The Gift of a Broken Bike

This weekend I did the Lookout Mountain Sprint Triathlon. I did this race last year, so I knew what to expect. At least I thought I did.

The swim was an uneventful 525 yards in a country club pool. My breathing felt way too intense for reasons I don’t understand.  I don’t know how exactly how fast I was swimming because I decided not to look at my watch (because it can make me crazy), and the run to the transition area is included with your swim time.

I started the bike course and climbed my way out of the club, a part of the course that feels like one never-ending big-ass hill. About a half mile in, I was cruising on a long, wonderful, downhill stretch of road. Around the fourth mile, the course took a hard left and ascended once again.

Anticipating the climb, I shifted into my small chainring and attempted to get into an easier gear. As I downshifted, the familiar clicking sound was strangely absent. Pedaling wasn’t getting any easier. As the road pitched upward I felt like I was towing a wagon full of bricks. I stopped,  unclipped and studied my bike. It looked fine. I rested the front wheel on the ground and spun the cranks to get the rear wheel going, thinking the chain would move over but it stayed still. I futzed with the derrailleur, gave the chain some slack and manually attempted to shift the chain over to a bigger sprocket but that was futile. Now people were passing me and I didn’t know if I’d been messing around on the side of the road for one minute or five minutes.

I attempted to clip back in but the pedals just wouldn’t turn over. The chain was all the way to the outside… Was outside hard or easy? Easy, definitely. No, hard. No… easy? My mind went blank.  I was short on sleep this week but was I really that out of shape?? I tried again. No luck. I tried again. Another failure.

A basic physics concept I couldn’t grasp in high school suddenly became clear. The outside (e.g. the smallest sprocket on the cassette) is the hardest gear. It’s a lever situation of some kind. This is where my physics knowledge ends. I know for sure, though that this was where my chain was stuck. I trudged along, wondering why. Why my bike? Why today?

Until I saw this:

My shifter cables were annihilated. It turns out, you should replace your cables and housing more than, say, every 12 years. The rubber surrounding your shifter cables are prone to cracking if you live in a desert climate and store your bike in your garage, rendering your shifters useless. There is no magic gear shifting fairy living in your bike, after all.  Who knew?

How much longer would I have to walk until I found a race official who could radio someone to give me a ride back to the transition area, I wondered. I told myself it was just a sprint triathlon that I’d barely trained for. This wasn’t a big deal. Sometimes things are not meant to be.

As I dragged myself and my sorry bike up the hill one of my lane mates from the swim approached me. She, too, was walking.  I told her maybe my mechanical issue was a sign from the universe that I should be swimming this morning, considering I signed up for the Carter Lake Crossing, a 5k swim which is a) very soon and b) very intimidating to me.

Then I looked at her. Her bike was totally functional. It was her body that was struggling with the wicked terrain. I looked at my busted cables. I looked back at her.  I looked down at my bike shoes. I looked at the hill that stretched upward at about a 45-degree angle. I didn’t wake up at 4:50, spend $100 to register, stick Dan with the kids, and drive 45 minutes to get here just to quit. My bike was still mostly functional. So what if I was going to have to kiss any hope of getting on the podium goodbye?

I’d come to test myself. So what if this wasn’t the kind of test I was expected?

I started running.

With my hands resting on my handlebars, and my bike rolling along on my right like an obedient, orange, carbon fiber dog, I was moving forward, one awkward step at a time. My bike shoes tap-tap-tapped along the pavement as I visualized the destruction I was surely inflicting on my pristine new Look cleats.

I passed a couple of cyclists before I had to catch my breath and walk. When the road flattened out somewhat, I mounted my bike once again, this time with success. I discovered I had not one, but two gears. Hallelujah! My front derailleur was working just fine. So I could be either in my 34 x 11 or my 50 x 11. (In other words, either my big chainring or my small chainring, and my 11-tooth cog, aka hardest gear, on my rear cassette.) Ideal? No. Possible? Absolutely.

I got out of the saddle A LOT. So much that I decided to think of this as less a triathlon and more a CrossFit workout that required running 3 miles after doing a hundred barbell squats. Also, I walked a lot.

Walking was harder on my ego than it was on my cleats. I imagined everyone passing me wondering what kind of person buys a four thousand dollar road bike, only to dismount it for every steep hill. Obviously, someone who isn’t fit enough to own such a fancy bike in the first place. Wait, what? What made me so sure a bunch of strangers had internalized the negative self-talk I lived with in my 20’s?

Nope, nope, nope.

As a wise meme I saw on Instagram once said, “It’s none of my business what other people think of me.” Because I knew what I thought of me: I don’t quit just because things aren’t going my way.  I am finishing this race and no busted shifter is going to stop me.  Also this: I will become the kind of person who adds “schedule bike tune-up” to her Google Calendar as a repeating annual event.

I finished the bike and was literally gasping for air as I started the three-mile run. Not good. But also: very good. The bike was over with, and as I’d later discover, my mechanical problems only cost me 8 minutes on the bike, compared to last year.

I’m sure it also cost me some speed on the run, but whatevs. I was here. I was running on a dirt road through pine trees and cabins. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and I was here, doing my thing. My heart was light.

My legs were stacks of cinderblocks. Around the second mile mark I heard footsteps right behind me. I held them off for a while… and continued to stay in front of them. I found another gear I didn’t know I had and I held it there, willing my legs to keep it up, gasping for air so badly the sound of it (kind of a “huh!” sound with every exhale) was annoying even to me. I crossed the finish line, found a bit of shade, and sat down on the ground.

Because I’m a competitive asshole, before I lined up for the yummy post-race breakfast, I checked the results. I’d finished 11 minutes slower than last year, which, considering my bike issues, felt like a major win. (1:33 versus 1:22). The biggest win though? Finishing what I started.

You don’t always get the day you planned on having (or the functional bike you really should have been taking better care of). But you can always choose how you react. My broken shifter meant I never got to see how fast I was able to bike. The race wasn’t the physical test I’d imagined it would be. Instead, it was a mental test. I didn’t get a medal for my effort, but I don’t need a prize to know I aced it.

4 thoughts on “The Gift of a Broken Bike

  1. Jennifer Miller says:

    This such a powerful metaphor for anything worth doing in life. Don’t pay attention to the inner and outer judges. They will be screaming in your ear that you can’t do it. But usually there’s a choice. Love that you chose to prove to yourself – no one else – that you could finish despite the obstacles and regardless of the time you achieved. I ride a vintage bike from the ’50s. I couldn’t adequately participate in a race with it if I tried. It’s slow and I enjoy it because it forces me to look around and be present to what’s around me. And I have never even imagined doing a triathlon but there are many huge tests in life that this applies to (like launching a book for the first time) and I’ll take this important message with me. It communicates to me – stay in the race for the value that it brings to your own life no matter how others might judge you! Thanks Pam!

    • Pam Moore says:

      YESSS! I am always thinking of how sports and writing have SO much in common. And while you’re thinking of this lesson, I will think of you cruising along on your vintage bike, enjoying the scenery, while I work out this summer, as a reminder to enjoy the process and not worry so much about my performance:)

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