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The Pre Race Tune-up
By Tom Demerly


Lyndsey Brandon and Mark Trzeciak try to free a seized seatpost.
This bike was in serious need of pre-race attention.

It's the Wednesday before the big race. You've put in the long rides and runs, honed your nutrition plan, made your hotel reservations and bought your plane ticket. You've done the taper and now you're ready to race.

Race day comes and half way through the bike you're right where you want to be. Heart rate low, weather good, all your food is going down well and you feel strong. It's all coming together. This is it; it's your day. You're finally going to pull off the big one.

Then you get a flat. After fifteen minutes of struggling you manage to get it changed and you're back on the road. Then your gears start to act up. Your bike doesn't want to shift. It feels like it's slipping. For every three shifts you make it's only shifting once. Then your derailleur lets go and shifts all the way down to your hardest cog. On a hill.

This fork broke after a customer failed to notice a small crack developing.
Close inspection after washing is critical not only to perfromance but also safety.

Your race is over. For want of a $35 tire, a $35 chain and a $4 derailleur cable you've wasted hours of training, weekends of long rides, hundreds (even thousands) on air fare and hotels.

Frayed cable ends like this contribute to mysterious shifting prblems and can slip during a race.
For the price of a $4 cable, housing and installation your race can be saved.

If only you had your bike tuned up before the big race. Really tuned up.

During the Tour de France mechanics lavish mechanical care on the bikes. Lance Armstrong's bike gets new tires every two days and a new chain every five days. His handlebar tape is replaced daily by USPS Team mechanics. Every single day his bike is washed and inspected, degreased and re-lubed. His bike is maintained like a high end Formula One car. That's the way it should be, and your bike should be close to that.

Cuts in tire casings are often difficult to find but can result in flats during a race.
It pays to race onfresh tires and tubes. It's cheap insurance.

While it isn't necessary to replace a chain every week or tires every two days, after a long summer of training your bike is in desperate need of serious maintenance. Ironically, after preparation for the fall Ironman season athletes' bikes are generally in the worst condition they have been all year. Components like brake pads, wheels, chains, tires, rim strips, bar tape, brake and derailleur cables are heavily worn and in need of replacement. Drivetrains are caked with dirty lubricants and dirt has found its way into everything. You know that gritty feeling you have on your skin when you return from a long ride? It goes away on you after you shower. On your bike it just gets dragged into your cables and housing, increasing wear and slowing cable actuation.

Bike frames are optimized for ultra-light weight, not durability.
Small cracks can begin on the inside and spread rapidly without warning.

We've been doing pre-race maintenance on triathlon and racing bicycles for 18 years in the U.S. and around the world. Our guys have maintained thousands of bikes for hundreds of Ironman competitors. We've serviced bikes for the World Championships- many of them, the Olympic Triathlon, National Championships, and local events. We've done on-site tech support for triathlons and seen first hand what athletes' bikes need before race day and what to look for in bikes that have had a hard summer racing and getting ready for the big one.

This is what you need to do, and what we do for a pre race tune-up:

Inspect the Bike.
While the bike is still dirty we examine entry and exit points for all cables. We look at the parts of the frame and fork where cracks can start. Check the tires for cuts and wear, the brakes for alignment and the overall condition of the cables. We look at accumulation of sports drink residue (it can be corrosive) at frame joints and cable entry points.

Wash the Bike.
One of the most critical parts of pre-race maintenance. The bike needs to start the tune-up absolutely spotless. After applying biodegradable degreaser we wash the entire bike. Following the wash we expel the water from cables and drivetrain by cycling the bike through its gears and taking it for a quick ride. This also serves as a diagnosis for shifting and braking. It is not unusual for th bike to perform worse after being washed. Once the sticky, adhesive residue of dirty lubricant is removed from the drivetrain it often doesn't hold gears well and the chain may skip forward or from cog to cog under pedal force. Bottom brackets and cranks can suddenly become noisy and make creaking sounds.

Biodegradeable degreaser loosens caked-on sports drink residue and contaminated chain lube.

The importance of washing a bike before a pre-race tune-up is that it reveals hidden mechanical problems, including frame and rim cracks. Every year we discover potentially serious safety hazards on frames that customers though were safe to ride. Remember; racing equipment is optimized to be as light as possible. Remember when you bought your bike and you kept asking, "How light is this?" Bikes are built to be light, there is no extra material. When small cracks start they spread rapidly, sometimes from the inside out. Failures occur suddenly and with no warning. They can not only end your race but result in serious injury or worse.

