The story of my Santa Barbara Long Course Triathlon experience is a story that accentuates my stupidity, my ignorance, and my lack of attention to detail.
In Act 1, I make a reasonably big mistake. In Act 2, I make what appears to be a grave error in judgment. I am able to turn things around in Act 3. But stay on your toes: There's a twist ending in this one that rivals "The Sixth Sense."
Anyway, here goes.
I signed up for this race four months ago, and it was planned as part of a reunion with a college friend who lives in Southern California and has recently gotten very absorbed in triathlon. We chose Santa Barbara because of the anticipated beautiful setting and the unique distances -- 1-mile swim, 34-mile bike, 10-mile run. It was a race that would mark several firsts for me: First time doing a triathlon outside of North Carolina, first time doing a race with an ocean swim, and the first time traveling with my bike.
It took some time to figure out the bike situation. (Tri Bike Transport and similar services sadly were not an option for this race.) I originally had decided, after talking to Melissa Bell at Inside Out Sports, that I would pack and ship my P2. Renting was an early option, but we decided 34 miles was just long enough that it was worth the hassle of shipping.
Unfortunately, it was a slow option, and would require me to be without my bike for at least a week before and after the race. So after further waffling -- and further discussions with Kelly Fillnow (my coach) and Melissa Bell -- I decided to fly with my bike instead. Inside Out Sports would take apart and pack my Cervelo in a Trico Iron Case, and I'd pay United Airlines' fee for bikes: $100 each way. I'd be responsible for rebuilding it in California and then repacking it after the race.
So, the first error: The flight was booked through United, but the flight was operated by US Airways. But I didn't give that little detail a second thought for all those months and weeks before the race, didn't consider it as I loaded it onto the shuttle at the long-term parking lot at the Charlotte airport, didn't think about it as I wheeled it up to the check-in counter. So, imagine my surprise when the agent told me it would be a whopping $200 each way to travel with the bike case.
I asked if there was anything they could do, they said sorry, no. I wheeled the case down to United and asked them if there was anything they could do; they said sorry, no. The lesson here, of course, is read the fine print, think it through logically, then confirm, confirm, confirm.
All that planning, and a stupid assumption had tripped me up. Badly. I mean, $200 round trip for my bike seemed reasonable. $400 seemed laughable. $400 for 34 miles on my bike, plus putting it at risk of loss or damage, plus the hassle of having to play bike mechanic in California, especial given the fact that I'm a horrible bike mechanic. (More on that later.)
Needing some counsel/reassurance, I called James Haycraft at Inside Out Sports (my most trusted source for tri and bike advice); he recommended renting. So I hopped back onto a parking shuttle and stashed the case back in my trunk.
Meanwhile, my friend Doug -- the college friend I was doing the race with -- made some calls and reserved a Cannondale Slice for me at Nytro in Encinitas. $150 for two days. Done. I was off to Orange County.
Once there, I learned Doug had connected with a guy in his tri club who had a Felt S22 that he no longer used, and was offering it up as a loaner to me. Free to me sounded even better than $150, so we went for it. We met up with him, it looked decent, he was 5-6 and since I'm 5-7, I figured size-wise it would be easy to tweak. The frame was not carbon and the wheelset was not aero (the P2 back in my trunk in Charlotte had sweet Zipps on it courtesy of Inside Out Sports), but it appeared to be fine. The only thing that stood out to me was the fact that there was only one pair of holes to attach a bottle cage, and it was on the seat tube not the down tube -- high enough up that it was a little awkward to get a standard size bottle out of it while riding. The guy also said he'd had bad luck with flats on the tires, and gave us a set of Continentals to swap on.
I thanked him in the form of a $50 Amazon gift card, we stuck the bike on Doug's hitch rack, and took off.
When we got back to Doug's house, I went for a very short spin on it, and it was clear the seatpost was set too high for me. I was surprised, since the owner of it was a bit shorter. We lowered it. Still too high. Lowered it some more. Still too high. Bottomed it out to where the post starts widening to prevent it from being lowered any further. Still just a bit too high, I felt. But I'd survive.
The next morning, we swapped out those tires. Since I barely know how to change a tire, Doug did most of the work, though I helped with the back wheel and was able to get it both off and then back on the chain myself.
On the way out of The OC, we stopped by a bike shop, and an employee there confirmed that he could not get the saddle any lower and that I was indeed maybe 1 cm too high.
At this point, I was beginning to suspect the cosmic forces of the universe were trying to tell me something...
Fast-forward to that evening, when me, Doug, and another college buddy of ours, Ryan, went out to ride the 10-mile run course. From the get-go, the S22 just did not feel right. It felt heavy, it felt sluggish, it felt like I was working hard but not going as fast as I always do on my P2. The boys seemed to be easily gapping me, Doug on his P2 and Ryan on his P5. This coupled with the seatpost issue was discouraging me and making me miss my bike. We got back to the hotel and I told them the bike felt heavy, and told them I was changing my expectations, especially after the three of us having driven the at-points-very-hilly bike course earlier in the day.
