By Daniel Staudigel
We've seen our fair share of bike problems over the many years we've been racing. We've killed derailleurs, had dozens of flats in a single race (we had to run the bikes to the TA!), limped in on broken frames, and many more nightmare scenarios. It's fun to dream of all the cool stuff you can do to recover in these situations. An old memory sticks out in my mind: once, a mountain bike "combat medic" I used to ride with swooped in with a stick and a spare tube to brace a broken frame. While these make fun stories, the reality is much more straightforward.
There are quite a few helpful tips to be had - ones that would have saved us many painful situations had we known about them earlier in our career. They fall into two basic categories - things you do before you show up at a start line, and things to bring and do while you're out on course. In general, it's much easier to take good care of your bike at home. Not only are the parts and tools nearer to hand, it gives you a better understanding of your bike when you're out on course.
It's important to have a reasonable bike and take care of it outside of races. Everybody on the team doesn't need to know everything, but someone on course should be ready to fix things.
We generally ride Shimano XT grade components - for us, it's a perfect balance of price, weight, and durability. Unless someone's paying you to put XTR on your jersey, it's probably not worth it! Also, Shimano components are generally interchangeable, so feel free to mix and match below the XT level based on what your budget looks like.
Get familiar with your derailleur & brakes. Learn how to adjust your shifting, bonus points if you learn how to straighten your own derailleur hanger. Learn how to replace your brake pads and make sure you start the race with relatively fresh ones.
Get and use a chain stretch tool. Since we started replacing our chains on time, we've never had a chain break out on course.
Use tubeless tires, and top off the sealant before you race (we love Orange Seal). Top off by removing the valve core, and injecting the sealant through the stem. You can use this trick to help seat tubeless tires as well (removing the core makes it easier to get air in faster).
Keep it clean, washing off your bike (especially your drive train and moving suspension pieces) reduces chain wear and makes it easier to spot other issues. Chelsey and Jason love their Muc Off Pressure washer and so do us neighbors!
There's a few things we try to bring with us on course, but I feel like the most important thing is: if you hear something unfamiliar, stop immediately. This seems pretty obvious to me now, but almost all of the "how did your derailleur get there?" moments have come from trying to pedal through something instead of stopping and investigating, or riding through something tricky instead of just walking your bike through. Mud caking on, sticks in your wheels, etc - are all easy to solve if you catch them quickly, but get harder the longer you wait to address them. Here's the stuff we bring on course:
A bike tool - we like the kind that attach to the frame somehow, so you always know where it is. There's many cool systems that include a quick link & a chain tool.
Lube: we make and bring our own little tiny dropper bottles filled with chain saw chain oil. It's cheap, and as far as I can tell, it's the best lube around when conditions are dirty.
Dyna plugs ("bacon strips") and a plug tool. These are by far the best way to fix a flat on the go. They're fast and effective. Bring a razor blade to trim them down to almost flush, or you risk them pulling out later.
A pump (supplement with CO2 if you want it). We generally start with CO2 for the first flat or two, and keep a pump just in case we have bad luck.
Extra sealant: we bring one "emergency" flask of the stuff, for use if someone runs out (or, more realistically, if they forgot to top off before the race).
Extra valve cores and a core removal tool. You'll need the core remover in order to inject your extra sealant. Valve cores sometimes fail, get clogged, or have other problems - they're super cheap, tiny, and will save your butt.
A spare tube - "tubolito" brand makes ones that are ridiculously light, durable, and small. Treat yourself to one, if you can!
An extra derailleur hanger (one per bike probably - we've never needed more than one, but most bikes are incompatible). Make sure you pre-aligned it at home (or have your shop do it) - or you'll have very poor shift quality if you wind up needing it.
In the bike box (if you can)
You want to avoid as much random stuff in your bike boxes as possible. I put a special compartment into my bike box for things I need every TA, and another one for backups. You can also leave some of these things in a bin that you know you'll see later on. Once you're in TA, you're also likely to be able to beg/borrow parts and favors from staff. This is one more reason to try to be extra nice to everybody during races: you never know who will have a spare bike for you to jump on the next time you're in a TA. That said, it can be nice to have a few things to spare:
Extra derailleur - we've started trying to bring one in case
Extra tire - sometimes tires get so mangled you may as well just throw a new one on.
Derailleur hanger straightening tool - if you hit your derailleur, you may be able to straighten it out if you have the right tool. They tend to be heavy, so they may not fit - I think we've only ever used them when we have a TA crew.
Bikes are by far the most complicated and delicate tools on a race. There are just so many ways for them to fail, and without them you're in for a very, very long hike. If it happens to you, it's a good story, but it is rarely a winning move. Take care of your bike before and during the race, and you're much more likely to have a clean race.