It was the day before the State Cycling Championships, a big deal for the then 14-year-old Wilson. My lack of natural talent, combined with conservative (i.e. sensible) training protocols for a youngster had meant that I had copped an absolute thrashing anytime I had toed the line with my lycra-clad contemporaries. Seemingly, the entire pack was either more talented, more mature, trained harder, or a sinister cocktail of all three. As such, I’d spent all season getting dropped like a bad habit from the junior bunches around QLD.
Finishing by myself, minutes in arrears was beginning to get a little bit old. Like a lone grape at the bottom of the bag, I yearned to have my place in the bunch. I’d lifted my training in response, upping my wind trainer set from 45 minutes to 60, while re-watching old tapes of the 2001 Tour de France, tutting at how those nay-saying Frenchies could dare doubt the Armstrong story. Surely they should just have a little faith, after all, how many times must the man reiterate that he is clean? Clearly, my ability to pick a lying psychopath was about on par with my ability to stick with a peloton of 14-year-old Queenslanders…
Anyway, I’d trained ‘hard’ towards my goal of surviving in the bunch at the QLD champs, had tapered up, and was getting to that stage of a taper where one – a) starts to get nervous, b) can’t train any more to advance one’s condition to ease such nerves, which leads to, c) looking to one’s equipment to gain free speed wherever possible. In other words, ‘having a tinker’. Having previously made all the modifications and improvements to my bike that the budget of an unemployed 14-year-old would allow, I cast a suspicious eye over my wheels. I gave the spokes a squeeze. They seemed to scream, “Not stiff enough Wilson. Not stiff enough by half.” In my infinite wisdom, despite never having used a spoke tensioning tool before, and knowing less about wheel truing than I did about Armstrong’s blood profiles, I spent a good 30 minutes tightening whichever spokes seemed like they needed a little extra tension in them. Satisfied I had adroitly increased my wheel stiffness to levels that would withstand my power more proficiently, I went to put my bike in the car for the next day. The problem being, of course, that I had unbalanced the tension in the wheels so badly that they had buckled like a deformed pancake, and now rubbed on the frame so badly I couldn’t push it more than a meter before the wheels fixed. I yelped and ran to find Dad.
The Mechanic re-trued my wheels by closing time. I still got dropped the next day, but bloody hell, those wheels were stiff.
The pre-race tinker rarely bears fruit worth picking. However, the lure is often irresistible. You’ve trained hard; you’ve resisted the urge to overtrain in the last week due to those ‘taper week jitters’. However, the promise of free speed by purchasing new equipment, or fiddling with your tried and true set up, proves to be too much to resist for some. I once had a training partner who bought a new bike, which only had one water bottle holder. The day before a race, he started to question his ability to adequately hydrate with such a setup, so decided to ‘tinker’ himself a second bidon cage, by drilling some holes in his brand new carbon fibre frame. Unsurprisingly, the frame lasted all of 150 metres the next day, before his seat tube completely broke in half, rendering both his race and hydration concerns, null and void.
Forced tinkering can be just as portentous. I was building my bike prior to the famous Tiszaujvaros World Cup one year, tightening my seat tube only to hear the ‘tinkle of death’ of a snapped seat post clamp. Sourcing such a part in rural Hungary proved a challenge, and resulted in half an hour of inventive mechanics at the local bike shop, attempting to overcome both the language barrier and my mechanical problems. Satisfied, the mechanic had all but sent me on my way when I mimed jumping on my bike, as in T1, which led to a widening of his eyes, a vigorous shake of his head, and quickly re-tuning the bike to the work stand. Following the addition of at least another 200 grams of metal to the seat post area, I had an improvised clamping device that a) withstood the force of me mounting it with vigour, and b) was just narrow enough not to gouge my legs as I pedalled. I was lucky the technical officials didn’t see the fabrication work as I entered the transition area.
Back to 14-year-old Wilson, the state champs, and the wheels with more peaks and troughs than an echocardiogram. Luckily, the local bike shop was open for another 30 minutes, and despite swearing in surprise under his breath, the mechanic re-trued my wheels by closing time. I still got dropped the next day, but bloody hell, those wheels were stiff.