Ode to the Old Junky Bike

I just got back from a vacation to Alaska, where my parents live. My mom, knowing about my angst when I can’t squeeze in some decent aerobic exercise, took the unprecedented step of purchasing a bike for me before I came to visit. My mom is not a bike person, and therefore, she spent a whopping $15 on this gorgeous piece of machinery you see here:

Yep, a real beauty!

As you can see, it’s a circa mid-’90s chromoly steel Huffy complete with those trashy tension shifters, a bent small chainring, a massive saddle, oh but an upgraded front tire.

My mother expected me to turn my nose up at it, but I showed up with pretty low expectations. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to give this thing a fair shake. I mean, after all, if Greg Lemond and Mark Allen rode Huffys, surely I could too. And besides, my mom had told me about this freaking awesome paved climb near their home, so I had to go check that out somehow.

After a few test rides and some modifications (you’ll notice I turned the handlebars around to give me some extra reach—the bike was pretty short on top), I decided it was time to take that puppy, er, Huffy on its maiden voyage.

The road my mom recommended was a zig-zaggy section of switchbacks that climbed up the side of a 2,500-foot mountain, the sister peak of the main mountain in town. I’d start climbing around 800 feet above sea level and then gain a little more than 1,300 feet in about 3 miles, coming out to about 8% in gradient. So overall, a potent little climb.

Did I mention the scenery?

The first day I rode it (or maybe it was the second—I don’t remember), there was thick cloud cover the whole way up and even a light rain—perfect climbing conditions. I quickly discovered that the granny gear was bent beyond usefulness, so I wound up toughing out the really steep sections in my middle ring. The most beastly part of the climb came near the top when the pavement gave way to dirt:

Muscling my way through that section was a genuine challenge, particularly on the junk bike. But it was also a lot of fun.

One morning, as I got rolling, I came through a neighborhood with garbage scattered everywhere on the road. I asked one guy who was cleaning it up if some bears had gotten into his trash, and he confirmed my suspicions. That was a little freaky, knowing I was riding through bear territory, but in the end, I never saw a wild bear while I was on the bike.

I guess my parents have a black bear that frequents the neighborhood. But the last day, a lady out walking warned us that two grizzlies had been seen out that morning getting into someone’s trash. That’s Alaska, I suppose. You’re constantly on the fringe of wilderness, even when you’re in the thick of suburbia.

The last day I rode there, which just happened to be yesterday, I got halfway up the road when I noticed a bunch of teenagers going up the road on roller skis—the type with the hinge in the front to mimic XC skiing. I passed a handful of them jawboning their way up the mountain.

Then, as I came closer to the dirt road at the top, I noticed a bunch of them had gathered around a vehicle. I figured it must’ve been a local nordic ski club, or the high school XC ski team out doing hill repeats. Either way, I thought it was pretty cool to see them out doing that sort of thing.

As I passed by and said hello, the coach (or some silver-haired fella who looked too old to be a member of the team) said to me, “You’re not huffing nearly as much as that Huffy you’re on.” I responded, “Yeah, it’s doing all the work.”

The truth is, the Huffy had kind of grown on me. My position was relatively comfortable, and I felt like I was getting some decent workouts with it. I was almost sad to leave it behind, truth be known.

But, alas, the top of the dirt road came eventually, and with it came the end of my ride. My trip home, after all, was little more than a spiraling downhill. As I came back down to the last switchback, a female XC skier said something inaudible to me. I stopped and said, “What?” She responded, “Don’t die on the downhill.”

Good advice. After all, if I’d croaked while descending an 8-percent hill on a mid-’90s Huffy clunker mountain bike, I might’ve qualified for a Darwin Award.

A wash, a spin cycle and a heated dry

In the middle of my Robie Creek training, I found myself frequently distracted by thoughts of the Spring Sprint Triathlon I’d done two years ago. The race, after all, still exists, though I hadn’t done it last year. And it was a ton of fun—an easy 400-yard swim followed by a brutal triathlon bike course, followed by a rolling cross-country/road 5k. What more could an athlete ask for?

Immediately after selling my Robie registration, I started eyeing the race and mulling over whether to go to it. About two weeks beforehand, I got an email with a discount coupon for the registration and a warning about the registration cost increase. So I took the plunge!

Then, three days before the race, I got this email update informing me that they’d scrapped the freaking awesome bike course and replaced it with something far more tame and toothless. Also, the run course had been expanded to be a full-size 5k where it had been a 2.5-miler before, and that didn’t sound particularly appealing in light of my calf issues.

