This morning I participated in my first bicycle race. The short of it is that I failed to finish. That said, I wanted to pass on the story of what was happening in the back of the pack. Hopefully you find it as inspiring as I did.
So I found out about the Wolfpack Hustle LA Marathon Crash Race a 2-3 days ago via the JPL bike club. The premise was that today, from 3-4 am until about 6-7 am, the LA Marathon course was off limits to any traffic. No active traffic lights either. It’s the only day in LA where you can ride 26 miles straight on the streets with no stopping (if you’ve ever biked in LA traffic you’ll know why that’s something to get excited about). There’s no big prize or anything, but the event was slated to draw about 600 people. It sounded too cool to pass up. So I canceled my weekend plans and decided to give it a try. Hey, the girlfriend was out of town – what else was I going to do? Mind you, this was the day before, so zero training for me and I had only started riding again about two weeks ago…
I got everything prepped the day before. Checked the wheel trueness, re-oiled the chain, bought arm and leg warmers (which look totally sexy)… I was getting excited despite the threat of 50 degree temperatures and heavy rain. The rain held off until about 2 am. Registration was at 3 am. Oh well – I was getting wet today.
The drizzle had stopped by the time I got to Tang’s Donuts for sign in, so now it was just cold. It was about an hour wait with only sparse conversation with my “competitors” to keep my mind off the cold. Boy did folks show up in force. When the time came for the rolling start, we had totally blocked off Sunset at Fountain. I’ve never been in the presence of so many bicycles. This was going to be insane.
The remaining cars on the road were getting a little pissed, and everyone was ready to go, so we rolled out at 3:55 am towards Dodger’s Stadium and the start of the course. The rain had held off, and with the blood moving again the cold was becoming tolerable. It was on.
It’s really a rush riding at a good clip with people at arms length in all directions. One slip (and there was one or two initially) and you could take out the whole group and get pretty banged up in the process. We hit the starting line and it was a downhill shot straight into Chinatown and the first major turn. I reminded myself that I was in this just to finish and to back off on the speed, lest I plow into the grand arch at the entrance. I navigated first turn successfully and started to get into a rhythm.
If there is one thing my old Cannondale can do is move down the hills. On those sloped straightaways, I geared up and started moving up through the pack, which had spread out a bit more. We doubled back a bit through Chinatown and started our ascent up 1st Street. I was noticing that many more people were pulling off the pack with repairs than I’ve ever seen. I wondered how long my luck would hold out.
My JPL commute is mostly uphill, so I figured the old muscles would kick in. I planted myself in the saddle, dropped the gear down, and powered through. It was a boost to my ego: lots of people were walking up the hill. At that point I was pretty confident I could pull through this thing. Miles 5 and 6 took us back to Sunset through Echo Park and by mile 8 we passed by Tang’s. I was wondering how the hell the runners do all that on foot… I kept pulling up through the pack and realized I could realistically finish mid pack.
Then mile 9 hit. As I crossed Hollywood and Edgemont, my pedals locked up. I figured that the chain just bound up, so I backpedaled and tried to clear it. No luck. I unclipped my shoes and pulled off the road.
When I looked down I was horrified to find that one of my links had bent about 45 degrees off the pin, allowing the chain to come apart.
Sidenote: I’m fairly new to “serious” cycling. I never had a bike in college. The extent of my street repairs to date was fixing a loose seat. I’ve never had to change a flat on the road. So for me, this was a big problem.
There were a number of slightly dodgy non-cyclists around the area, and I wasn’t looking forward to trying to learn how to do this by trial and error. For a moment I considered pulling out my cell phone to try and figure this out (which probably would have been a good idea in hindsight), but I didn’t feel like flashing that around at night.
I had my bike multi tool with me, so I set about trying to figure this out. I first used the chain tool like a clamp to try and bend the link back into place. No luck. That link was dead. I then remember that I read about pushing out the pins to separate the chain. I figured, hell, things couldn’t get any worse, so I popped the pin out (all the way out…) and pulled out the bad link.
That was my first of many mistakes.
What I realized after the fact was that both ends of the pin were flanged, meaning they don’t want to slide into the thin walls of the chain link without the tool pressing them in exactly straight with the chain tool. Sitting on a ledge in the dark trying to get a 5 mm long metal pin through a clearance fit hole while holding the two ends of the chain together was not a winning prospect. I was hosed.
Through this time most of the back pack was riding by me. I asked a few if they knew how to fix this sort of thing, and they didn’t. I couldn’t blame them for not stopping – there wasn’t a huge amount of time before the runners started going. Everyone, like me, just wanted to finish.
I was about to give up and resign myself to carrying my bike home (all the bus lines through there had stopped for the night), when a few guys coasted by and asked if I needed help. I explained what I was doing as they rode by, and, to my relief, they pulled over and asked if I had the chain tool. I said I did and was just trying to get the pin back in. Finally, another set of hands! This should be easy now.
We struggled to get the pin through the first part of the link, keeping everything in alignment. No luck. One of them had the idea to grind off the bushing of one end to give the pin a lead in. I fished out my Leatherman and we got to filing. I was starting to shake at this point from the cold and wet, so holding anything steady was proving to be difficult. At this point, one of the guys whose bike was acting up actually offered me his chain to use (effectively leaving him stranded). After a bunch of filing and coaxing we managed to get the pin in. It had been about 40 minutes or more, and everyone was excited and we got up to move out.
That’s when I realized that in our haste, we didn’t feed the chain through the front derailer or the back of the frame. Fixing that meant taking off the chain again. I pretty much gave up at that point. I figured I could roll the bike home, maybe use the hills…
They didn’t give up. They sat down again and we popped a link off. This time we didn’t pop the pin all the way out. This is how you’re supposed to do it (as I learned after the fact). Apologies to any serious cyclists who have wanted to throw their laptop for the past 5 min. So we got the chain through the derailer and the back of the frame, but managed to screw up the the rear derailer.
So now I was really done. It was over. I bit off more than I could chew this time. But they weren’t giving up so easliy. The helped pull the chain back off, much faster this time, and rethread the rear derailer. At this point I was able to pedal again, but the chain skipped or slipped every four turns. But it seemed to work.
I want to say all this took about an hour an a half. It was unlikely we could make it, but all of us had delusions of grandeur so we took off. Since they were all on fixed speed bikes, I soon pulled far ahead at my normal pace. I feel really bad about this. They effectively gave up their chance to finish when they stopped to help me.
It may not be much consolation to them, but even though the rain was battering me on the bike and I was soaked through, I managed to make it all the way to mile 17 before the cops forced me off the route. At this point I decided that since I couldn’t ride the rest of the stretch (and had pushed my luck far enough on the broken chain) that I would go home.
I am not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but I do remember that a high school basketball coach once told me that it wasn’t important if I started a game, only that I finished it. Today, thanks to the kindness of these total strangers, I was able to finish the ride on my bike and not on a bus. These guys were willing to stop with no knowledge of how to help and worked through my problem (and my stupidity) with me until it was corrected. An event that could have, for any reasonable person, marked the end of their racing career instead galvanized me to learn more and come back next time (more prepared). They made what should have been a total letdown 100% positive.
Hopefully they find this. If they do: thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I don’t know if there is any code amongst cyclists. I’m afraid I’m still pretty ignorant about this whole culture. I just hope that I can pay the favor forward someday, and help keep someone in the game for a just a little longer.