At the Bench: Outsmarting Myself

It was the spring of 1991 and I was determined to be good enough to be on the “C” squad for the UMASS bicycle racing team. I’ve often alleged that spring is a season unknown to Western Massachusetts. In stark terms, spring is temperatures in the low 40s to low 50s, frequently raining, or at least drizzling, black ice covered in sand lies in wait for unsuspecting cyclists and even on a nice day, being inside is better.

This was the era of grease-guard bottom brackets and no precision bearing could keep the grime out for those of us who rode through the Pioneer Valley spring. My mountain bike had just such a bottom bracket; I’d press a grease gun up against a tiny port and squeeze until grease exited the seals like icing from a pastry bag.

The road bike I raced was equipped with Campagnolo Super Record, which had been Campagnolo’s finest parts six years previous. The hubs had small metal clips at the midpoint of the hub that covered a small port in the hub shell, while the bearing shields sported two small holes in them. What I didn’t know at the time was that Campagnolo designed them to be injected with a heavy oil for the most demanding races, like Eddy Merckx’ hour record in Mexico City.

I was 25, which is to say I was smarter than the average bear, probably smarter than everyone else in the room, though I suspect I can find no one on this planet to back that assertion.

New England spring being what it was, me being who I was, and Campy hubs being what they were, I decided to take my grease gun and inject the hubs with grease until the magenta Pedro’s Syn-jection Grease oozed out of the bearing shields. It was a genius plan.

The next day I met my teammates at the Catholic Church’s Newman Center, where the team rides began every afternoon at 2:00 pm. We rolled out and quickly formed our two-by-two double-rotating paceline.

Before I go any further, I need to note that compared to most of my teammates I had less fitness, less experience as a racer and less everything in general, except for working on bikes. Experience working on bikes is not the same thing as intelligence for working on bikes. I say this with significant hindsight.

We made our way out from Amherst up the tree-lined streets into Montague, Leverett and other towns distinguishable by little more than the town signs. Even before we began hitting the bigger hills I found myself breathing harder than expected. I did my best to disguise this because I wanted to be one of the official riders on the C squad. We could enter as many riders as we wanted in the C field, but only six pre-appointed riders could score points, so it was important to pick the six strongest, while everyone else simply tried to survive.

I took a short pull when I arrived at the front and slid past my teammates, hoping I could blend into the wheels at the end of the paceline. Instead, what happened was I drifted straight off the back. My teammate Tim—a friend to this day—dropped back to nurse me into the group. I can’t recall a single word he said, but what I do remember was how gentle and encouraging he was. He was telling me that everyone was going flat-out and they couldn’t keep it up much longer and to just hang on, that Greg LeMond’s group was just over the hill, that I could slay dragons.

I wanted to believe him.

I learn lessons slowly, if at all. Epiphanies are delivered by the USPS—bulk rate. Even so, as my vision blurred under the effort to rejoin the group to which I had my own personal leadout, I suddenly realized why I was the slowest guy on the ride—the axles of both my wheels were encased in thick grease, like a boot stuck in mud.

Aspiring bike racers have a relationship with surrender that is, at best, estranged. There came a point when the only merciful—let alone sensible—course of action was to tell Tim to go back to the group and to let me limp home anonymously. Once I convinced him to go, he sprinted across a gap that felt insurmountable to me in mere seconds. If I’d had any doubt about the handicap all that grease had given me, it evaporated before he’d finished his effort.

Dang.

The next day I went into Bicycle World Too where I was one of the wrenches and poured degreaser into the hubs and pushed wadded up paper towels through the hub shells with a screwdriver until I could look through the hub shells like I was looking down the barrel of a gun. I repacked the hubs without incident or flash of genius. And the day after, when I rolled out with the team, well, taking my pulls wasn’t a problem.

I felt as if I’d gained a full season’s fitness with the liberal application of … degreaser.

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  1. TominAlbany says

    Ah yes. Rookie maintenance mistakes! Like the time I broke a sparkplug off in the engine block because I was going to improve the performance of the ’79 Mazda GLC I was driving (in 1989!) by swapping to high performance plugs. I was actually sitting ON the engine block pulling on the ratchet with both hands trying to free up that plug…. LOL

    Also, pulled apart the front hub on an old Schwinn I’d been riding for 4 or 5 years and came up short by 1.5 bearings… LOL

    1. Padraig says

      You absolutely can’t stop there. You have to explain 1.5 bearings. My mind is racing trying to puzzle out that disaster.

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