Breaking Records on Two Wheels

Law professor Molly Shaffer Van Houweling is a cycling champion who defines her own terms of success. She brings that theme to her classroom with a course called 'Satisfaction in Law and Life.'

Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, champion cyclist and professor of law, on a training run.
Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, champion cyclist and professor of law, on a training ride.

For some people, age is just a number. For Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, turning 45 this year heralded a series of numbers: 41 kilometers and 2,397 meters; 2 minutes and 29.161 seconds; 1 minute and 18.435 seconds.

Those are Van Houweling’s marks in cycling’s one-hour, two-kilometer and one-kilometer events, respectively — all records she held in her previous age bracket (41-44) and is striving to break in her new one.

“I really do like to push my body to its physical limits,” Van Houweling says.

Molly Shaffer Van Houweling (right), walks on the campus of the University of California with Abbye Atkinson during finals week.
Molly Shaffer Van Houweling (right), with law school colleague Abbye Atkinson at the University of California campus.

When she’s not riding, Van Houweling is the associate dean in charge of curriculum and instruction at Berkeley Law, a professor of law and intellectual property and chair of the board of Creative Commons, the non-profit group that helps creators find wider access for their intellectual property.

Work-life balance? Forget it. Balance, she says, suggests a teeter-totter, with one pursuit threatening to upend the other. She rejects the concept.

“When I have been injured and couldn’t ride my bike, I didn’t become a super professor,” she says. “I just became depressed!”

During the school year, Van Houweling trains on East Bay roads or at velodromes in San Jose and Carson. She writes professional journal articles en route to races and relies on husband Rob to manage logistics and equipment.

When it comes to breaking records, Van Houweling heads south. To achieve peak performance, she packs her red-and-white Cervelo T4 into a plastic box and flies to Aguascalientes, Mexico. At 6,194 feet above sea level, in 80-degree heat, the thinner air enables her wheels to spin faster on laps around the track.

Mental conditions can be trickier to calibrate. At the 2017 Elite Track National Championships, for instance, Van Houweling’s excitement about reaching the finals distracted her. She accelerated too early and faded in the last half lap, taking second.

Bicycle artwork in Molly Shaffer Van Houweling's office.
Inspirational artwork in Molly Shaffer Van Houweling’s office.

The setback reminded Van Houweling to focus on racing her own race. She brought that theme to her classroom this year, co-teaching a course called “Satisfaction in Law and Life.” Several guest lecturers — attorneys with multiple passions — emphasized the need to define success on one’s own terms.

“It’s a really funny philosophy to apply to athletic endeavors, where it would seem like the only goal is to win the race, right?” Van Houweling says.

In 2015, when she was trying unsuccessfully to break the all- ages hour record, Van Houweling realized that what motivated her was not the outcome. It was the sense of purpose in pursuing a mission.

Out of that mission, an unexpected community emerged: Supporters crowdfunded a livestream of her attempt, and she and her husband became friends with the Mexican sporting official who coordinated her Aguascalientes logistics.

“All of that is more valuable than having held that record. I only held it for four months,” Van Houweling says with a laugh.

Even world records, after all, are just numbers.

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