USAF Crystal Ride, Part 1: Getting There Is Half The Fun

I returned from Madrid on Friday.  Sunday was the USAF Crystal Ride – never a dull moment!  I got off the plane in Dulles Airport, drove across town in a driving rain storm in rush hour and arrived at the Crystal City Marriott 30 minutes before the Packet Pickup Desk closed for the day.  This was a blessing as it meant I didn’t need to drive back to the city on Saturday to get my packet.

On Saturday, I puttered around the house, doing errands that built up over a week away from home.  After dinner, I began to make preparations for the ride.  I fastened my bibs to my jersey, put my number on my helmet, gathered all my stuff and put it in the car so my getaway on Sunday morning would be simple and quick.

Then I turned my attention to my rear derailleur, which had been acting up ever so slightly during my last ride before heading to Spain.  I had lost the ability to reach my top two gears and I wanted to make the slight adjustment necessary to fix the problem.

I had never adjusted my derailleur before but I wasn’t about to let a complete lack of knowledge or experience stop me.  I dutifully watched three (three!) Youtube videos on the subject and read two pages of a bicycle repair manual I bought a few years ago.  It seemed straightforward enough…

Two hours later, I had ruined my derailleur.

Somehow, I had managed to adjust the screws and cables to the point where the only gear I had was my top gear.  No amount of fiddling, lubing, cursing, begging, or praying would change the situation.  I was now 13 hours from the start of the ride with only my top gear.  All the local bike shops closed for the day.  Life was hard.

So I loaded both my damaged Trek and my clunky hybrid, Old Ironsides, onto my bike rack.  If I couldn’t get the Trek fixed I would be forced to push my hybrid around that course and would most likely settle for a silver medal – averaging the required 17.1 mph on Old Ironsides over 56 miles is a feat beyond my capability.  Still, a silver medal amongst my growing collection of gold USAF medals would be an interesting story to tell over the years…

I showed up at the Crystal Ride an hour early the next morning and found the maintenance tent near the start line.  I was encouraged to see the guys were actually present and were from Shimano.  My derailleur is a Shimano 105, so I thought perhaps I had a chance to get it fixed.

My saviors.  Pic taken after the ride when they were properly set up.

My saviors. Pic taken after the ride when they were properly set up.

The team hadn’t even begun setting up shop but the head of the group offered to take a look at my bike.  I learned that this kind soul was actually the head bicycle mechanic for Shimano and had traveled to the event from the company’s corporate headquarters in Southern California.  Very cool.  After teasing me about needing a gear other than my top gear, he proceeded to fix my derailleur while simultaneously giving me a course on derailleur systems and bicycle repair in general.

It turns out that the cable was frayed and no amount of adjusting was going to fix the problem.  “You were fighting an uphill battle,” the mechanic said.  When I told him of my several minutes of detailed internet research, he chuckled and said, “I laugh at Youtube videos.”  I was pleased to learn I was fiddling with the right stuff on the bike, so I was at least coming close to understanding/fixing the problem.  The mechanic said that learning the right steps was the easy part – gaining the experience so that you can understand what you are seeing/feeling while doing the steps was much harder.

The mechanic wasn’t surprised to see the cable was frayed.  My shifter is SRAM and they subcontract their cables to a company called Jaguar.  This company makes cables that are 1/10th of a millimeter too large for the Shimano specs.  That’s right – it was 0.1 millimeters too big.  That may not sound like much, but over time that size difference wears on the tubing and the cable tends to fray earlier than it should.  I suggested Shimano and SRAM have a meeting to sort this out and the mechanic took it under advisement.

In less than 30 minutes, I had a brand new shift cable and a fully tuned rear derailleur, along with an impromptu class provided by Shimano’s head mechanic.  Excellent!  I raced back to my car, put the bottles, GPS, etc… on the bike (after all, I wasn’t sure what bike I would be riding when I pulled in), took off my sneakers (needed for the hybrid) and put on my road shoes and zipped over to the starting group with two minutes to spare.

Needless to say, I was at the back of the pack.  I would be winding my way through 1,400 riders in my attempt to get near the front.  Who am I kidding – getting near the front was never my goal; simply getting a gold medal while jet lagged and frazzled over my derailleur crisis would be good enough today.  To learn how that went, stay tuned for Part 2!

The back of the peloton.  The white banner waaay in the distance is the start/finish line.

The back of the peloton. The white banner waaay in the distance is the start/finish line.

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12 thoughts on “USAF Crystal Ride, Part 1: Getting There Is Half The Fun

  1. We were in the same room and didn’t meet! I volunteered Friday and was at the Marriott helping with registration packets. I didn’t do the ride as I’m dealing with some tendon issues, but it looked like fun and not the crazy hot weather we’ve had in recent years.

    Did you stick around for any of the races? I do love watching their crazy speeds.

    • You didn’t see me? I was the good looking guy with 30 hours’ of stubble who looked like he just got off a transatlantic flight and drove straight to the hotel through a rush hour thunderstorm.

      Be sure to check out Part 2. Another member of the There And Back Again Family was present!

      • You know, I sensed I was in the presence of greatness but I mistakenly thought it was because I was checking in the cat 4 racers. Now I know better. Will definitely check out part 2.

        And don’t short change yourself. Around 1700 people pre-registered for the ride and we signed up over 100 more on Friday. Not sure how many day of. Was a big field.

    • I hope not to disappoint with my second installment! I do enjoy the little ironies and surprises life throws my way, at least most of the time I do!

  2. So you have a shimano 105 rear derailuer and SRAM shifters? I was sure that didn’t work because they two systems use different ratios of cable pull to move their derailluer.

    Also SRAM and jaguar cables are 1.1mm while Shimanos are 1.2mm maybe the mechanic meant that the narrower jaguar cables are more likely to frey?

    Either way sounds like that guy saved your day.

    • Your post had me scratching my head, so I trotted down to the garage and guess what? You’re right! I have Shimano shifters as well as a derailleur. However, your very precise description of the cable systems is close enough to my recollection to indicate I wasn’t imagining the entire conversation. Clearly I misunderstood the mechanic. Thanks for clearing that up!

  3. Nifty! You’re hanging out with some high-power mechanic types. I didn’t know that detail about the cables thickness: I suspect that I exist mostly in time-capsule sort of componentry environment.

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