Miffed, I emailed the race director and asked for a refund. Seconds after sending the email, I developed a nasty case of email remorse and started hoping she refused my refund request. And, sure enough, she did.

That night, I came home and yapped with my wife about what to do differently. I said something like, “Well, I’m not going to slap the aero bars on at the last minute,” since we all know the golden rule of racing is not to change anything just before your race. My wife replied, “Oh really? I thought you’d do that for sure.”

I got to thinking about it, and my next thought was, “What the heck? Why not? I still remember how to race a time trial.” I’d spent most of 2007 and 2008 racing time trials, after all. So I slapped on the aero bars and took the bike out for a spin to get my seat in the right spot. Here’s what I ended up with:

Not bad for a last-minute adjustment, right?

We made the drive down to Utah, and, adding to the extemporaneous nature of the whole experience, my wife decided to come spectate the race while our in-laws watched the kids.

After dropping my stuff off at transition, my wife and I headed to the pool where the start would take place. I peed probably five times. I know, TMI. Tons of folks got lined up as soon as the first few jumped in the water despite the race director’s insistence that people wait their turn. I heeded her directions and budded into a spot probably 15 minutes after the start.

I met a couple of girls doing their first triathlons. As we got closer to the start, I gestured at the spot in the pool where everyone was to start from and then said, “I wonder how many people have peed right there.” I don’t think the newbies appreciated that little observation.

I’d told the girl behind me that she would probably pass me in the swim and should probably start ahead of me. In a show of unwarranted modesty, she insisted that wouldn’t happen. But once we were in the swim, it happened pretty quickly. I got caught up in a couple of traffic jams in the pool and wound up with a lousy slow swim split, even for me.

Plenty of traffic in the pool

When I got to the transition area, it looked like a ghost town. I’d started with the slower swimmers (where I belonged), so most of the bikes were gone already. I managed a decent transition time, but I had a little trouble getting my triathlon top on—it’s not the easiest thing to do when you’re wet.

Just as I was getting out onto the bike course, a guy went past me with a sweet Specialized triathlon bike, decked out in aero everything: one-piece tri-suit, aero helmet—the works. I thought to myself, “I can match that,” so I did. He was holding about 22.5 mph. We soon reached an intersection where, evidently, another competitor in the race had been in an accident with a car. We probably dropped down below 10 mph going through there, but I quickly got up to speed on the other side. Oddly, the Specialized guy started easing off on his pace, and I blew past him shortly thereafter.

The course, it turned out, wasn’t entirely flat. It had a long, gradual climb on the far end and a short power climb just before the transition area. We did two laps, which was fine by me. I probably passed 100 cyclists along the way, and I’m not exaggerating.

Like my little ITU position? Watch out, Brownlees!

It wasn’t until later that I’d discover I had the 12th fastest bike split on the day and the fastest bike split in my age group. In the end, however, I’m just glad I didn’t get hit by a car. As I was coming into transition after my second loop, I saw an ambulance picking up another competitor who’d been in another bike-on-car accident. My wife told me she saw this guy’s wife sobbing and worrying about her husband. I felt pretty bad for them. That’s a lousy way to end a little Saturday morning workout.

The transition area still looked like a ghost town as I went out onto the run. I guess everyone else was still out on the bike course. As I started up the run course’s first two grass hills, I felt like I was crawling. But as slow as I was running, the folks around me seemed to be standing still. No one ran with me on the run. I spent the vast majority of that time alone, and I managed to pass five or ten more folks along the way. This time, when I got to the finish line in the Olympic Oval, I was all by myself.

My finishing kick—not so pretty!

Secretly, I was hoping to make the podium for my age group, and the truth is that I might’ve had the fitness to do it. I wound up missing third place by only 21 seconds, second place by about 40 seconds and first place by about a minute and a half. I’m pretty sure I could’ve taken 30 seconds out of my swim split, never mind the extra 10 seconds I spent wrestling with my tri top in transition.

Regardless, I had a fun race, and I’m glad I didn’t get a refund. It was definitely a confidence booster going into the season. And I enjoyed things enough that I think I’ll probably go back next year—no matter what they do with that bike course.

Happy Birthday to Me

Here's where I WISH I was on my birthday ... except that it's covered in snow during that season.
I just turned 33 this month, and I happened to have my birthday off of work. So I was trying to determine the proper endurance sport birthday celebration. I finally settled on an idea that seemed to fit with my athletic identity: I’d climb 100 feet for every year of my life, or 3,300 feet, on my mountain bike.

