When I was looking into qualifying for my elite license last summer, I had a sense that it would be incredibly complicated. I was worried there would be all these extra requirements and pressures, and I kept thinking that maybe I just wasn’t ready. But then when I began to actually look into what was involved in taking my pro card, I realized that it’s actually really simple, and in many ways relieves some of the stress that comes with triathlon. I know that racing elite is not necessarily an option for everyone, but for those who find themselves in a position to qualify for their elite license, I wanted to write about some of the things that I thought about when I was deciding what I wanted to do.
(Thanks to Brian Fancher for the super cool race photo! This is from Charleston's local sprint series at James Island County Park).
One of the things that sometimes drives me crazy about triathlon is how difficult it is to travel for races. I envy my friends who fly to marathons and just pack… shoes? Triathletes have to pack SO much - race kit, shake out kit, recovery kit, at least two pairs of shoes, water bottles, helmet, nutrition, and then there’s your BIKE, which is the biggest hassle of all.
The first 70.3 race I did was within driving distance, so that was easy - I just put my bike in the car. In fact, when I needed a car I intentionally chose one that would let me fit my bike in the back without needing to take off a wheel and without needing to buy a bike rack (Honda Fit).
But my second race was the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga, TN, and I had to fly there. I stressed A LOT about how to travel with my bike. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, but I also didn’t want to worry about my bike not arriving in time. In the end, here’s what I did:
(1) Bought a used bike case (a Trico Iron Case) from a local bike shop (LBS) - I asked the owner if he knew anyone who was trying to get rid of one (after stalking craigslist), and luckily, he did! I bought it for less than $100, picked it up in the store, and had one of the mechanics show me how to take my bike apart. This was actually a huge moment for me - it felt so amazing to know how to take my bike apart and put it back together all on my own!
(2) Researched airline bike fees. I actually don’t remember which airline I flew, but I’m ‘pretty sure they charged me $150 one way for my bike so it was probably Delta. American allegedly got rid of their special bike fee so you pay for a bike like normal luggage, but I haven’t tried that yet.
(3) Booked bike flights for the way home (https://www.bikeflights.com). Bike flights is awesome! For ~$50, you can mail your bike in its case by dropping it off at a FedEx, and it will take it about 3 days to get to you. I decided to do this because it saved me about $100 off taking my bike back on the plane, and after the race I didn’t need my bike super soon anyway because I was recovering.
Bike case: $100
Airline bike fee: $150
Bike flights: $50
This plan worked best for me, and I’ll be doing it again in about a month when I fly to Boulder for the 70.3 in August (and I already own the bike case, so it will only cost me $200). When I compare that with taking my bike on the plane both ways ($300) versus a shipping service like TriBike Transport ($375 and I’d have to drive 2 hours one way to drop off my bike at a local store), it’s the simplest AND the cheapest. If I lived closer to a TriBike Transport drop off I would be tempted to take that route, or if I could be assured that I wouldn’t have to pay $150 both ways on the plane that would tempting as well. I’ve also looked into buying a case that would break my bike down even more to try to avoid airline bike fees, but a new case is about $500 and there’s no guarantee that an airline won’t charge you excess fees, so I wouldn’t necessarily save any money and I’d just get more hassle.
One way this could be even cheaper is if I used bike flights BOTH ways - that would save me another $100. But I’d need to mail my bike out earlier, and I’d have to be sure that someone would be around to sign for it at the other end, both of which I find unnecessarily stressful.
Traveling to races can be stressful and expensive, but hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for how to make it less so!
If you’re like me, then your obligatory post-race routine goes something like this: (1) wait anxiously for the email with your race photos, and when it arrives (2) scan race photos to find all the places on the bike where you’re not as “aero” as you feel like you should be, (3) find the race photos of the athletes who biked faster than you and analyze how aero their bike position is, (4) obsess over the fact that your bike is too big, your helmet too small, your legs too short, your torso too long, (5) feel super crappy about your performance and your future in the sport for a few days, (6) get over yourself. Maybe you even do something really extreme, like take a screenshot of a bunch of photos from a recent race to more easily compare yourself to others (I mean really, who does that?).
Here’s an example where this aero-obsession has recently been really getting to me: aero helmets. It seems like everyone has a Giro Aerohead. Every time I go on Instagram, I feel like I see people wearing these helmets. At every race, I feel like I’m being beat by people wearing these helmets (see the picture above). And for a while, it made me think that I needed to get this helmet if I wanted to improve my time at all on the bike. And that’s regardless of the fact that the difference between the aerohead and the air attack (which is the helmet I have) appears to only be about 10 seconds over a 70.3 race: https://aerogeeks.com/2017/05/30/giro-aerohead-mips-review/ And why would I buy a new helmet when I just bought the air attack last summer, it fits me great, and it’s in fine shape?
If I consider why I get so hung up my whether I’m aerodynamic on the bike, I think it has something to do with the fact that triathlon is one of those sports where it seems like you can buy speed. People say, “free speed!”, but most times this speed isn’t really free because you have to buy new wheels, or a new helmet, or get a new bike fit, which all cost money. I think the idea is that the speed comes with no increase in effort, which is partly why it then becomes easy to obsess about it after a competition. It’s also a lot easier to think about getting faster by changing your position or buying something made out of carbon than to think about how you’re going to put in the work to increase your power or improve your recovery.
Usually getting myself out of this mental loop involves reminding myself that I’m not doing triathlon as a primary profession and I’m in it to improve as an athlete, and none of these “free speed” tricks are going to help me improve as an athlete, although they might improve my results. In the end, I’m not doing triathlon to win all the things but because I truly love competing no matter where I place. I try to focus on the fact that the best way to improve is by refining my training, my recovery, and my mindset - not by buying new things. So at least for now, I’ll be sticking with my tried and true helmet and I’ll be focusing on improving my power on the bike, not just reducing my wind drag.
(photos above are from @yuchennie115's open Facebook album after Eagleman 2019 - an awesome thing for a photographer to do for athletes!)
When I did my first triathlon, I was on a 1980s steel frame road bike with a pannier rack attached (this was my commuter bike, after all). I bought my tri kit on clearance from REI, found a cheap child’s helmet on Amazon (I have a tiny head), and asked for my first wetsuit as a birthday present.
Three years later, my gear has improved (I am very strategic with birthday and holiday presents), but my mindset about triathlon hasn’t. I love the sport, I love competition, and I love getting faster, but I don’t like spending a lot of money, I don’t want to own a lot of stuff, and I certainly don’t want to buy things I don’t need.
While I think it’s true that triathlon quickly becomes a lifestyle - and it’s one that I embrace - I constantly find myself fighting the urge to get better in the sport by buying something or paying a specialist or doing something complicated that I don’t really need to do.
In this blog, I’m going to be sharing my attempt to maintain balance and simplicity while I also pursue big goals in the sport. This is my first year as an elite triathlete racing with my pro card, and I have dreams about how far I can go. If you find yourself seeking similar balance in your triathlon adventure (or you just want to follow along as I do!) then check back here weekly as my goal is to have new reflections to share with you regularly. I’ll be offering thoughts about gear, training, racing, health, and mindset. I hope to hear from you along the way!