Why an Alaskan need not buy expensive new bike for triathlon

I have this MacBook from 2008. Considering the relative fragility of something like a computer, it's amazing I haven't accidentally destroyed it (yet). Considering the age of some of the other things I own -- I recently declared to my horrified husband that I've had the same pair of shorts for 13 years -- the computer is almost new.

Still, when it started slowing down recently my first impulse was, like a good American, to buy another. My second impulse, after comparing my bank account to the cost of a new MacBook, was to figure out how to make it less slow. This is how I found myself one sunny evening at my kitchen table with a tiny screwdriver and some strange looking inserts I'd purchased on the Internet, YouTube instructions open on my phone, installing additional memory to my old/young laptop.

I'm proud to say there is a marked improvement.

Why buy?

The impulse to "buy another one" was similar when I signed up for my first Iron Man triathlon this year. No, I don't mean buy another body that I can beat up for the race and then turn it back in when it hurts too bad (although if anyone invents that, please let me know). What I really wanted was a new bike.

What was wrong with my current bike, you might ask? Well for one, it was dirty. Last fall I took it for a rainy ride and mud got all over it. My strategy to clean my bike by waiting for the mud to dry up and fall off failed, and instead there was a crust of sticks and dirt embedded in the area that looked like it might be critical for forward motion on a bike. I didn't know what to do about this, and I figured buying a new bike would solve the issue.

Secondly, while my bike cost me what I feel is a pretty penny, it is more commuter bike and less triathlon bike. The frame is aluminum. I don't own clip-in shoes, I don't have tri bars installed. I certainly do not own one of those funny aerodynamic helmets, although I bet I could make a do-it-yourself version with some cardboard and duct tape. I have 10 gears. I know from experience that I tend to be a little bit slower than my friends with nicer bikes. All in all, I'd be OK with that, if not for the final issue.

The final reason I thought about buying a new bike is that mine stopped being comfortable on rides longer than an hour. My back would start to ache -- deeply ache -- and my wrists would hurt. With a 112-mile ride required for this race (don't think about that too long; I'm trying not to) I was concerned.

Still, stubbornness, and another glance at my bank account, overrode impulse.

Democratic exercise

Part of the reason I have preferred running to cycling is that I feel running is a more democratic form of exercise. Fancy gear isn't required, and people with more money don't tend to be faster runners.

This isn't true with cycling. This made me want to show 'em. I decided I wanted to accomplish this race without dropping an obscene amount of cash. I wanted to participate in an elite event without being, in fact, elite. I decided to take a harder look at my bike and perhaps do some fixes myself, just as I'd managed to with my laptop.

My first stop was Fred Meyer's. A quick Google search and consultion with wise friends revealed I could easily clean my bike myself. All I needed were brushes, a bucket, de-greaser, chain lube and strong cleaner. I grabbed some rags from the closet and dedicated them to my bike, because they would not be seeing the kitchen again.

After 30 minutes in my sunny backyard with these tools plus a garden hose, I admired my bike's shiny red color. It looked -- dare I say -- new.

My second stop was an appointment at the Trek store in midtown Anchorage. Here is the other weird thing about bicycles: since they are a machine outside of my body, and since I work with this machine to go places over a long period of time, there is no one-size-fits-all bike. Bicycles are fitted and tuned to my height, arm length, particular angles, etc., to be the most comfortable, and also to be efficient when racing. A proper bike fitting measures individual angles and movements to properly adjust a bicycle to support the cyclist's body. Mine took two hours and ended with a few new parts -- a longer stem here, a seat adjustment there. Things were tapped into place millimeter by millimeter, and the promise of returning for clip-in pedals and tri bars, to help me get the most speed out of my bike.

The incredible thing? My longest training ride to date was 2 hours and 20 minutes, and I had no back pain, no wrist pain. The fitting and adjustments worked.

I still have moments on my current bike that make me miss the egalitarian-ness of running. Hauling up the Campbell Airstrip Road with friends last week, a 1,000-foot elevation gain over 10 miles, provided many such grueling moments. Still, I am getting much stronger. My bike is shiny. I can do more with it, so it feels more like an extension of myself. Like running shoes.

I suppose this is another step on the long journey to becoming "one of those people" -- the athletic type, the outdoorsy person -- but I think I see a long road ahead for myself and bicycling. I suppose the next step is one of those Alaska jerseys. However, I will not, I repeat NOT, be investing in a funny aerodynamic helmet.

I have to draw the line somewhere.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.