride with friends who were slower than Rob and less likely to drop me. I competed respectably in a few triathlons, but soon realized that cycling was the best of the three disciplines for me. In the spring of 2003 I won my first road race as a category 4 novice racer.”

Van Houweling went on to become a five time UCI Amateur Road World Champion.

Coached by Dave Jordaan, her Hour preparation didn’t differ too much from her road training: “Day to day, most of my training was about power, which I worked on mostly by doing climbing intervals on the road. My coach prepared a program that shared many elements with what I do to prepare for a typical road racing season. But every week I did try to do one or more training sessions on my time trial bike to make sure that I could produce that power in an aerodynamic position.”

Aerodynamics play a huge role in any sort of time trial, and Van Houweling has spent years fine tuning the position to find the balance with a position where she can product optimum power.

There was more work to be done in the lead up to the Hour. She explains: “And a couple of times during the summer I went down to the VeloSports velodrome in Carson, California, to do practice sessions on the track. My plan in each case was to do a practice hour. But in the first session the position I experimented with was such a failure that I quit after 30 minutes and we moved the handlebars to a different and much better position. So what started out as a disastrous session was probably the most important one of all.”

Van Houweling actually beat the former record by 23 metres in July, but as an amateur she wasn’t yet part of the UCI’s anti doping pool – so she had to sign up and do it all again. This time, she beat the record by 209 metres.

The vast improvement wasn’t planned – she says: “It wasn’t my goal to beat my time. From my own experience and learning about the history of the record, I figured that the best way to set the record was to pace right at or only barely above record pace. After factoring in the start, we determined that would require 19.50 second laps. So I tried to stay between 19.3 and 19.55 the entire race. Everything seemed to come together and I felt strong to the end, so I was able to stay on the fast side of that range and gradually gain time bit by bit until by the end I was ahead by a comfortable margin.”

Sixty minutes of all out effort takes a lot of mental strength – and Van Houweling split the effort into segments – she says: “Every 30 laps or so – around 10 minutes – my husband Rob showed me a sign indicating how many seconds ahead or behind I was. I hoped to nudge that up just a second or two every time. Even with only 10 minutes to go I just tried to keep on that steady pace and not get too excited about the end.”

She also sung, in her head – ‘Frank Mills’ from the Musical ‘Hair’ – we went to have a listen, and suggest you do, too. We even wrote this article listing to it.

Even with ten minutes to go she was worried she might not manage the record: “I felt good, but in prior attempts I’ve found that I always feel good… until I feel horrible. That has occurred at different times in my different attempts. In July I felt great until 15 minutes to go and then I really started to fall apart. So I kept wondering whether I would fall apart again. At some point I could do enough math in my head to figure out that even if I lost nearly a second a lap I would still make it. Then I started to focus on not crashing somehow!”

Her key concern was over letting down friends, and family – she says: “Disappointing isn’t really the right word. Because I knew they would be proud of my for making the effort regardless of the result. But I also knew they would be really thrilled if I did it. And I didn’t want to deprive them of that thrill!”

Van Houweling is the second woman to attempt the Hour since the UCI rule change in May. She hopes that more women will have a go, now – saying: “I’m really proud to be part of the history of the Hour Record and I hope that history continues and includes some of the best female cyclists of our era, although I imagine that some of the best might be focused on the 2016 Olympics for the next year.”

Inspired to have a go at a time trial? Check out this interview with Julia Shaw on preparing for your first 10.

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