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Interview: Neil Shirley

Interview of Neil Shirley by Evan Trubee

Recently retired pro rider Neil Shirley is a favorite of Southern California cycling fans. He was a gritty all rounder who, in spite of being a selfless teammate, managed to achieve some outstanding personal results in America’s toughest races. During his 7 year professional road racing career Neil traveled the world racing in Asia, Europe and across the United States. Now an editor at Road Bike Action Magazine, Neil keeps his finger on the pulse of the racing scene. Current riders take note as Neil gives some insight on what can separate the winners and losers in the Classic.

Tell us about some of your overall career highlights and proudest moments, how many years did you race professionally and for which teams?

I raced professionally on the road for 7-years (3-years as a pro mountain biker before switching to the road) for three different teams. My last two seasons 09′, 10′ were with Kelly Benefit Strategies. I’ve been fortunate enough during my career to have won a stage, KOM, and 2nd overall at Tour of Utah, stage win and top-5 overall at Cascade Classic, and standing on podiums at both the Philadelphia Invitational and Tour de Georgia. A very proud moment was when I finished 3rd at the USPRO Road Race, sharing the
podium with Hincapie and Leipheimer. But equally as special to my own podium at Nationals has been helping teammates Bajadali take 2nd at Nationals in 09′ and Candelario with the same result in 10′. Being part of a team like Kelly Benefit Strategies that rides selflessly has created some of my proudest moments on the bike.

How many times did you race the Redlands Bicycle Classic and in which years?

My first time competing in Redlands Bicycle Classic was during my first year as a pro on the road, 2004. I missed the race in 2006 due to a broken collarbone but other than that I’ve lined up at the start every year from 04′- 10′

What spot did the race occupy on the team calendar/on your personal calendar? i.e. was it a target raceor a building block for the rest of the season?

Generally my team would be focusing on either Tour de Georgia or Tour of California, which were both a little later in the season. But to be 100% for those races Redlands Classic was an essential part of my schedule, giving me the depth of fitness I needed to accomplish my goals later in the season. Although I might not have always been at my peak fitness for the Classic I always tried to be a player, hoping to come away with a stage win.

What if anything made the race special for you?

The races prestige and history in the sport make it special and one I looked forward to every year. As a So Cal guy anytime you can have a race like Redlands Bicycle Classic as a “local” event where family and friends can be out there cheering you on is great. As soon as I would sprint across the finish line on the final stage of the race, I would already be looking forward to coming back the following year.

How would you describe the atmosphere surrounding the race, the overall feel?

Redlands Classic has something that most races in the US don’t have, the enthusiasm of the locals. The community gives the racers so much support that you almost feel like a local. Redlands Classic is known for having the host housing on the entire race circuit, which really show people’s dedication and love for the race in their local community. The downtown crit is another example of the races popularity with the locals. The entire 1-mile lap is packed with spectators cheering everyone on, creating an electrifying
atmosphere for the racers.

What were some of the critical stages or points within the race that you feel separated the winners from the rest?

The first couple of years I did the race Oak Glen was always the deciding stage for the overall classification, the climb never failed to sort things out. But, more recently the Beaumont stage has proven more challenging than the profile lets on. It doesn’t have a ton of climbing but what it does have is the wind. A couple of years ago there were 30+ mph winds, that made for a challenging day. We would hit the crosswinds and the race would instantly explode into multiple echelons. That’s definitely a stage where you need
to ride heads up and be alert because you never know what can happen. As challenging as the Sunset Loop is on the final day, it doesn’t usually determine the overall winner since a group of 15-25 riders come to the finish line together.

Tell us about your most memorable moment from the Redlands Bicycle Classic:

My most memorable moment wasn’t my greatest moment by any means. My first Redlands Classic in 04′ I ended up getting sick halfway through what was a 6-day race at the time. I raced the Oak Glen stage with a fever, by the finish I was in rough shape. I ended up in the hospital that night and had to pull out of the race. But, it was then when I realized what a spectacular, challenging, and beautiful event Redlands Classic really was. After that first year I always had the race the respect if deserved.

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