Making your bike race-ready means covering all contingencies

Credit: Scott Barbour/Allsport
Note: This article originally appeared on in May 2000, but has been updated for 2002

We schlepped my wife's bike, my bike, all our racing stuff, all over the world to various races, from 1991 through 1995 (when she retired from pro triathlon, settled into online coaching of triathletes, and reduced her competitive expression to foot-racing).

We had a streak going, and certainly there was some luck involved: She never had a mechanical failure not even a flat tire in her entire racing career. Good fortune aside, we never anticipated anything but bad luck, and tried to mitigate that by hyper-over-preparation.

Perhaps it wasn't "over" in retrospect, but the proper amount after all. Now that the racing season is finally here, I'll share some of it with you.

It was the '92 Hawaiian Ironman, or perhaps '93. I don't remember. But I think the person involved was Teemu Vesala from Finland, a top-10 Hawaii finisher. He had some deep-dish carbon rims, I don't remember which manufacturer. But he got it in his head to put some fix-a-flat stuff in his tubulars, so as to ward off any diminution of pressure should he be so unfortunate as to run over anything sharp while on the course.

Back then there was no such thing as a long-valve stem, and one had to rely on valve extenders (as we often do nowadays as well). The fit between the extender and the valve stem wasn't so red-hot as it turned out, but it was impossible to know this as Teemu was happily pumping away, fixing his future flat. This was race morning, by the way.

What happened next reminded me of the Doris Day/James Garner movie, when somebody drops a bottle of laundry soap in the swimming pool. White fix-a-flat seeped out the joint between the valve and its extender, and then started coming out of all 24 spoke holes, fixing what it thought were 24 flats. It's coming. And coming. He can't wipe it up as fast as it's coming out. Oozing. Now he's using his towel, onto which he had intended to set his helmet, sunglasses, and shoes.

"All athletes should be in the water," race announcer Mike Reilly said over the loudspeaker. Teemu is now frantic. The entire inside of the deep rim is full of fix-a-flat, and it's still oozing out.

He eventually resigns himself to the fact that he's going to spew fix-a-flat down the road in a giant rooster tail, gyroscopically hurling it everywhere including up his back, for the first several miles of the ride. He grabs his cap and goggles and escapes the scene.

I don't honestly remember the end of this story, but it was a frantic and quite funny beginning.

There is a point, which is to have all this worked out in advance, and to try nothing new the morning of the race. I'm sure Teemu agrees, and he probably did then as well, before the mishap. But sometimes you get seduced by the possibilities, and break this rule against better judgment.

I like to race on relatively new stuff, especially when it comes to things that roll. I like new wheels, and especially new tires and tubes. If my wheels are not new prior to the race, I at least go through them, true them up, make sure they're OK.

I almost always race on tires no more than three times. New tubes and tubulars can be problematic, though, if you're not careful. If your preferred brand of rubber uses presta valves with replaceable cores, you must realize that these are almost certainly made and assembled in the Far East, with the valve-core installed quickly and without overmuch care. They are prone to slow leaks if they're not installed sufficiently tight, and I always give them a little turn. An 11-guage spoke wrench works nicely.

I'll always ride a few miles on a new set of tires, and let them sit inflated overnight, just to make sure I haven't pinched the tube during assembly, and/or have a defective tire or tube.

Make sure your wheels, if you're riding clinchers, have good rim-strips. I've seen lots of flats caused by bad or no rim-strips. When you get new wheels, make sure the spokes do not protrude more than a millimeter or two past the tops of the nipples. Any more and the spokes will work their way through the rim-strip and puncture your tube.

I just rode the 2002 Wildflower triathlon on a new set of Continential GP tubulars in 24mm width. These were the first tires that I could absolutely not get on the rims I was riding (Hed Alps). Mark Montgomery and I together could barely mount the tires.

When on race morning I was affixing a new Conti spare on my bike, Monty said, "You might as well not bother. You'll never get that on if you flat."

He was right. I was using a new tire as my spare (same Conti model), and I'd forgotten to mount that spare tire on a rim for a day or so to pre-stretch it. Bad planning on my part, but fortunately I didn't flat during the ride.

It's also a good idea, if you're using tubs, to put a layer of glue on the spare tire. It won't make for a permanent bond, but it'll hold better than no glue at all.

If you are going to install a new chain on your bike shortly before the race, consider installing a new cassette at the same time. And check your chainrings for wear. A new chain on an old cassette, or vice versa, can sometimes give you a skipping gear or two.

If you do install a new chain, don't do it immediately before the race, but maybe a week or so before. Ride it two or three times, make sure you or your shop didn't install it badly. If you did, it might break. Better to have that never happen (it can be a bad crash). But if it does happen, better to have it occur at some time other than during the race.

Make sure that pedals, crankarms, cables, etc., are tight, but not overtight. A torque wrench is not a bad thing to have in your travel case. Cranks, especially forged, square-hole cranks, must go on only so tight: no more, no less. Usually about 33 foot-pounds.

Carry extra nuts, bolts, cables, stuff like that (not on the bike, but to the race). Best to have every nut and bolt that can go on a bike. Also, a second pair of shoes, pedals, cleats, and bring an extra couple of pairs of handlebar plugs. They fall out sometimes, and they won't let you start the race without them.

I also carry extra specialty nuts: in particular, the nuts that the bolts fit into that attach the armrest to the Syntace aero bar. The threads are notoriously soft, and if you put anything other than the most minimal pressure on this bolt you'll strip the nut, and there is no way to keep this armrest attached to the clip-on if this nut strips (no other nut will work).

Speaking of armrests, don't leave them on the bike when your bike is on the roof rack. Armrests have a "fly-off speed." For Profile-type armrests, it's 65 mph. Syntace: 75 mph. Velcro being what it is, there is a terminal velocity for every "replaceable" armrest.

Other specialty bolts that are nice to have are all those that are on your stem. That's another one that can be hard to find.

If your bike has a replaceable derailleur hanger, buy another hanger. Then, if you suck a chain and yank your hanger out of line, you've got a second one handy.

Dan Empfield is the publisher of the online triathlon journal, and is the founder of bike- and wetsuit-maker Quintana Roo.

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