Shifting Gears #9: Looking “pro” doesn’t matter much

Neal Karlinsky gets a chance to ride with one of the few Americans in the WorldTour. Kiel Reijnen shows him around Bainbridge Island.

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 need to be like you, ya know, one of those thin cyclist guys,” barks the random lady in line for coffee in quaint Bainbridge Island, Washington. “You mean like him,” I say, pointing to the pro rider I happen to be standing next to — a member of a tiny fraternity of American cyclists so strong, so fast, and so rare. They hopscotch the globe racing bikes and adorn the pages of magazines and websites like this one. “No, no,” she says, aiming her finger square at me. “Not him, like you.”

The guy next to me is Kiel Reijnen of Trek – Segefredo, who on this occasion happens to be wearing an unmarked jersey and apparently looks “less pro” than me in my Taco Time team kit. Maybe? I guess? Perhaps the woman was impaired or on her way for an eye exam. Anyway, Kiel couldn’t have been nicer to the lady or me, though it would be the first and last time that day there could be any doubt, even to that woman, who the real bike racer is.

Thanks to this column, Kiel and I have chatted a few times over email. And when the chance came to join him for a spin, while he was home from Europe, I hopped on a ferry from downtown Seattle to Washington’s Bainbridge Island, clipped in and got going.

Photo: Neal Karlinsky
Photo: Neal Karlinsky

“We’ll just ride steady,” he tells me, adding that I should be “fine.” Listen, if you’re ever wondering how you stack up to the pros, don’t give it a second thought. Kiel’s already put more mileage on his bike, halfway through the year mind you, than I put on my car in 2015. After a long, slow coffee and great chat, we take off. Immediately I’m glued to his rear wheel, desperate for every bit of draft I can squeeze as Kiel proceeds to essentially go the speed limit (for cars) across this gorgeous Pacific Northwest island. And the fact that it is so beautiful only made it worse for me, as he started pointing out attractions like a dad tooling around the block with his kid. “There’s a great place to pick strawberries,” he trails off into a roar of wind and car noise. “My cousin works over …” again I don’t know what the hell he’s telling me, only that my heart rate is pegging, and I’m crushing it just to stay with him. Kiel is one of the nicest pro athletes you could hope to meet and yet after a dozen miles, all I could think about was cursing him out, just as soon as I could pull even with him, intermingled with the occasional “DON’T HIT HIS WHEEL AND CRASH HIM. DON’T HIT HIS WHEEL AND CRASH HIM.” I was as close to his rear wheel as humanly possible and hadn’t a clue where we were going. Fears of taking him out by accident and wrecking his season crept into my head. He was cool though and offered to ease the pace, something I shrugged off, except when my legs betrayed me and I came briefly unglued on the occasional roller.

He wasn’t flashy about it in the least, but he did recognize that he was throwing down a pace that was lightning fast while dragging me along in his wake. “Isn’t this fun?” he asked, like a guy giving rides in his new Tesla. During the periods where I was able to enjoy the gift of draft, passing the occasional rider as if they were standing still — you bet. But it was no ordinary Sunday ride.

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As far as I can tell, Kiel had nothing on him but a phone and a cookie — a pretty good looking cookie from that bakery. He was giving it a go on his TT bike and didn’t even have a bottle cage, let alone an actual water bottle. I kept offering him a drink, but only as we parted ways did he finally accept — half a bottle gone in one sip. At least he actually gets thirsty, that was a relief. Later on Strava, I noticed he’d set a bunch of PRs on our ride, which was also a relief. Maybe more than just a “steady” pace?

So what did I learn from our little spin? First, Kiel is one of the good guys, and I’d love to ride with him again. Second, looking pro doesn’t matter much, unless your game is impressing the senior citizen coffee shop crowd. BTW Kiel, I did school you on that one!