Of Devils in Chains and Slippery Crits

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Sun Devil Criterium – February 5, 2017

I made the decision to race the Sun Devil Criterium, held on Arizona State University’s campus late in the week.  That I am an alumnus of ASU’s arch rival, the University of Arizona, did not weigh in my decision – much. But I did think about racing incognito in case one of my Wildcat peers saw me.

I had trained hard Monday through Wednesday, in anticipation of a trip to Newport Beach to visit my dear mother.  Flying with bikes is an expensive pain, so I thought two days off, if I could get in a recovery spin on a stationary bike at a gym, would not be too damaging to my training.  My legs were toast after a day of climbing South Mountain twice and two more days of longish rides on my mountain bike due to the drivetrain problems on my road bike.   And there was a race last Sunday that I would rather forget about, so I had four hard days in a row.   I was waiting for a new chain to arrive and riding the mountain bike, though it is carbon and pretty light, was an eye opening and leg “sore-ing” experience. 

A Quick Aside About the Road Bike And The Broken Chain Saga Of The Santa Catalina Omnium

  The chain, a SRAM PC-991, broke at the PowerLink.  And it was my fault.  Part of the reason that I had been using the SRAM chain is that it can be easily removed for cleaning.  I tend to keep my driveline very clean.  What I did not know is that the PowerLink is not meant to be reused.  I had removed that chain at least twice so that link was indeed the weak one.  So all my rather vocal “never again” about SRAM chains made me feel a little sheepish. 

Until, that is, that my thoughts about using SRAM were confirmed.  I had a brand new SRAM PC-991 in a box and while I waited for my new Shimano 9 speed chain to arrive, I thought I would try this one out.  Before you gripe at me for not supporting my Local Bike Shop (LBS) you must understand that when I showed up to buy a new chain from the shops I frequent and asked for a 9 speed Shimano chain, I was treated to what is so wrong about so many LBSs.  “Why do you want to use a Shimano chain?” asked my confrontational salesman, and I wanted to say something snarky like, because I’m a Nazi or because I’m patently stupid. But before I could snark away, I was told that SRAM chains are “better.” I was dying to say something like “name three ways, “but inasmuch as I am almost desperately trying to develop a relationship with a local bike shop, I bit my tongue.  I know the customer is not always right, but I’m so tired of being condescended to by shop flunkies.  I worked in the business for many years and I know a thing or two (notwithstanding my ignorance of PowerLink reuse) about stuff of the cycling world.  In some stores I get the feeling that I should wear shorts to display my shaved legs so that I might get a pass into the Secret Society of the Elitist Cycling Cognoscenti.  This was the second transaction I had tried, in this long-time Phoenix Valley store, that had resulted in customer confrontation, instead of customer service. The previous attempt resulted in being told that the 25c tire Specialized tire was faster than the 24c tire I was shopping for.  This bit of info was proffered without any knowledge of the wheel the tires were going on.  And again, I held my tongue, and did not relate to said shop-maven-of-all-things-bike that I had just spoken with the “Customer Care” crew at Specialized and was informed that for my Roval wheels, the S-Works 24c was the best choice.  Returning to the chain chat, I said thanks, but no, and I would like a Shimano unit, and was, with heavy sigh, told that they would “have to order it and it would take a week, maybe less.”   So just maybe SRAM is “better” because it is in stock. But I think that is giving sales-boy too much credit.   

I ordered the chain online that night, and next day I installed the PC-991 I had lying about and went for a little ride.  The cassette was brand new – I had just installed it on my new training wheel – the one I bought to replace the original Mavic Ksyrium that a spoke nipple had pulled through after almost 10 years of service.  It all seemed good.  It was shifting and did not skip or anything untoward. Sounded like the old chain, only more shiny.

