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Shifting Gears #4: A 25-year sprint to the line

Neal Karlinsky recounts his first race of the season — and his first in 25 years — a rainy, tough circuit in Washington.

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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.

We’re in the race, speeding and splashing through the winding roads of what is normally an auto race track, and my teammate Stephane, a soft-spoken, pedal-smashing Frenchman shoulders up to me and asks, in that made for bike racing accent, “Do you have a good spreent?” “What?!” I say, gasping and spitting road wash. “Are you a spreenter!?” he says. “Man, I dunno Stephane, this is my first race in 25 years. We’ll see!”

The day before my first USA Cycling race in a quarter century was a gift — it was like spring in the Pacific Northwest. Sunshine, high 50s, perfect conditions. The morning of the race, as I approached the course in rural Shelton, Washington, my car said it was 37 degrees outside, it was at least 50 shades of non-arousing gray and pouring rain. The day I’d dreamed of during my long, lazy hibernation was here, and it couldn’t have sucked more for a bike race.

But there was no turning back. I had a handwritten card from my daughter showing the competition crumbling by my side. My wife, Malia, had done so much to support me, even though this sport scares the hell out of her, telling me I was finally at the end of my 25-year sprint back to the line. And I’d been visualizing the race, feeling the butterflies, all of it for so many days — there was just no putting the brakes on. Even Donald Trump was doing his part, keeping the news away just long enough.

Turnout wasn’t heavy because the weather was so bad, and it was such an early season race in this part of the world. But you know what that means — those who turned out meant business. People looked fit, fast, and experienced as the Master’s Cat 4-5 field launched into the one-hour circuit race.

We immediately strung out single file in the freezing rain and stiff wind. I thought, “uh-oh, no hiding in this setup — one little gap and you’re blown out the back of the group and done.” A week earlier, I had written two words under “Race goal” on my Taco Time NW team’s planning spreadsheet — “Don’t suck.”

The winding circuit had two steep, punchy little climbs, a false flat in the middle with a strong headwind and a super-tight and steep descent to a long straightaway. The descent was glacial and sketchy in the rain, with sweeping S turns at speed. We went around and around. Guys jumped and chased and yapped at each other, and the bike handling in the group was solid and confident like we’d all been here together before. Maybe those guys had, but I hadn’t. And you know what? It was awesome. I was frozen numb, eating facefulls of wheel spray, gasping for frigid air and burning with lactic acid. But I knew something else was happening. I was NOT sucking. Somehow I was in it, fighting for wheels, carving that descent with completely unfounded confidence, chatting brief bits of semi-coherent race strategy with Stephane and Adam, another strong teammate in the bunch.

With two laps to go, a break went, and there was no getting them. I thought we’d accordion back together, but these guys had a plan and worked it. We splintered chasing them, and as we came into the final, on our last lap, my oxygen-deprived brain decided it hadn’t heard the “one lap to go” bell and wondered if we really were on the last lap. I asked a suffering teammate, but he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. So I put my head down and sprinted with whatever I had left. I was ninth out of a small field of nearly 20.

If there was anything I could call failure out of the experience, it’s this surprising and frustrating thought — I think I had more to give — but I played it safe because I didn’t want to blow up. Goals are a funny thing. I originally just wanted to race without getting dropped. But now I wanted more. A lot more. I had to turn the car’s heat to 78 for the entire two-hour drive home because I was cold to my very core. But in my mind, the sun was out again, shining bright, just as it always is during that endless race just over the horizon of my imagination.