Shifting Gears #10: For the love of cyclocross

Neal Karlinsky discovers a blossoming love for cyclocross. On a muddy day, he falls for its perfect dose of humor, chaos, and toughness.

Too busy to ride? So’s Neal Karlinsky. But the married father of two, who’s also a national television news correspondent (you may remember his bombshell 2010 interview in which Floyd Landis admitted to having doped with Lance Armstrong), just got his first USAC race license in 25 years. He’ll be blogging here throughout the year about re-entering the race world in middle age and trying to juggle training and team obligations with work, family, and unpredictable days-long trips to cover breaking news.

It was around the time I was standing cold, naked, and filthy in an early fall rainstorm, hiding my frontside by turning toward an open car door, when I knew I had a thing or two to learn about racing cyclocross.

I know, I know — like me, you’ve heard all the cool kids jibber jabber about how great cyclocross is for years. And sure enough, my first ‘cross race included a few standard-issue guys in hipster beards. But you know what, it’s time to believe the hype. I picked up a used cross bike from a teammate and quickly realized that being a road racer has nothing to do with cyclocross.

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Thankfully, I got a great private lesson in mounting, dismounting, shouldering, and running with the bike — and of course, hopping barriers — from a local badass cross racer named Joe. All I can tell you is, the learning curve is steep. And I’ll never forget Joe warning me that if you miss while hopping back on the bike at speed, you might land on the rear wheel and tear your scrotum off as it rolls forward. So there’s that.

My first ‘cross race was a birthday gift to myself, and it was a muddy, glorious mess. I’d missed a few early season races, which were all bone-dry. This one was perfect. If I was going to do this, I wanted a Belgium-like experience — cold and gooey — and Seattle’s Crosstoberfest was just the ticket. A lot of it was a blur, but I loved the vibe. Tunes blasting over huge speakers, fans heckling, “You know this isn’t a training ride, right?!” One guy, who I passed every lap manning the sidelines along a crazy, slippery, 180-degree turn, started shouting at me that he wanted to buy my bike afterward if I wasn’t going to need it. Add in the cowbells and my team’s tent temporarily blowing onto the course, and it was the perfect dose of humor, chaos, and toughness.

KarlinskyPostRaceI’m not saying my fitness was amazing, but bike handling was definitely a bigger issue. I did a rolling dismount too close to a barrier on the second lap and tumbled into it like a crash-test dummy, instead of jumping it. Of course my chain came off — my bike mocking me. But I recovered and to my surprise, didn’t fall again, despite endless sliding and fishtailing and nearly losing it on a few slick tree roots. I’m not heavy and like to get out of the saddle for power, but in ‘cross, that’s just a recipe for wheel spin. I’m slowly learning the shell game of moving your weight around for traction.

I’m also learning, happily, that the whole scrotum-ripping thing is probably avoidable. Although the ‘cross crowd would just toss you a beer if it happened anyway. What’s not to love about this sport? It’s a legit excuse for soiling yourself and the only place I know where mud tastes like victory.