Shifting Gears #5: Just hang on

Neal Karlinsky considers the post-race second-guessing that we all suffer after a tough day in the saddle.

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.

I can see the moment plain as day. We’re past the halfway point in that last race, and we’ve been steadily shedding riders off the back. My legs are churning a pretty good cadence into a strong headwind, when suddenly my arm reaches back and I grab my left calf — just for an instant. The pedaling never stops, never eases. It looks so innocuous, like nothing at all.

Fast forward on the YouTube bar, I pull alongside my pal and Taco Time teammate Dan, a Frank Schleck lookalike under that gladiator mask with power to spare. “Dan, it feels like someone just stuck an icepick into my left calf. It just happened out of nowhere, and it’s killing me. I don’t know what to do.” “Shake it out,” he says. “Hang on, up ahead there’s a short descent where you can stretch it.” Hang on.

The pedaling cadence is smooth and fast, I still look strong through the lens of the GoPro, its crosshairs locked onto my wheel from behind. It’s a lie. Scrub forward on the YouTube bar and there it is — this time my head goes down, again, just for a moment. It’s unmistakable. I’m looking between my legs, beyond the speeding pavement, to that place every rider knows. Suffering on the bike is like holding your breath. Just a little more — you can hold it. But when I see my head go down, I know it’s about to burst. The camera passes me, and I’m left with only the memory of the moment when I couldn’t take it anymore. I watch in almost slow motion on the DVR of my mind as the pack snaps our connection and I drift slowly backward. I know what this moment means, I’m desperate to stop it, but I can’t.

It always looks so much easier on TV. GoPros are everywhere in amateur racing. I watch the clips and think, I could have given more. I was top 10 the week before, how could I get dropped? I pulled something in my calf and could hardly pedal — at least that’s my excuse. I’ve watched too many pros, racing on, skinless and broken after horrific crashes, so I don’t quit and manage to finish. Others, each in their own personal hell are spread across the circuit, ahead and behind. We’re all alone, together, knowing the thing we love can be so demoralizing and painful. A day later, I’m emailing with two other racers. They’re strong, strong guys. Each trained long and hard over the winter. They both put up big numbers all the time and are road warriors on their respective teams. But each was dropped in his field, and they’re now fighting to overcome a mountain of self doubt more than 24 hours later. One tells me, he feels like all his hard work was “meaningless.” Another writes that he must have “anti-cycling genetics.” Nonsense. These guys are badass bike racers, bruised in a way any rider can understand.

I’m guessing this is where we have a genuine link to the racers who pedal for a paycheck. So much racing is in the mind, so much fighting to overcome self doubt. I see pros disappearing from social media after a bad race, and I know the score. It looks easy on TV. But if it was easy, everyone would be wearing spandex, with a number pinned on. And frankly, I don’t think Instagram is ready for that.

I watch the footage again. I see Len, a racer on a rival team, slide out hard on a fast and wet descent. He gets right back up and races on. I see my teammates Dan and Mike, powering at the front of the group, moving within the field at will. And I see myself, passing riders and looking good. I know how this story ends, but I’m already forgetting that part, rewriting it and getting ready to do it again.