There’s a good chance that when Dale Earnhardt Jr. rides off into retirement following the 2017 season of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, he’ll do so at an average speed of less than 20 miles per hour.
“I’m in love with it,” the 42-year-old driver said of his new obsession: cycling, a sport he took up just three months ago – after finally caving to peer pressure from friend and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
I caught up with Earnhardt in the No. 88 hauler next to the Cup Garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway the day before the May 20 All-Star Race, with the promise of giving him a break from talking about his day job for a few minutes. Here’s what I learned about his love of being on two wheels instead of four.
1. Johnson, who’s been riding on roads and trails and in triathlons for several years now, worked on Earnhardt to no avail for more than a year. “Jimmie loaned me a bike – one of his Treks – about a year and a half ago, and I piddled with it a little bit. But I never really went on a ride. It just sat at my house for a year before I even touched it. Then Hendrick started talking about ‘We’re gonna hold you guys accountable to a certain amount of fitness’ (that is, team members now must commit to a company-mandated workout on a regular basis). So I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, I gotta do something.’ And Jimmie was like, ‘You gotta try the bike, you gotta try the bike.’ He kept pushing and pushing and pushing, and finally I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna go ride – under these conditions.’ ”
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2. Those conditions involved Earnhardt not parading around the track in Spandex cycling shorts. “We were at the racetrack (Atlanta Motor Speedway, on March 1), and they’re riding around in the bus lot in front of everybody in their Spandex, and I told Jimmie, ‘I’m not doing that. I’m gonna get in my truck and load my bike and I’m gonna go outside the track. I’ll meet y’all out on the street and I’ll get onto my bike there in my Spandex.’ And that’s what I did.”
3. Now Earnhardt is working with Johnson’s triathlon coach (Jamey Yon of Charlotte) and riding close to 80 miles a week – roughly 30 to 50 miles of which he does with Johnson. Or behind him, at least. “I average about 16 to 17 miles an hour and he’s usually probably around 19 to 20. But I just draft him the whole time. I mean, he’s always pulling us along. ... He doesn’t mind too much. He actually gets up in the morning and goes by himself real hard, so that little ride with me in the afternoon, he’s like, ‘Man, I don’t care how fast we go. I’ve already run real hard this morning, so I’m good. If you want to ride, I’d love to ride, let’s go ride.’ ”
4. When he’s alone, Earnhardt sets his bike on a trainer (in layman’s terms, it’s a piece of equipment that makes it possible to ride a bike while it remains stationary) and “plays” Zwift (in layman’s terms, it’s a multiplayer online game where a bike serves as the game controller). The morning I talked to him, he had “climbed up this mountain that’s been on there for awhile that’s been calling my name.”
5. Riding indoors is certainly the safer option. “I love this hobby, but there is a thing in the back of your mind that keeps you kind of worried and a little bit unsettled. There’s been a couple accidents in the last month, and those really hit home. Nicky Hayden just got hurt seriously in Italy this week.” (The pro motorcycle racer was hit by a car while riding his bicycle two days before I talked to Earnhardt, and died three days after.) “My wife worries about it. She won’t let me go out and ride by myself.”
6. And it looks like Amy Earnhardt won’t be joining him on the roads again anytime soon. “I tried to get her to ride, and I screwed up: The bike that I borrowed had regular pedals on it. I should have just let her take off on it, but I went and got clip-in pedals put on it, and got her some shoes, and she fell twice in five minutes. She’s like, ‘I’m not doing this.’ I’m like, ‘Damn, I ruined it.’ ”
7. As for whether Dale Jr. is interested in competing in endurance races (like Johnson does) after he retires from NASCAR races: “I think it’d be fun. I’m definitely interested in getting into some amateur-style stuff around here. I’ve never even run a 5K before, and all my friends do it all the time. So that’d be cool to get into some of that stuff, now that I’m actively into fitness.”
8. That said, No. 88 is not a big fan of running. “I’m trying not to run too much right now because it hurts so bad. I get real bad pain in my hip, right outside the hip bone here. Terrible pain. If I run more than 4 miles, I can hardly move for about 24 hours.”
9. So for now he’s content to spend most of his workout time on the bike wearing those Spandex bike shorts – which, by the way, he very quickly stopped feeling insecure about. “Man, after you ride 15 miles, you kind of quit giving a crap,” Earnhardt said. In fact, at the end of that first ride – the one he was so embarrassed about – “I rode right back on into the track after. I mean, the hurdle to get over the Spandex was like” – he snaps his fingers – “easy. I thought that would bother me awhile. But I don’t care. Now I’m like, ‘Here I am in Spandex, I just rode 30 miles’ ... nobody’s gonna be able to talk crap about that.”