The first ride

Seldom in my life have I ever been humbled by a piece of sports equipment.  I put careful thought into sports equipment purchases and always try to match my ability level. 

The only instance that comes to mind of my ability level not matching the equipment I bought was when I bought my first pair of 5 wheel, speed skate roller blades.  A pair of skates that I still own and wish I could find a place to use.  I had been playing roller hockey for a couple of years and wanted to increase my speed and endurance.  A friend suggested distance speed skating and I found this pair on sale.  They were hard to control, impossible to stop and UNGODLY fast.  I put them firmly at the top of the “Why I’m not dead… I don’t know” category.   It took many months of careful practice before I became comfortable enough to use them on a regular basis.

Now when it comes to bicycles, I have some knowledge.  I rode and raced mountain bikes back in the day, so my bike handling skills are not bad.  What I learned, rather unfortunatley though, was that mountain biking skills don’t necessarily transfer well to road riding.  Especially triathlon.  The “spin to win” techniques employed by roadies are a far cry from the “stomp and grind if you want to live” world of mountain bikes.  The abuse I took in my first season of triathlon (albeit partially my fault for not riding enough) let me know that the equipment that I “tried” to use was not adequate to the task.  So after the season was over, I started looking.

A very lucky encounter with my favorite bike shop owner during my initial search for a better ride for this year would change everything and put me right back in a position that I had not been in for over 15 years.  A few weeks ago, I took posession of what I can only describe as the most advanced bicycle I have ever seen, much less possessed.  A Specialized Transition Pro.  Complete with several upgrades to make it better, stronger and faster.

My assumption was that even though this was a new bike class (I can’t even call it an upgrade because it was sooo far above what I had) my initial thought was “it’s just a bike”.  Granted, it IS 10 POUNDS lighter than the bike I was riding and has more carbon fiber than a stealth fighter… but it couldn’t be THAT different… right?

So after months of frozen misery and agonizing over my purchase, today… finally… I got to find out.  I took my first real ride… on a rocket.

Initial impressions:

The Transition (Rocket) feels everything like and NOTHING like any bike I’ve ever ridden.  From the first stomp on the pedals to get out of the driveway, it was different.  All the power in the pedal stroke went right to the rear wheel.  The area around my house is filled with short, steep hills.  A few crisp shifts (Dura Ace) made things easier, but not easy.  I am used to granny gears and MUCH bigger cogs on the rear. 

There is much more shifting to be done on the front end now (until my legs get a LOT stronger).  But even though the shift levers are at the end of the aero bars, after a few clunky passes I started to get the hang of shifting more.  I “think” my front chainring set is a 48/53.  I know, you bike geeks will be disappointed that I’m not sure.  I’ll get to that level of geekiness later.  For now I’m just trying to stay upright.  The back cassette is a 12/24 (ish). 

The rider position is unlike anything I have ever ridden.  I’m used to my ass being over the rear hub.  I’m used to not being able to see the front hub because the handlebar blocks it.  With this bike’s radical rider position and insane geometry, my substantial backside is nearly even with the front of the rear wheel.  When I drop into the aero bars I am looking STRAIGHT down over the front hub.  The rider is ridiculously forward in this geometry.  The advantages are clear and I will explain later, but the learning curve on this geometry is steep.  For example, I was coming down a hill toward a stoplight and thought I could beat it but it changed.  I had plenty of room to stop but tapped the back brake like I “normally” do and immediately locked it up and skidded sideways because there is no longer any weight on it as there was before. A LOT more front brake control is needed or I need to practice my old “shift your weight back and sit on the back wheel” style of downhill, mountain biking braking.

The handling is superb.  Almost thought controlled.  Even when I got squirrely and out of whack while trying to shift or avoiding pothole, the bike was easy to reign in.  I will have to practice making MUCH smaller adjustments and steering inputs for a while though.  I am used to a much longer wheelbase and yanking my old bike into and out of corners and even having to countersteer (push opposite the direction you want to go) to get the old Kona to behave in corners.  This bike is so tight that it WANTS to corner.  It is stable in corners, even at higher speed or counter banking.  It gives you confidence from the first turn that you can go deeper and faster into a corner than you thought possible.  Now I am limited only by the grip of my tires and my intestinal fortitude.  Considering the HUGE yellow streak on my back, this relationship is going to take time.  The ride is stiff but responsive.  Big bumps transfer to the rider a little more than in other bikes I have had but nothing I can’t get used to.

The biggest adjustment for me is rider position.  I am much lower in the aero position.  I am also much more tucked up than my old bike.  I am so far forward that my pedal stroke feels different too.  Shifting means reaching out to the ends of my aero bars, which can be a challenge in tight spaces, climbs or corners.  Shifting this bike takes more forethought and planning.  This is probably the way it’s supposed to be, but I’m just not used to it.

Climbing hills is a matter of being in the right gear.  Since the gearing is different than anything I’ve ever ridden, the effort in climbing seems greater.  But it also feels faster. But miss a shift and you quickly run out of options.  I did a slow speed stomp/slo-motion track stand climb up one hill because I was in too big a gear to start and by the time I realized it, I was already in trouble.  But when you stand and climb, the bike is light and strong enough to respond.  It’s pretty amazing.

I like the aero bars and don’t like them at the same time.  They are lower, flatter and have fewer hand positions than I’m used to, but the outer bars where the brake levers are mounted feel very much like the bar end climbing bars on my old mountain bike.  They allow me to open up my chest and breathe easier on climbs.

The bike is smooth.  Pedaling, shifting, turning, braking… everything.  I on the other hand, am not.  Ten years of mountain biking has given me bad habits.  This is going to take some time to get used to.  To say that this bike is better than my skill level is an understatement.  There are top 10 triathletes in this area who would love to have a bike like this.  I almost feel guilty riding it.  But at the same time, this is probably the last triathlon bike I will ever buy.  Today may have been my first ride, but it is thousands of miles from being my last.

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