Scrubbing braking surfaces with a Scotch-Brite pad improves braking performance even in wet weather.

Once the mechanic completes the bike wash and drivetrain degrease they can see exactly what they are dealing with.

Another inspection.
This is when we can really see what we are dealing with. Mechanics examine the entire frame and fork, top and bottom, rims, wheels, tires, brake pads, chain, cogs, chainrings, cables, cable stops, housings, saddle rails, seatpost clamps and all weight bearing components.

Worn components are replaced.
If tires are suspect they are replaced and internal rim strips are inspected. When brake pads are more than 50% worn they are replaced. Tires with cuts are replaced. Inner tubes and rim strips are inspected. Cogs and chains may need to be replaced. Cables with frayed ends are replaced and housings are cleaned and lubed or completely replaced. New cable housings are cut to precise length (including flight case packing length). Interiors of cable housings are lubed and exterior of cables are lubed. Cable housing ends are throated, ground perpendicular and smooth and throated again for perfect fit and minimal compression. We avoid using Gore Ride-On, Teflon coated or other "slick" cables since they can break down more easily inside housings and ruin shifting and braking. We recommend genuine Shimano, Campagnolo or Quality brand stainless steel inner cables and only Shimano compressionless, Campagnolo or Quality brand derailleur and brake cable housings. The cost of replacement parts can range from $30-$50 or more depending on what is required. Once all wear components are replaced then the bike is:

Completely tuned up.
When all the worn out equipment is replaced and the new cables, chain, tires and cogs are in place the bike can be tuned. Limit screws for derailleurs are checked so shifters will not push the derailleurs into the spokes off the easy cog or between the cassette and the frame dropouts. Dirt being washed from limit screws can frequently change their adjustment. Cable lengths are check and cable tension is established. New tires are brought up to race pressure and double checked to confirm they will hold air. Valve stems are checked to be sure the tires can be aired before the race. Shifting and braking are checked and tuned.

New Lube.
Depending on what kind of race it is, where it is and what the weather is likely to be we may use different lubes. On bikes we prepared for the Raid Gauloises in Vietnam we used a thick, tenacious lubricant that would not easily wash off. On bikes for the Hawaii Ironman we use a lighter lube that can still withstand air transport (cold temperatures) and a sudden, drenching tropical rain. For events like Ironman Lake Placid or Ironman Wisconsin we are using a lighter lubricant that allows the chain to move easily and rapidly from cog to cog since there will be a lot of shifting and most of our customers do not have to travel far to reach these events. The inside of the chain links are lubricated at the bottom of the rotation, not the outside- so centrifugal force drives the chain lube into the chain, not splatters it all over the rest of the bike. Excess lube is carefully removed after all metal on metal contact points are lubed.

Dirty, caked on lubricants cause sticky shifting and accelerated drivetrain wear.
This drivetrain is filthy and needs to be degreased, cleaned and relubed.

Even if the bike is being disassembled for flight-casing it is checklisted prior to disassembly. For bikes that travel to the race intact inside a vehicle (hopefully never on a car rack outside the vehicle) this is also critical. Every bolt is checked for adequate torque. This is especially important on weight bearing components such as seatpost binder bolt, handlebar stem and steer tube clamp bolts, crank bolts, pedals and chainring bolts. Front derailleur problems are often the result of loose crank bolts or chainring bolts that have vibrated loose during long training rides.

Small tears and cracks in metal surfaces can mean big problems on race day.
In the 1986 Hawaii Ironman I broke a spoke at mile 108 on the bike.

The bike is checklisted from to back in the stand before it goes to the next step.

Test Ride.
Since we have all raced at Bikesport we know what is expected of a bike during an event. We test ride the bike on the flats and up a steep hill (the four story parking garage ramp behind our store is an excellent test track). We cycle the bike through every possible gear combination including crossover gears. We try to drop the chain. We try to get it mis-shift. We pound the cranks to get the creaking noise. Once everything is perfect the mechanic signs off on the bike and now it is ready to race.

Perspiration and sports drink residue are highly corrosive and can cause bolts to strip and fail without warning. Everything on the bike needs to be cleaned and inspected.

Pre race Tune-ups start at $75 not including parts and parts installation. A 6% shop fee covers degreaser, shop towels, lube, sponges and other cleaning supplies. Pleas allow adequate time for pre-race tune-ups.




© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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