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Shifting Gears #8: Happy warriors

Neal Karlinsky reflects on the different personalities he's encountered on the race course, and nearly all of them prove to be happy warriors, racing for more than finish placings.

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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.

Sometimes weirdness strikes where you’d never expect. “Hey, great racing with you,” I said to this big strong Team Audi guy in the closing miles of a race last weekend. We’d been part of a group silently working together, and he took a couple of monster pulls that helped a lot, so I wanted to say something before we got to the finish and started trying to crush each other’s souls again. “You too. What’s your name?” he said. “I’m Neal,” I grunt, through a dry mouth, glued together with spittle. “You?” “I’m Changren, he says. Hey, are you the Neal who writes that VeloNews column?!”

We linked up after the race, and I was amazed at the big smiling face I found under the aero helmet and shades. Changren could not have been a nicer guy, and we laughed about our high-speed encounter and talked about how hard the race had been.

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Amateur bike racers are a funny bunch. A lot of egos and aggression — that I already knew from my time road racing in the 80s. I’ve seen one guy in the pack recently, screaming angrily at racers on other teams to chase or do this or that — acting like the “padrone” of the Cat 4s. My inner tween just wants to #SMH. But what I’ve learned during the races I’ve thrashed around in this year is that there are way more — by far the majority — who are just good guys. Happy warriors. Fierce, but friendly. There’s Brett, my Aussie Taco Time NW teammate who can’t stop laughing and joking no matter how brutal things get and is exactly the guy you want on your team. There’s Ryan, some badass pre-med senior at Washington State University I shared a paceline with.

And then, there’s Bobby.

I met Bobby in a recent race and he got under my skin in the best way. The field was shredded by a steep climb. I didn’t know who it was, but I caught a guy in front of me, who’d also been gapped. I tapped him on the shoulder as a I went by, “Come on man, get on my wheel, let’s go.” I was hoping we could work together, but he’d red-lined and was just struggling to hold his own pace — he was soon far in the distance.

After the race, I recognized him — strong build, short blond hair — he was changing out of his team kit in the parking lot and was a picture of fitness and strength. “Hey, I’m Neal. I’m the guy that tapped you to get on my wheel. Did you make it to the finish OK?” “Yeah,” he says, telling me that he never, ever DNFs, no matter what. And then, as if he’s telling me his favorite flavor of Shot Bloks, he says: “I’m Bobby, and I have early onset dementia. My wife won’t let me ride alone anymore, so when I get to a race like this, there’s no way I’m gonna stop.” Bobby, who looks to me like he’s in his mid-to-late 30s, says he’s pretty much confined to the indoor trainer at this point. His wife is afraid he’ll forget where he is while out riding, so he only rides outside with his team, which isn’t that often, and during races. There’s no amount of flat tires or mechanicals that could keep this guy from finishing a race. And there was no self pity in his voice either, as he told me his story, wiping sweat away and changing alongside his car like everyone else.

I don’t know if Bobby remembers our encounter, but I won’t forget. The guy is one tough bike racer.

My new pal, Changren is too. There was no friendly chatter as he took off just inside the 1k to go, blazing for the finish line, where he promptly went the wrong way at the last corner and got hosed out of his place at the finish. Was he angrily banging his fist? Nope, just laughing. Most of us are racing for something the officials at the finish line can’t measure.