By Twos & Threes
Looking at the dates, I feel like the Tortoise and Hare has been mis-filed. My memory of it is in April, and my first triathlon is reported as happening the following day. It’s entirely possible, though, that I did something that unusual, because I might have seen the 10k as a good warmup. The trail running revelation would have just been a bonus, of course, so I would never have known that having a triathlon the next day would be weirdly uninspiring.
Whatever the circumstance, I was signed up for an Olympic-distance triathlon in Buffalo, my first ever 3-event event. Lake Erie was still chilly, but it was warming up quickly, so we were given the option of using a wetsuit; I bought one just in case, figuring it might come in handy later. It is now handily in my basement, unused in a decade, but for a brief time it served exactly the purposes I required: warmth, flotation, a reminder to get in the open water.
At the race start, I couldn’t hear any of the announcements. Suddenly, the race director went quiet, the gun went off, and everyone filed into the lake for an out-and-back. Limbs flailed. I remember being kicked and pushed, then finding my own spot with almost no traffic. Looking back, it seems that low-traffic spot was probably just well behind the pack, as I turned in a time only a wee bit under 30 minutes for an event that competitive swimmers polished off in far less.
My first ever transition was extremely slow (over 4 minutes), and I hopped on the bike for the easy 40k time trial. I was willing to concede a little time in this event for the sake of the run because I had no real desire to destroy myself in the race. That’s easy to say, but it’s hard to follow through on. Even at a stately pace, I cruised by a dozen competitors. When it came to the run -- an out-and-back-and-out-a-different-way-and-back -- I found myself passing even more people. My run time (37:30) was a really good time for a 10k, much better than I expected, and when it was all done, I don’t recall any tiredness.
None of it felt hard. I didn’t have a feeling of being “in the zone” or something at any point. I smiled my way through it, trying to encourage other cyclists and runners as I saw them. It felt like I knew what I was doing and just did it. On the other hand, I finished 10th of 50 participants, so it didn’t look great on paper.
But I looked great, which is really what counts.
After that race, it was clear that speed over distance was the key to success. Less competition, more focus on improvement, and the half ironman would be tenable. And I obviously had to get better at swimming and transitioning.
Things went well for a while. Until right around my birthday, when I hit a wee bitty snag: riding down the hill from a friend’s apartment, I caught a bag in my front spokes and flipped my bike. That sensation of falling has been lost to the ages, but I remember stopping against the curb and watching my first roadie, a Klein I’d bought on eBay, bounce down the road. Adrenaline pressed out the pain as I hurried down to assess the damage to my bike. The front wheel was bent, the rim damaged, and the downtube had taken the brunt of the first flip, leaving a large dent. The frame was unsalvageable.
I limped back up the hill to my friend’s apartment, broken bike in tow, and hitched a ride home. With just a few minor flesh wounds, training could continue, but I would be relegated to running and mountain biking until I could find a replacement. The competition deadline hovered somewhere in the near future, so I would also need to get a new bike quickly.
Let’s do a little temporal flexing here for a moment so I can properly explain how I came upon my Cervelo Soloist.
Over the winter -- as previously noted -- I joined the local cycling club, and they did some training events that meshed well with my invented race buildup. Every weekend, a group went out on a long ride. But like a good training program, those “long” rides started at about 30 miles and went up to a century around the lake at the end of summer. I decided to latch on every two weeks, giving me a relatively relaxed extended period on the bike.
I don’t know if everyone on those rides appreciated me being there, as I often pushed the pace a bit. I was impatient and geared to go pretty fast -- not too fast, because otherwise I’d be writing a serious book as a successful professional who overcame various obstacles (because serious pros write inspiring tales of overcoming obstacles), but fast enough that I would always finish among the front group. I typically spun out my legs on those relaxing rides, much to the delight of at least one fellow rider and much to the chagrin of many others. That was the “casual riding” side of the club.
On Thursdays, the “racing” side met at a local parking lot to do a 9-mile course one way, then ride slowly back to the lot for a decompression and results compilation. I loved this event. The short-format TT was just the right length for doing a short, extreme-intensity workout without overextending myself. The TT simply fit with the rest of my training week.
