Santa came slightly early to our household this year, probably because he realized that packing two bikes into his sleigh wouldn’t leave a lot of room for presents for the rest of the general population. Mary had been wondering about the wisdom of getting a tri bike for a while since we’re doing Rev 3 Cedar Point which is basically flat. The unknown was the Challenge Wanaka course. However a little research showed that it is considerably flatter than she had been expecting, and doing these two races back-to-back would seem to make a tri bike a good investment.
But Mary has a good road bike, one that has already proved itself in an Ironman, so a new bike would probably have remained in the realm of theory if not for Cervelo’s recent marketing gimmick. Buy two bikes and get a whopping $2,000 off. Now Cervelo has some pretty expensive bikes but they also have some more than reasonably priced ones (especially if you are looking at leftover bikes from the previous season). How they are making any money on this is beyond me, and it must be killing the retailers given the relatively slim margins on bikes that already exist. However, I’m not one to look a gift horse; there’s certainly been more than one Cervelo that I’ve had my eye on for a while, so Mary and I trotted down to our local LBS to do some test-riding. Test-riding gave way to speccing which gave way to haggling which gave way to a large sucking sound as money disappeared from our collective wallet.
In the end, Mary ended up with a mostly stock P2C; the only substitution was to replace the stock FSA Gossamer crank (which I’ve never trusted since I saw so many examples of it creating chain suck problems for even experienced cyclists on our team who bought bikes so-equipped while I was training for IM MOO) with an Ultegra crank. I ended up with a 2011 RS, the last one in the shop and miraculously in my size (do you believe in fate?). It seemed to have been specced out for someone else because it had an all Ultegra build and we couldn’t really swing that extra cash. So I asked them to put the stock SRAM Rival build back on with only two exceptions: again, get rid of the Gossamer crank and put a Rival one on, and replace the standard cassette with a 12/32. Yes, you heard me right. A 32. With a compact crank that is almost a 1/1 ratio on the back, which tells you my intentions for this bike. Climbs, climbs, and more climbs.
So Mary got a very good, race proven, flexible triathlon bike with some excellent componentry throughout. I have some OK components but this was my chance to get what I really wanted which was the frame. I first rode this bike a couple of years ago when Cervelo was doing their travelling demo show where you could ride any bike in their line-up all kitted out with top-end components. I took it on what is ordinarily a tooth-rattling jaunt down Columbia pike and barely felt a thing. I was concerned, however, that I might have been misled by the high end wheels, etc. This time I took it out for a jaunt up and down Military Road. But it was the same thing. This is easily the most comfortable bike I have ever ridden. It floats over the everyday rubble on the road. Yet it remains incredibly responsive (without even having to think about it I could twitch my way around sudden potholes and the bike instantly straightened without any lag) and climbs well. There will be some upgrading in the future, no doubt (although everyone seems to praise the solidity and reliability of the Rival components; there is some clear trickle-down happening in this group so who knows?). So this year I’ll be mixing up some the normal training on Mabel with some hillier efforts on the as-yet-unnamed RS.
But that is all background (indicated by the subtle way in which I titled that section “Background”). The thing that really struck me about this bike purchase was the reaction of other people. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have come up to me over the last few days and said “Hey, congratulations on the new bike!” That seems pretty innocuous but think about it for a minute. In my experience, when you buy most other consumer goods (a new car, a new lounge suite, a new flat screen TV) people don’t typically use the word “congratulations.” You get that word in completely different contexts: announcement of a marriage or pregnancy, graduation, birth of a child–life-changing events.
It is no accident that most of the people who have congratulated me have been cyclists, because one of the things that defines you as a cyclist rather than a person who straddles a bike on a regular basis is the understanding that buying a bike is a life-changing event. Why? Because buying a bike takes you places (in both the physical and metaphysical senses). A nice flat-screen (and who doesn’t want one of those?) is a beautiful window on the world, but just as that metaphor implies, you are on the inside, looking out, fixed in place. Doesn’t a new car take you places? Well, yes, in the physical sense. But the modern car is designed to be a self-capsule that will insulate you from all that dangerous reality out there (bluetooth this, DVD entertainment system that). It may take you places physically, but metaphysically it is designed to take your regular place (and all the crap that fills it) with you.
