The other day a friend of mine—a former pro and a guy I look up to—told me I needed to fix my bike. I joked that I’m not fast enough anymore to need my 11-toothed cog, so as long as I could shift from the 12 to the 21, I could get through the crit I was about to start. I was bluffing and I knew it; keeping my emotional investment low to soften the sting of disappointment, should it arrive.
“You do professional bike races, dude. You deserve to have a bike that works.”
He was right, so I went home, rooted around in the garage for a new cable and piece of housing, dialed in my shifting, and felt good about it. Respect the game.
Years ago, a scene in another bike shop, featuring me as the recently inspired fatty turned to road bikes for salvation, talking to a semi-annoyed shop owner about why my rear wheel wouldn’t stay true. I asked him if there were tricks to truing a wheel that I could try at home.
“Some things are just better left to the professionals”, he said, shaking his head.
Whatever magic he worked on that wheel lasted all of a kilometer on my next ride. Professionals indeed.
So where are we going here? Bicycles need work, that’s where. And while that’s obvious to anyone who has ever pumped up a tire or lubed a chain, what is perhaps less obvious is the relationship that any dedicated racer develops with his or her machine. Sure there are plenty of riders who neglect their bikes, show up with mud splattered on the seat tube, wobbly spokes, creaky chains; and there are plenty of riders who leave the care of their bikes to the professionals. For me, though, race-tuning my bike is like packing my own parachute: it isn’t only a point of pride, it’s a duty, and obligation, and it’s part of why I feel like I belong in the race when I pin up and line up every weekend.
Anyone reading this who knows me probably also knows that I’m not the world’s biggest gearhead, and I’m not the flashiest or wealthiest racer you’re likely to meet. I ride SRAM Rival, I re-use gruppos from year to year, and at the moment I’m racing in my 2008 shoes, because my 2009 shoes were too shredded to continue. And I’m unapologetic about all of this because, a) I still manage to pedal kind of hard, and b) my shit works. How do I know? Because I glued my own tires, wrapped my bars, dialed in my brake pads, cleaned my chain, lubed my pedal cleats; and I’ve been doing this for long enough that there are benefits to this lifestyle lying around, in the form of race-gear debris, like that cable and housing I needed back at the beginning of this story.
That’s the hit: when you’ve been in it for awhile, immersed—one might say Embrocated—in racing life and culture, you can walk into your garage and find what you need to get your bike race ready without ever having to hit the bike shop. Ferrules, spare tubulars, cable crimps, extra shifters, extra shoes, helmet, spare chain? Done, done, done, done, done, done and done.
I might race in old shoes, and I might re-glue tubulars when there’s life left on the tread, but the point is that like all the guys I look up to, I do it myself—I pack my own parachute.
Sometimes on a rest day when time is running short, I work on my bike instead of riding it. I don’t do this often, and I hate skipping rides. But sometimes, after a tiring weekend, on a day when I would only ride for an easy hour anyway, I break out the Bike Lust spray and the rags and I make my whip shine. When I’m done, and looking at the bike hanging there on the stand, I see the same thing I see when I look at a baseball diamond at evening twilight, freshly cut grass and rust-colored dirt lighting up a June evening: I see possibility.