The Importance of the Pre-Race Shakedown

Or how I learned to accept that things just break at inconvenient times.

The author, in the process of breaking his gear
The author, in the process of breaking his gear

As a habitually late person with a completely and irreparably broken sense of time, I tend to push timelines a bit in both work (sorry, Greg) and play. As the time drew nearer for the first event of the Arctic MTB Club’s Kincaid XC MTB series up here in Anchorage, I found myself once again testing the limits a bit. Following a 39-mile adventure ride on the Resurrection Trail on the Kenai Peninsula, my bike was, to put it lightly, in need of some attention. The thick mud of the high-alpine tundra and sections of knee-deep snow had done a number on my drivetrain, and the noises emanating from the rotating bits gave testament to this fact, so I responded as any self-respecting cyclist would. I put the mountain bike back in the bike room and focused on getting my road bike ready for the next week’s stage race.

As my bike sat, dejectedly, in the bike room, the mud eventually hardened and made its way into the bottom bracket, derailleur, chain, and brakes, to give them all a nice coat of rust. While this was all happening, I was busy being a roadie and subjecting myself to all sorts of bicycle-related punishment. Sunday morning, I finished the 4th and final event of the stage race and headed home to turn my attention to my neglected Trans Am. When I finally got the bike out to the kitchen/workshop (gotta love apartment living) I realized that I had done neither the bike nor myself any favors by letting it sit for the past week. However, the exhaustion from the weekend of racing had taken its toll, and I convinced my lethargic self that I would have plenty of time to fix the bike tomorrow.

Looks as though I somehow friction welded the lock nut on to the spindle...
Looks as though I somehow friction welded the lock nut on to the spindle…

As penance for both my laziness and my road riding ways, I took to cleaning all of the driveline, which looked like it had been subjected to a Willy Wonka-esque trip to a chocolate factory, and focused on bringing back some of that new-bike shine. After hours of digging out mud from every nook and cranny, which there are a surprisingly high number of on a mountain bike, and emptying half a bottle of degreaser, I took a quick inventory of what issues needed to be remedied.

  • 1 set of blown pedals
  • 1 crunchy bottom bracket
  • 2 sets of brake pads
  • 2 new rotors
  • 2 wheel truings
  • 1 chainring tightening
  • 1 chainguide adjustment
  • 1 set of new grips

Naturally, I allowed myself plenty of time to get to the bike shop to pick up the necessary components, right? After all, that’s what any sensible cyclist would do! At 7.35pm on Monday night, I remembered that all bike shops here in Anchorage close at 7pm. The race on Tuesday night was looking less and less plausible.

In what can only be described as a valiant effort, I repacked the bottom bracket with grease, revived my soiled mess of a drivetrain, picked out the week-old clumps of mud and vegetation from the brake calipers, and gave the bike a final once-over, assuring myself that everything will be just fine for the race.

Tuesday night arrived, and as I hurriedly shuttled myself to the race paddock, I went over my mental checklist for the last time and was convinced that the Trans Am would keep itself together. “It’s only a 6-mile race, and I just finished a 39-mile ride last week without any issue.” I told myself. “Surely I’ll make it through the race.” I unloaded my bike from the roof rack and began my pre-race ritual of pedaling around the parking area and listening to the bike with a suspicious ear.

The chain was silent as it glided through the chainguide and over the cassette; the brakes, while spongier than I recalled, were still capable of bringing my 135lb self to a halt; the tires were properly aired up and the wheels were just as untrue as I had left them; overall, everything was good. With renewed faith in my mechanical skills, I began my pre-ride. The bike felt race-ready, and I’d even go as far as to say that it was properly tuned for the course! I was climbing the hills easily and was soaking up the high-speed bumps with aplomb. Encouraged by the seemingly-great state that the bike was in, I approached a larger jump with enthusiasm and absolutely stuck the landing.

Then the chainguide exploded, taking the chain with it.

The no-name chainguide apparently couldn't withstand the abuse.
The no-name chainguide apparently couldn’t withstand the abuse.

Out came the multi-tool to free the chain from the remnants of the chainguide. “It’ll be fine, it’s a singlespeed chainring and can hold the chain just fine,” I thought, in an attempt to steel my reserve. As I replaced the chain, I noticed that one of the chainring bolts had come loose and refused to be tightened. It would have to wait until after the race. I started up the next incline to ensure that the chainring wouldn’t pose any threat to what was sure to be a class-leading lap time.

Then the crank arm fell off.

At least the cleats still work...
That’s not gone well, has it…

As I looked at the arm, dangling helplessly from my shoe, I couldn’t help but laugh. “At least the pedals are still good.” said I, the unfortunate rider. I detached the crank arm from my foot and started my trudge up the hill back to the paddock.

“I think I’ll just be taking photos today,” I told the race director.

“I don’t blame ya,” was his reply.

With a sigh of resignation, I laid the battered bicycle into the back of the car and opened what was supposed to be a growler full of post-race celebration IPA. Instead, it poured a bitter pint of defeat. With beer in hand and camera slung round my shoulder, I headed off to the course to catch the racers and their functioning bikes in action. As I jealously snapped photos of Anchorage’s finest riders flying over the jumps and railing the berms of Kincaid, I came to grips with the fact that sometimes, you just can’t leave things until the last minute and expect a successful outcome. Sometimes, you need to give yourself more than one night to revive your bike after months of abuse and neglect.

The moral of the story is, don’t wait until the night before a race to catch up on your bike maintenance. Otherwise, you’ll end up like me: walking through the forest and fending off the mosquito hordes while acting as the impromptu race photographer.

At least there's always beer for the photographer!
At least there’s always beer for the camera guy!