This all sounds a tad overblown, I know–unless you are one of the countless people who have had their life changed for the better, in ways small or great, by a bike (and I count myself in that category). The interesting question, of course, is why a bike is able to take you places in ways that other devices can’t. A couple of days ago I was looking at reviews of the 2011 RS. Yes, that is right, I read reviews after I buy the bike. (When the bike first came out years ago I read reviews then, and then I rode it for myself, and that was all the reviewing I needed). I was looking chiefly for information about about strengths and weaknesses of the stock build. In the course of my search I came across an excellent, typically thoughtful, review by Tom Demerly. Demerly admits that his previous reviews of the RS were a little off-base because he didn’t really get the idea of the bike, which meant that he didn’t really understand the kind of rider for whom it was designed. What was surprising–and also a little unnerving–was to find myself described pretty accurately:
What I didn’t understand about the Cervelo RS is that it’s aimed at an expanding group of performance riders who are pragmatic about what they need- and don’t need. The fifty-something engineer, the guy who raced cat 2 in college twenty years ago, the endurance rider crossing the country in a month, the emerging Brevet, audax or Randonneur cyclist. These riders are athletic, fit (or trying to get fit), understand performance and won’t settle for a “duffer” bike. In short, this rider wants long-haul performance that provides comfort so they can focus on their goals.
If I had to pick one adjective to describe my riding and racing approach it would in fact be “pragmatic.” I try to train smart, I try to race smart, with as little drama and as few histrionics as possible even under the most extreme circumstances. I make somewhat unorthodox choices that even my nearest and dearest don’t understand (Mary still harasses me about wearing MTB shoes and using Crank Brothers pedals; but then I’m typically not the person who ends up carrying their shoes as they run their bike out of a sea-of-mud transition area, or is cemented into my pedals at the end of the bike leg!). I don’t have the flashy high-end gear, because even if we could afford it, my innate pragmatism tells me that there are other things I could be doing with money than buying a $6,000 dollar bike when a $3,000 one will get the job done just fine. And then realizing that I can’t afford the $3,000 anyway and planning accordingly. But that doesn’t mean I want to settle. I like to get my fast on as much as the next cyclist. As Demerly notes: “The pragmatic cyclist eschews testosterone in favor of intellect and understands this category [sport touring bikes] is a better performance choice than a low-head tube, steep angle racer for a performance bike. These bikes are for any rider who has learned the path to performance is paved with comfort, especially when the path under their wheels is barely paved.”
Reading Demerly’s review made me realize something else. All of my previous bikes that I’ve acquired have been for entirely practical reasons: I needed a form of transportation, I needed a bike that would enable me to do a lot of multisport races. All those bikes served me well and were even pressed into roles they weren’t specifically designed for (as I’ve described elsewhere, my modified Cannondale F600 MTB has carried me through many, many bike touring miles). I’ve owned six (now 7) bikes in my lifetime (not counting the one where I transferred componentry to an all new frame after repeatedly buckling the previous steel one by running into the back of parked vehicles). The RS is, however, the first bike I’ve ever bought simply because I’m a guy who loves bikes and recognized a fit and a connection as soon as I hopped on the saddle.
There are all kinds of questions you can ask when buying a bike. Will it make me faster? Will it be reliable? How much does it weigh? Is it practical? Those kinds of questions have their place. But if all you ever do is ask those kinds of questions about your prospective bike purchases then you are missing something. As I get older and ride more with no intention of slowing down I’m starting to realize that there are only two really good questions to be asked as you contemplate a bike purchase: what kind of person am I and what kind of person do I want to become?