Through most of that summer, though, I had ridden the Klein, a relatively light but not spectacular bike that was maybe a centimeter or two bigger than it should have been, but because I’d bought it off eBay (early adopter, remember!) it didn’t cost a ton. I had taken it to the local bike guru, Glen Swann, whose shop was less a business venture than a way to pay for a really expensive habit. He would order a new bike each year for himself and sell the bike from the last year, plus some brand new components; he also sold his services as a (very good) mechanic, with his bike shop having a secondary role as the gathering place for weekly mountain bike rides.
Swann Cycles was (and still is) an Ithaca-area fixture. But Glen is what makes the place hum: he’s unassuming and generally laid back, but he’s passionate about bikes and biking. And he wants to pass that passion on to anyone willing to take the time. He’s mechanically gifted and -- now presumably somewhere between 50 and 70, since he doesn’t seem to age at all -- still fit enough to compete with riders just out of undergrad, at least over short to middle distances.
It was Glen who oversaw (and often “won”) the weekly time trial. It was Glen who organized the weekly mountain bike ride. And it was Glen who roped me into the Cervelo Soloist: a road bike with some extra aerodynamic styling for competitive time trialing. He knew me as strong in the TT but had never seen me race -- and wouldn’t until September sometime -- and the Soloist, though expensive for a grad student, was an excellent competition bike. Since I was a relatively known quantity, he was also willing to let me IOU half the cost.
Cervelo was just starting out, too, so the frame came with a lifetime warranty. I didn’t think anything of that at the time, but it did come in handy, as we will see in a future segment.
I ordered the bike one Monday evening, paid Glen what I had, and spent the week running and riding my mountain bike. That’s the same mountain bike I bought from my roommate as an undergrad, and it worked just fine on the hills of upstate New York. But let’s be honest, riding 40 km on a mountain bike is a brutal proposition, and sticking to my distance-based training plan really started to wear me down.
Come Thursday, August 8 (which I can handily see from looking back at the spotty records available on the cycling club listserv), Glen pulled up in his van with a brand-new, assembled, perfectly-tuned Cervelo Soloist.
I crushed that ride.
I can affirmatively report that I support the purchase of a $2000 bike to replace a $1000 bike. Or, with inflation over the last decade and some, a $3000 bike to replace a $1500 bike.
My time went from 21 and change (The Klein Era, which ended in early June) to 23+ (The Mountain Bike Era, which ended in late June) to 20 and change (The Cervelo Era, which has lasted a long time) in short order.
Over the next two months, I worked hard to get that cash to Glen, finally paying it off in September or October. And I loved that bike right into the ground.
It was the original Soloist design, shiny black background with white stripes flanking a blue strip that read “Cervelo”. The company was brand new, marketing its product to racers and triathletes everywhere, but positioning itself firmly in the top-middle to top-end markets. My officemates variously called it the “Cervix Jello” and the “Curve Low” and the “Weird-Looking Bike”. I called it mine.
I rode it up hills, down valleys, and across flats. Okay, I’ll be honest, there weren’t many flats, but that bike took me 40-160 km at a time through the training season on rides 5 times a week, plus another dozen transportation rides each week, including my grocery store trips. I loaded up my backpack as full as it could get, stressing the frame with 175 lbs of rider and food. It was my transportation, my recreation, my way of exiting the academic world for a couple hours at a time to think/procrastinate. (Hey, I was on break!)
It was also a way to get in trouble, taking me to locales where drivers thought cyclists were a menace to their trucks, locales where dogs thought cyclists were a menace to their turf, and locales where locals thought cyclists were a menace to their conservative values. Especially their States Rights Conservative values that included, for example (and this is not an exaggeration), the gravelly descent past the junkyard replete with aggressive dog and a high-flying flag bearing a bass -- the fish, not the instrument, though the new image of a standup bass in its place is quite amusing -- in front of the standard Confederate flag symbol.
Basically, cycling was everything that people outside Ithaca weren't. And yet I carried on.
Next up: Culminating in a Race
Mash out. Spin on.
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Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.