The morning of the ride dawned, and I loaded up the back of my jersey with stuff. I took off on a gorgeous morning and rode the local hill—750 feet of elevation behind me. Then I took the paved descent to the bottom of the steep side of the hill and began climb number two.

That’s when the oddest thing happened: My chain, instead of transferring power from my pedals to the rear hub, was suddenly bouncing off my chainstays and my seatpost. I’d somehow snapped a chain.

Fortunately, I was a mere 2.5 miles from home at this point. No big deal. So I started to walk/coast my way home. It didn’t take long before that grew tedious, so I switched to a skateboard-like thrust followed by a brief coast. Bikes, it occurred to me, are much cooler than skateboards. “Why?” you ask? Because when you coast on a bike, you can actually sit down. I s’pose you can do that on a skateboard too, but it makes it pretty difficult to push off again.

I knew that at home I had a bunch of KMC Missing Links, but I also knew that a bike shop manager had, at one time, told me they’d be incompatible with the chain. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself wondering if he was just telling me that because he wanted me to buy more stuff. After all, I thought, I’d bought those links specifically because they matched the chain size.

When I got home, I pulled one out, grabbed my chain from my pocket, threaded it through the chain line and—snap—put the darn thing back together. Shock and amazement: the link fit perfectly. Still does, in fact. Well, I’ll be darned: the bike shop owner was pulling my chain … rhetorically speaking.

Yes, I paused for a moment to eat some chocolate birthday cake before I left again for my ride.

Back at the hill, I quickly remembered how much I LOVE climbing on a mountain bike. There’s something about weaving your way up a steep gradient that just tickles my fancy. I love it, particularly when it goes on and on and on.

So that’s pretty much how the rest of my birthday ride went: up and up and up. Then I went home and spent the balance of time with my daughters, as it should be.

Can you say “newbie”?

The daily grind was starting to get to me ...
Okay, I’ll admit it: I’ve been having some technical trouble with my bikes over the last 365 days. If you’ve been reading (and I highly doubt that), you’ll recall that last fall I owed a poor race result to a few mechanical failures, meaning I had chainsuck going up a few 25 percent gradients while on my way to Hidden Peak. I still managed to beat my previous time on that course (by two minutes), but I’m fairly confident it would’ve been better if my chain hadn’t slipped between my cassette and my spokes a couple of times on my way up.

This spring hasn’t been much better. I’ve had trouble finding my road bike position all spring. For a time there, I wondered if my seat fit me at all. I’m still not convinced it does, but we’re on better terms now, my seat and I. My mountain bike, meanwhile, was giving me iliotibial band syndrome every time I rode it. (I called that bike my “girlfriend” for a half decade, and look how she repaid me!)

It took some time and effort, but I got both of those little issues figured out. Trouble is, I’d developed a new issue on my road bike—a shifting problem. The chain would start skipping when I got down to the small cogs, or I’d even get this feeling that the gear would get harder when I’d shifted easier. Of course, I was always in the middle of a ride when that would happen, so I’d make adjustments on the fly and tell myself I’d deal with it later.

Well, later finally came around today. I sat down with my bike and made sure to do one thing before I pulled any tools out: I closed the door to the bedroom so my daughters wouldn’t come in. The last time I’d worked on my bike, they’d barged in and, led by the infant, swarm-tackled me just as I was trying to put the cassette on my hub. My cassette had spilled out into separate cogs all over my floor …

And in the middle of remembering this, I suddenly wondered if I’d figured out what was wrong with my bike and where this little shifting problem had come from. Yep, sure enough, I actually had a cog in the wrong place. In my haste to get them back on the hub, I’d reversed two of the gears, putting the smaller one where the larger one belonged and vice versa.

Well, I’m glad I got that sorted out.

I Need Your Opinion

Okay, if you have my blog tagged at all, I’m asking that you read and post a comment when you get a second. I have a conundrum I’m dealing with, and I need some bike-knowledgeable opinions.

A week or two ago, I did the unthinkable: I bought a bike through eBay, more specifically a 2006 Cannondale hardtail with a headshock. I paid about $550. Then I left on vacation for a week. Just yesterday, the bike arrived via Fedex. When I opened the box, the first thing that caught my attention was a splotch of silver where there should’ve been blue. Here, take a look:

Of course, I did what any rational eBayer would do: I sent a scathing email asking why the guy didn’t tell me about the dent (and, yes, it’s dented, not just scratched). He responded that there was no dent when he sent it. After going back and forth with him and doing some additional research, I realized he wasn’t lying. The dent appears to have been caused by incorrect packing, i.e. a skewer was placed against the tube, and the box probably got dropped on the skewer a few times in transit.