Serendipitously, the new Shimano HG93 chain had arrived while I was out riding (one day, free shipping – so much better than the sighed “week, maybe less”) and due to having too much time on my hands, I thought I would do a comparison of the two chains.  I “cut” the chain and installed and lubed it with my old favorite TriFlow.  I have tried other lubes and while TriFlow stays wet and attracts dirt, I like it best.  It lasts long, not needing frequent reapplication like some others I have tried.  I was once castigated by a bike shop dude in Ventura, CA,  when I tried to buy a bottle of TriFlow who said, his voice dripping with disdain, “That stuff is fine for a kid’s tricycle but this” he handed me a bottle of ProLink that was twice the price, and said, “this, is much better.” Like a sucker, I bought it.  I doubt anyone could ever tell the difference in bike performance of chain lubes, so later I had to wonder why this guy would suggest I use ProGold’s ProLube.  A profit margin thing, no doubt?  Or merely another example of a shop serf lording his “superior knowledge” over a hairy legged mountain biker. I’ve tried Finish Line’s Dry Lube and it seems just fine, but needs frequent reapplication and to me, reapplying lube to keep the driveline quiet, reapplying lube to a dirty or even semi-dirty chain seems like recipe designed to speed drivetrain wear.  But what do I know? – I reuse SRAM ProLinks.

But I digress.  I took my Shimano be-chained Cannondale out for a test ride and something was missing.  The tires – that lovely, mysterious noise they make on smooth pavement was there, but seemingly louder than ever.  Something was not right.  And then I realized – the driveline was absolutely silent.  Even quieter than the brand new SRAM chain that I had just tried.  It has been so long that any of my bikes have had a Shimano chain with that pesky press in, break-off pin, that I had become used to the clickety noise produced by a SRAM chain on an otherwise Shimano driveline.  The shifting was immediate and silent.  The front shifting was quicker and quieter too.  Drivetrain nirvana, right here in Tempe, at the hands of a mere bike mechanic emeritus. 

I don’t know what a SRAM chain works like on a SRAM equipped bike, I have only ridden one mountain bike and one road bike so festooned, so the sample size is small, but I never felt the same kind of precision in the shifting of the SRAM mechs. And the Double-Tap way seems strange to me, though I guess I could get used to it, if forced to ride that stuff – they’re probably better than returning to downtube friction shifters.  I guess since the days of Gyp-Shift, (Grip-Shift) the early days of SRAM, I’ve never been a fan.  Now I had proof enough for me that Shimano works with almost stunning precision and quiet.  Anyone who has ridden long enough knows that a clean, well-adjusted and lubed driveline is a joy to hear and feel.  And anyone who has ridden a dirty, slightly miss-adjusted drivetrain knows how over time, we sort of get used to the sound and fury and just ride it anyway. 

So.  Surely it was my fault that the chain broke on January 29, during my first true road race, but just as surely, I will never use a SRAM chain again – if only because Shimano stuff works so well in concert with Shimano stuff.  And surely, I have a surly shop jockey to thank for this important rediscovery.

But I’ve digressed – again.

Back to the crit.  At 7:45 it was still pretty nippy, but I had warmed up on my turbo trainer for thirty minutes before the start, wearing extra layers.  With apologies to Pink Floyd, I was “comfortably warm” and not numb, on the starting line.  I was also dropped sometime during the second lap.  My breathing was painfully erratic.  I was spitting up lung butter in shocking quantities – and I was wicked-fast through the bumpy, rain gutter traversed turns.  One of the bumps at the exit of the first turn was so large that it would loft your rear wheel a foot off line if hit at speed – perfect Sunday fun for a former mountain racer.  If only those bumps and divots were not connected by about ½ a mile of straights. 

When the pack rolled up behind me for a second time, they had settled down to prepare for a sprint finish, I guess, and I was able to get on a backmarker’s wheel and get a tiny bit of respite for the last few laps.  I guess all those miles on café racer motorcycles and mountain bikes make me a maven in the bumpy twisty bits, as each turn I found that I could easily and securely maintain a higher speed and a tighter arc than many of those bringing up the rear. 

Now all I have to do is learn how to find that same speed in the straights.  One thing is for sure.  Riding alone, off the back allows a guy like me – between haggard breaths – to savor the sweet sound of a Shimano chain, coated in TriFlow, riding in silence over cog and chainring.   

One Comment

  • Greg

    Like it. Good read. Keep writing/riding

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