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Labs software engineer is now cyclocross world champion



KarenSR@.gifKaren in a Bay Area race

By Curt Hopkins, Managing Editor, Hewlett Packard Labs

In January of this year, Labs Principal Software Engineer Karen Brems did not win an award for her development work or get a paper accepted to a prestigious conference, she did something possibly even cooler. At 53 years old, as part of the SunPower Racing Team, she won the U.S. Masters National Cyclocross Championship in Asheville, North Carolina.

In addition to her long career as a developer, Brems has had (and continues to have) an equally distinguished history as a world-ranked cyclist.

This year’s cyclocross championship is just the latest in a long string of racing achievements. Starting out as a gymnast from age 9 through college, Brems eventually leapt off the mat and onto a bike, competing in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. In the 1994 Elite Time Trial World Championships in Italy, Brems took home the world title. Later she was the Directeur Sportif (head honcho) of the Webcor Builders Professional Women’s Racing Team. Now, in the few years since she turned 50, Breams has won two Masters World Cyclocross Championships and two Masters 50-54 National Cyclocross Championships in addition to her recent national title.

Cyclocross, for those of you who are not quite as full-out, head-down, and full speed ahead as Brems, is a timed race staged on a short outdoor track with different types of surfaces, studded with obstacles that require riders to occasionally dismount and carry their bikes. It had its first world championships in 1950, and the first world championships for women in 2000, making it relatively recent, given that the first bicycle race ever took place in 1868.

uci_masterswm2014_gossau_sa_wja_0102.gifKaren at 2014 Masters Worlds

Sometimes you win because you’re the strongest, sometimes because you show up

It is a bit of a strain to try to make each of your passions compliment the others, but after Brems’ conversation with Behind the Scenes, the statement that stands out in both the sporting world and the working world is from her own account to her club of the race in which she became national champion.

Another instance emphasized that although you cannot win in anything without a strong competitive sense, competition is not the be-all and end-all. Sometimes working together can improve your game even while you try to excel. Again, from Brems’ club report:

At the top of the climb was the most technical part of the course: an off-camber section [lower on the outside of the turn than the inside\ with many different lines that all converged into a turn into a steep drop-off and then a steep, rooty switchback descent. I had watched the 100+ rider men’s 55-60 race there the day before and it was total chaos with half the field choosing to run the descent, including the winner who had a huge gap! I made a small surge at the top of the climb to stay ahead of [my team mate] and she said something like “You go ahead and let’s be safe.”

On that day, Brems was the single best cyclocross racer in the country in her age group. But that was not her best racing day, she said. That was the day in 1994 when she won the Elite Time Trial World Championship for road racing.

“There were no age groups and every country sent their best riders,” she said. “I was the best in the world on that day.” World champions in cycling receive a special jersey that only they can wear. As a former world champion they are entitled to wear rainbow stripes on their jersey sleeves for the rest of their career.

“In the cycling world,” she said, “this is almost more important than the Olympics.”


Everybody loses more races than they win

Elite-World-Championships-in-Sicily-in-1994.gifKaren at Elite World Championships in Sicily in 1994

Brems became a road cyclist in 1991, and raced professionally from 1993 until 2000, which is a while to be doing something so demanding. But that was not enough for Brems and she hopped back on, doing cyclocross starting in 2008.

Also, as she told the Fit and Filthy cyclocross site, “At my age my fitness is never going to be what it used to be and I’m happy if I can keep it the same. I feel like I can improve a lot in my skills.” Sports can teach us that there is always something to improve and always someone to compete with, even if that is ourselves.

Brems has been a cyclist for a long time, but a programmer for even longer, since 1984. She joined the former Hewlett Packard in 2010, coming in with the Palm acquisition, then transitioned to Labs in 2012. That move, she said, required an adjustment. As a programmer, Brems enjoys seeing her work turn into technology that real people use. She still does that, but whereas in traditional development she might get to reach that moment in two years or less, at Labs it can take five or even 10 years.

As we noted, it can be a bit contrived to pretend private and professional passions are intimately connected. But there are lessons sometimes that cross those borders.

“I’ve done sports my entire life,” said Brems. “You learn discipline, time management, the value of hard work, and stick-to-it-iveness, which carry over to other parts of life.”

If there’s any single lesson Brems has learned that seems applicable to any of us, it is this.

“Everybody loses more races than they win,” she said. “The strongest rider does not always win the bike race, there is a lot of strategy involved. Even the best don’t always win. To win you have to risk losing – make the move that may fail.”

CandlestickStairs.gifKaren on the stairs at Candlestick - photo by Tim Westmore

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Managing Editor, Hewlett Packard Labs

Cameron Prymak

Congratulations Karen!

Inspiring for us all.