Never Scratch: How to Deal With Race-Ending Mechanicals
Ride your bike for long enough and eventually you’ll encounter a ride-ending mechanical. Shifters break, cables fray and gear hangers snap. No matter how prepared you are, it’s impossible to carry enough gear to deal with every possible mechanical and at some point, you’ll have to choose between scratching and digging deep to finish your ride by any means possible. Here Ulrich Bartholmoes tells us how he went from race-ending mechanical to winning Transiberica and offers his tips on how to deal with disaster on the road.
Ulrich’s mid-race issues were foreshadowed by a run of bad luck before the race even began, breaking his rear derailleur, five carbon spokes and his seat post before he had even reached the start line. He tells us “I’ve never had so much break in a row since I don’t know when. It stressed me out completely. I even thought it was a sign that I should not go on this ride.”. But, never one to give up in the face of a challenge, Ulrich cleaned everything up, did his best to fix everything and took faith in the fact that nothing had broken in thousands of kilometres, so would likely be fine for thousands more. “On the start line I was still nervous and handling my bike like a raw egg, but I got back confidence with every kilometre and every hour”.
As the race progressed, everything was going to plan and Ulrich built up a strong lead until suddenly his rear derailleur failed again on one of the most remote sections of the race (over 60km by car from the nearest bike shop). He wonders if the replacement derailleur that he’d transferred his oversized pulley wheels to was the cause – maybe the cage was slightly bent from the previous failure, causing stress on the new one.
Either way, he was stuck in the middle of nowhere with an unrideable bike. Once the shock had passed, Ulrich calmed down and started working on a plan to get out of trouble. The plan was simple – he removed the derailleur so he could push the bike without doing further damage and walked until he found a car and could ask for help. Incredibly, he was offered a place to stay, a shower and a hot meal! “It turns out if you are in serious trouble and ask for help, people will recognize that and most probably they will help you out with even those most basic things.”.
Safe, fed and rested, Ulrich spent the following morning organizing a taxi to the next town (not easy in such a remote place) and found a bike shop. They had no spares but split his chain so he could ride single speed. Just as he was planning to take a train to Madrid to try his luck there, the local Merida store called him back to tell him they had found a replacement. “I never thought I would have that much luck! They mounted it, I continued, and I decided not just to ride, but to race like hell to see if I could claim victory – and so I did!”.
It’s truly one of the standout performances of the 2021 racing season – a display of grit and determination that reminds us all how these races can test us and how the right approach can see adversity turned into victory. That approach is simple – in Ulrich’s own words: “never scratch. Even if it looks like there is no way out, don’t do it until you know for sure.”.
Ulrich’s words ring true for racing, but his approach and advice applies to bikepacking and long rides in general. “Why scratch if you might be able to finish somehow?”. Ending a ride prematurely means you’re guaranteed to miss out, whereas staying calm and doing everything in your power to continue can see your race, holiday or ride brought back from the brink and transformed into something far more interesting than a long train ride home.
Ulrich tells us that the first thing to do is to take care of yourself and make sure you’re safe. After you have a place for the night and have eaten, you can start thinking about the bike. Second, inform your loved ones and let them know that everything is ok. “I called my wife and told her what happened then also told Carlos, the organizer because they would worry if they saw my tracker stop for more than 12 hours.”.
Ulrich also recommends remaining calm – “things will not get any better if you shout! Try to find a clear mind for the real problem that has to be solved. Exclude emotions just focus on options.”. This is something Ulrich excels at. Besides loving ultradistance cycling, he runs a company offering IT consultancy for large corporates, who he tells us only call if they have serious problems, so he’s used to high-pressure problem solving!
Next Ulrich recommends having a clear goal. His was to get back to Bilbao on the bike. “Why scratch if you can still finish? I mean, even if it takes you 20 days, you can still finish. Your vacation doesn’t suddenly end early because your bike is broken. There is a solution for every problem, you just need the will to solve it. If you are looking for an excuse not to finish, you won’t finish. If you want to show yourself and others what is possible, then here is your chance!”. He recommends breaking things down – first, find a spot for the night. Then food. Later, find a way to the next town, then the right bike shop. Don’t try to solve everything at once, but piece by piece.
Remaining calm also means taking the chance to relax and have a good time when you’re forced to stop. “I was sitting with the people that rescued me having dinner, drinking beer and having a good time. You will not fix the problem during the night in the middle of nowhere… so don’t try!”. Ulrich got a good eight hours of sleep and used nearly half of his time out of the race just for recovery and it certainly did him no harm when he got back on the road and made up for lost time.
Ulrich sums up his experience and advice simply: “if your race goes wrong you may be exhausted, sleep deprived, stressed and other things. This does not make it easier. Keep calm. Try to find a structured way to think about possible solutions. Take your time – you will not solve this within minutes, but if you act wisely, you’re much more likely to fix it.”.