Shifting Gears #6: Thursday night worlds

Neal Karlinsky manages to fit in his favorite weeknight training race in Seattle, when he's not surrounded by a wildfire in Alberta.

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.

So I’m sitting in a gear-filled RV, in remote northern Alberta, surrounded by a monstrous wildfire, low flying firefighting aircraft and a dwindling supply of chips, and Spencer from VeloNews is emailing me: “Haven’t heard from you lately and was wondering if you were cooking up a journal for us anytime soon.” This is my spring racing season in a nutshell — up in flames.

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It’s nothing to cry about. After all, until the pros start calling for more Chris Horner-aged cat. 4s, chasing stories and kids will have to come well before chasing breakaways. But this isn’t where the story ends — I have found one way out — where I can temporarily escape the grind, feed my addiction and still slip back into my hair-sprayed mold in time, and it’s called the Seward Park Series. Around Seattle, it’s also called the Thursday Night World Championships (check out this great piece about it) and it’s a lovefest of bike racers, filled with guts and glory, minus the angst you might find at a bigger race. It’s sort of a crit — a short, punchy circuit, inside a beautiful park where racers smash their brains out week after week and everyone is just happy to be there. My first race there, I shared a blistering pack with racers half my age from the University of Washington cycling team, a super-fit senior citizen and a seriously speedy kid who looked maybe 15, among dozens of others. It’s weird that way, and it’s awesome. Every time I cross the line, no matter my placing, I end up seeing stars, breathing sandpaper, and grinning ear to ear.

I race it with my phone in my back pocket. I crossed the line once last summer, just in time to get a breaking news assignment and end up pulling an all nighter to make it live on morning TV. Because it takes place in a public park, you occasionally hit the climb, gasping for air, only to breathe in freshly legal marijuana from some of the park’s less intense visitors.

Legend has it, man bun-clad Euro pro Tyler Farrar raced Seward back in the day. Another Northwest racer turned Euro stud, Kiel Reijnen, a fellow VeloNews blog-warrior, shot me a note to say he’d like to hit Seward when he’s back in town. My TacoTime NW teammate and pal Martha is the race’s matriarch, taking race fees, while taking no BS. She rides to the race from work, just like most everyone else. There are no USAC upgrade points at Seward, you don’t even need a racing license — that’s not what it’s about. It’s the weekly cop show you can’t miss, the all-you-can-eat buffet special. It’s what Phil Liggett would describe as “the most interesting race we’ve seen in many, many years,” every … single … week.

So forgive me if I’m sweating wildfire smoke, I just got off a plane. And don’t blame me for that other smoke … I came for the contact buzz that comes from drilling it ‘till my heart explodes with all my brothers and sisters of the road.