So now, he’s asking me what I think a proper price is for a damaged bike. I’m hoping Fedex will offer to ship it back for free (and refund him for his shipping), but if that doesn’t happen, I need to give him a price. So what do you think? What’s a proper price for this thing? How much does that dent reduce the price from $550? Does it even look rideable? If the frame’s dented, is it even safe? I appreciate any input you can give.

On the hunt

I’ve been riding the same saddle for the past 2.5 years now, an SLR XC, which was given to me by a riding buddy for nothing in exchange. I gathered by the plush seat he used to replace it that he found this one uncomfortable, and, truth is, I could sorta relate. I think I’d found a way to ride it with relatively low discomfort, but honestly, it still leaves me feeling a little less … sensitive sometimes.

(Pardon the TMI.)

Anyway, with our regular tax return celebration getting closer, I’m starting to wonder about a replacement. I thought briefly about an Adamo saddle, but given my dislike for wide saddles, I don’t think it’s the one for me. So now, I’m thinking about either the Arione CX K:ium or a Pave. Truth is, the Pave is just in there because it’s cheaper and I heard Dave Z used to ride it before the Antares. One thing’s for certain: I’m looking for a flat saddle this time—no scoops.

So I have to ask, does anyone out there ride one of these? What’s your take on it? Any thoughts on my decision?

Once again, thanks in advance.

P.S. Here’s some EXTRA CREDIT reading from a guy I met at a criterium this past summer. He owns the record at my local TT series, and he’s raced cyclocross in Belgium, so I usually pay close attention to what he has to say.

FS vs. HT

I’ve been sick through the weekend—puking sick. I suppose it was nice to have some time to lie around taking intermittent naps, but it wasn’t worth the three pounds in valuable bodyweight I lost in the process. I’ll be glad to get back on the bike and maybe back in the weight room.

Speaking of bikes, I came across a thread last week where someone was debating the virtues of certain types of mountain bikes. Basically, the question came down to, "Which is faster—full suspension or hardtail?" I really shouldn’t have an opinion on this subject because I only own a hardtail, but I was a little annoyed by some of the logic displayed on the forum, so naturally, I did a little research. So here, in bullet-point format, is my information summary:

• Full-suspension bikes are getting lighter all the time, so the weight penalty is really minimal.
• Most full-suspension bikes nowadays have found a way to eliminate pedal-bob.
• Manufacturers are nonetheless looking for ways to make full-suspension bikes stiffer in the rear triangle (take a look at Cannondale’s zero-pivot Scalpel for reference) and therefore more hardtail-like.
• Despite these efforts, there were perhaps two or three FS bikes in the top 15 at the Beijing Olympics, meaning there were 12 or 13 of the top 15 on hardtails.
• One of those two pros on FS bikes was the world champion, Christophe Sauser, who famously always rides a FS bike.
• Most of those pros ride carbon—more flexible, that is—hardtails, not aluminum, titanium or steel. Now really, how many people do you know with a carbon hardtail?
• Someone made the argument that professional cyclists ride whatever bike is given to them and that’s why they’re on hardtails. Honestly, people, find me a manufacturer that doesn’t make both a HT and FS bike and doesn’t offer both to its top pros. Furthermore, why on earth would a manufacturer want its pros riding HT over FS when the FS costs more (and therefore would produce a greater return-on-investment)? Pros who ride hardtail bikes do so because they prefer hardtail bikes.
• Hardtail bikes are more fatiguing to the rider because he (or she) will have to use more stabilizing muscle over technical terrain. FS bikes, on the other hand, tend to be more merciful to their riders.
• Fatigue plays less of a role in shorter races than it does in longer ones. I’m pretty sure this is axiomatic information.
• That said, most pro mountain bikers can handle their bikes much better than the average joe schmoe mountain biker. Face the facts, Julien Absalon has skillz.
• Some courses include seriously dangerous descents and therefore favor full-suspension bikes.

Okay, so there you have it. That’s my little evaluation of the subject. Now, what’s my opinion? You know, I’m not sure, but it probably doesn’t matter since I don’t have the money to buy a new mountain bike anytime soon anyway. When that opportunity does present itself, I’ll probably just get a hardtail because I won’t be able to afford a FS bike and because I don’t really have time for ultra-endurance events anyway. Such is life, right?

Stay healthy this week (yes, that comment is as much for me as it is for you).