New isn’t better: Habitualizing and Valuing Ritual

Tim Speciale - January 29, 2020

A bike that shifts and runs correctly won’t fail you. Being fast and winning every night is damn near impossible, but your bike can be perfect every night with minimal effort. I appreciate people that know what they can control and act accordingly.


Three years ago I bought a SRAM Red eTap drivetrain and have raced it every year since. It’s an electronic shifting system. It’s wireless and clean. It’s efficient and effective. It’s expensive and completely unnecessary.  The expense makes breaking it a little scary.  Some don’t buy into the expensive electronic shifting because of this high cost. That is probably smart. The stuff really just works though and for some people that’s good enough. I try not to think too much about the cost.

Pre-race Ritual

I have a ritual the night before races that I’ve come to find cathartic.  I don’t know when it started but it probably had something to do with Wayne.   It’s nothing all that unique I would hope.  The night before every race I go over my bike with an attention to detail that use to be foreign to me. I go over every crevice of the thing; if the bottom of the bottom bracket is clean, it might be ready to go.

There are so many things going on in a typical bike race that in a sense you have no control over many of the outcomes. But you do have control over some and it is wise to control what you can control.

You have to be able to control the bike.  You don’t want anything rubbing.  Take the brake pads off and scuff off the glaze and make sure that they are straight and have the perfect tension, that the brake pads are aligned perfectly to the wheels which are probably different than the wheels you ride the other 5 days a week. Your handlebars better be aligned perfectly straight. And the shifting has to be flawless.

Perfecting the shift

A wheel  can have slightly different dimensions and a week of training might have tugged that cable just a fraction longer.   You have to spend a minute massaging the barrel adjuster.  A tweak this way, a tweak that way, run through the gears and listen to where it sounds off.  Everyone thinks that adjusting derailleurs is about an action: clean shifts.  The truth is that it’s the sound of the drivetrain running through the gears that matters. Sure, you can see if it’s working good enough but you can only hear if it’s working perfectly.  

If the derailleur  is off ever so slightly you can hear the chain talking and flirting with the next gear.  The conversation starts small but after a while it turns into a full-on affair.  You go to shift into 5th but the chain and 4th gear are still deep in their lust and the shift comes only after a delay.  Sometimes it’ll just never come out of there at all.  In a race, this might mean missing a wheel and wasting valuable energy in a key moment of the race. It has to be perfect.

There are varying degrees of out-of-adjustment.  The point is you can hear it.  You can hear it on your bike, and you can hear it on the bikes around you.  You begin to start judging a rider you’re next to in races as the during lulls in the race. 

“This guy’s bike shifts like shit, I wonder if he’s just never taken the time to learn how to do this or if he’s just too lazy to deal with it.” 

You can’t convince me that the guy on the top step of the podium has a bike that doesn’t shift.  I mean…it definitely happens if you’re thinking about it rationally, but my perception of it all? No way.

A bike that shifts and runs correctly won’t fail you.  Being fast and winning every night is damn near impossible, but your bike can be perfect every night with minimal effort.  I appreciate people that know what they can control and act accordingly.

The problem with electronic shifting

So anyways…the problem with the electronic shifting is that it just works.  It’s completely digital.  There are no cables to stretch and very rarely have I swapped wheels around and it just didn’t continue to work.   I still clean my bike, and I still run through everything mechanically.  But the gears are no longer a part of this experience.  It’s completely binary now; it works (and it usually does) or it doesn’t.  Fixing it is just a few button clicks. No bolts to unbolt.  No screws or nuts to turn. No thoughts about whether or not you should just put a new cable in. It’s far less viceral. I don’t feel as connected to the experience.

It just works, but it isn’t better.


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