Shifting Gears #2: ‘Fight Club’ moments

Neal Karlinsky always seems to run into people who want to talk about "Bike Club," even if you're not really supposed to talk about it.

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.

Here’s how weird and small and awesome the bike racing community is: Baseball legend Barry Bonds once implored me not to tell him who won that morning’s Vuelta stage. I don’t even know Barry Bonds. But I was covering a big Apple event for work and he was standing outside before the start with Joe Montana. I know Barry rides and sponsors a women’s team, because, you know, I love this stuff. So what do I do? I wait for Bonds to look my way, amidst the scrum and tech VIP elite and I call out: “Hey Barry, how’s that McLaren? I ride an S-Works too.” That’s it, bike racing geekery ensues around the corner from Apple CEO Tim Cook — an odd couple in an unusual setting blathering on about our obscure sport.

If you travel for work, like I do, you’ve had your “Fight Club” moments. So many of us out there living these dual lives — we give each other nods of approval on the plane, when noticing matching orange Strava apps on the phone or maybe some very specific cycling socks poking out — wow is that weird. I once had an off-the-record meeting with a very influential, hard to reach person, a tough nut to crack, when somehow exercise came up, then bikes, then — boom. The surprise bond of another brother of the road. WE DO NOT TALK ABOUT BIKE CLUB, except when others aren’t around and we CAN’T STOP TALKING ABOUT BIKE CLUB.

These moments are key in the winter months, especially if you’re like me and have little time to ride, but won’t be stopped from taking the start line, even if it means humiliation.

On a team ride recently, I got this gem, the sort of cheerful wisdom only this sport can provide: “We’re all failing all time the time, anyway. You have nothing to worry about.” I was confessing the almost certain embarrassment that comes with writing this column to a Taco Time Northwest teammate during a long, steady climb. He’s a strong rider, a successful lawyer by day — WE DO NOT TALK ABOUT BIKE CLUB — and he said it in such a matter of fact way, I thought it was kind of beautiful. If you ride, you get it. If you don’t, you’re probably only reading this because you’re my friend, so just trust the rest of us on this one.

I have a problem — I can’t stop putting myself in unpleasant situations — it’s sort of an addiction. I’m shy by nature, but I’m on national television. But it’s that effort, fighting the failure, that keeps coming back. My job is an endurance sport. During coverage of a terrible earthquake in China, I once worked without sleeping a single second until three days in — and then it was only a short nap. I’ve been blown up and shot at, threatened with arrest in faraway places, pushed around and smashed by flying hurricane debris. I think a lot of us feel the parallels — if I can deal with the pain on the bike, I can surely overcome an impossibly hard day at the office — or maybe just a tough day in the life. It works the other way too. I recall life’s hardships on the bike sometimes and it pushes me on — puts my desire to whine in perspective.

So why get back to racing, so late in life? Why not just ride hard, stay healthy, and enjoy? WE DO NOT TALK ABOUT BIKE CLUB. But if you shoulder up to me on a rainy ride, we can talk about it. And about how Barry Bonds saves those Vuelta stages so he can watch them later on the trainer — another member of our secret society — fighting failure and coming back for more.