I was starting to wish I had paid the $400.
OK, race morning. Swim was slow but solid for me, and I got through T1 fast. Jumped on the bike, and set out. And immediately, it did not feel right. I was pedaling hard, and it felt like I was pedaling through mud. People were passing me like I was standing still. I didn't pass a single person. In most tris, I find that on the bike, I pass about 3 people for every 2 that pass me. I knew this wasn't right. But here I was, wearing an aero helmet and getting mopped up in the first 3 miles. By the time my Garmin buzzed with the first 5-mile split, I had already started thinking DNF. But the statistic was beyond abhorrent. 20 minutes and change, which I'd later discover was a 14.7 mph average.
I pulled over to the side of the road, and didn't really know what to do. I pretended to look at my bike, but being a terrible bike mechanic, I didn't really know what to look for. I weighed my options. I could carry on and just get through it and then try to get something done on the run, but I was pretty sure that I'd have nothing left, as the pedaling I had done already was difficult. And major hills awaited me, some slightly technical. Finally, after about 5 minutes, I happened to look at the rear brake pad. It appeared to be flush on the rim.
I'd basically been riding with the brakes on the entire time! I tried to tweak them without tools by re-centering them, and I also flipped up the lever normally used to open up the brakes to get the wheel off. That seemed to help. Hopped back on, started moving forward again. We turned right and headed up the first big climb of the day, and I passed about eight or 10 people without being passed. Got to the top and flew down. But as soon as I had to tap the brakes, they started rubbing again. 7-1/2 miles in, I hopped off again and got the bike tool out to try to make some adjustments. The critical Allen wrench screw I needed to loosen to open up the brakes more? Stripped.
I was done.
On the way back, the gears started skipping, too.
I should have rented that Slice, I thought. Or should have just sucked it up and paid the $400. Both of those things were easy to say now.
But I also was already thinking about how to make the day good, how to turn things around and get something positive out of all this. My race was over, but I knew I had an opportunity to help make my friends' better. I looked at my watch and realized I'd need to hustle to make sure I caught speedy Ryan coming into T2. Got there about 10-15 minutes before him. He was bewildered when I greeted him coming out of the run exit, but I filled him in quickly then worked on helping him keep pace around 7:15-7:20.
It was an out-and-back course, so at about Mile 6, we ran into Doug (who was at about Mile 4). Doug looked even more confused than Ryan had. I told him I was going to run him in, and yelled good luck to Ryan.
Everything about the run experience was fantastic. The weather was perfect, the ocean views were spectacular, the company was awesome. I played the rabbit role as well as I could for Ryan, and I prodded Doug as he felt a fade coming on in the final miles. Ryan, who'd done Santa Barbara the previous two years, wound up PRing the run course by 3 minutes; Doug said afterward that he never would have finished so fast without me. Both of these things made me feel great, and I sensed that the whole bike mess was a blessing: If I hadn't had so many problems, if I hadn't dropped out of the race, I never would have gotten the opportunity to run with these friends I hadn't seen in so long. Being able to help motivate others and help friends reach their goals is super-satisfying to me, and despite the day's frustrations, I loved every step of the run.
After I crossed the line with Doug, I declined the medal. (In hindsight, I should have taken it and given it to the nearest small child.)
Back in the transition area, I showed them the bike and upon spinning the rear wheel to prove it, realized that the tire actually had been rubbing against the frame itself, not the brake pad. The wheel was lopsided!
Oh well. Obviously -- OBVIOUSLY -- I was not meant to ride that race. It felt a little "Final Destination"-ish.
That afternoon, driving back to Orange County, we joked about asking for the Amazon gift card back, but also I wondered how he'd missed these issues with his bike.
That night, while removing the bottle cage I'd mounted on his aero bars, I spun the wheel one more time. It barely spun at all. Then Doug noticed something: The wheel itself had been mounted incorrectly.
It was like the moment when you realized Kevin Spacey was Keyser Soze. It all became clear. Everything.
After we'd changed the back tire, somehow, someway -- even though I've changed back tires before on my own bike -- I hadn't gotten it so the skewer was sitting flush in the frame, and had tightened it so the wheel was slightly off-center. As the problem seemed to worsen from the night of our test ride to race morning, and also over the course of the 14 miles I did ride that day, it apparently had gotten more lopsided over time, increasing the resistance when pedaling.
Thinking back on it as I fly home to Charlotte, I believe it might have been the universe telling me that I had bitten off more than I could chew by planning to try to rebuild my Cervelo on my own for the race. Even with Doug's help, what if I'd missed something critical that caused a wreck?
After we realized the cause of the problem, Doug looked at me, grinned, and said, "We won't tell anyone about this."
He's a good man for saying that, but the fact is, it's a great lesson. I know it's a moronic mistake and I understand that it's worth a laugh at my expense. I'm OK with that. I think bonehead moves make great stories.
The lesson, though, is this: Be careful. Pay attention to detail. Check your own work. Then have someone else check your work for you. (I should have used the free bike check at the race expo.)
Oh, and do not fly US Airways if you want to fly with your bike.