Gentle reader, I need to warn you that I’m a wheel whore and while I’m purporting to argue the merits (or lack thereof) of cyclocross pit bikes, it’s really a flimsy excuse to pander to my whims. So let’s get on to it. I was an early adopter of the conventional wisdom that a pit bike is a good thing. Then I became a tad fanatical when singing its praises. A pit bike means that if you have a mechanical issue you can trade bikes and still finish the race. Additionally, in a muddy race you can swap bikes and get a clean bike for the last few laps – a clear competitive advantage. Being a competitive guy that hates not finishing a race, that sounds like a slam dunk, right?
The reality is a lot less compelling. For most US amateur racers, the pit bike is a bike they picked up used or put together from the parts bin that roughly approximates the setup of the race bike and is a compromise in many respects. It is, in essence, an anti-DNF device. During a hard fought mud fest, are you really going to switch bikes? I’ll walk you through the mental calculus: 1) it’s going to take time to ride into the pit, find your bike, pick it up, and get back on course; b) that pit bike doesn’t feel quite as fast as the race bike; so iv) there’s no effing way I’m going to the pit.
Disclaimer: If you have two well matched bikes, either of which could be the race bike, and a saint to stand in the pits for you, then having a pit bike is a no-brainer. But for the 99%, not so much.
But, you protest, you still don’t want to DNF! Okay, valid point, but I counter by asking what is the number one reason a racer needs a pit bike? Flat. If you have a set of wheels in the pit, you can make a change and be underway pretty quickly. Granted, not as quickly as grabbing a whole new bike but here are just a few reasons why wheels are better than another bike:
1) You can have a set of super fast race wheels and a cheaper training set or just a whole bunch of wheels you have accumulated from Ebay and Craigslist …
2) You can have sets of wheels with different tread choices tailored to different conditions
3) If you tweak a rim you have backups on hand
4) Your spouse is less likely to notice a new set of wheels (or three) than a new bike
Honest to God, the bestest upgrade you can make on your bike – bang for buck – are hoops and rubber. Cut down that rotational weight and each and every of those countless accelerations in a ’cross race are just a little easier. Put on some tires that grip a little better, corner a little faster and that’s less speed to recover on the other side. We’re talking conservation of momentum. I know I’m a little far afield here so let’s bring it back around.
There are other ways to mess up your bike, like ripping off your derailleur hanger. Or even worse, dragging the derailleur into the spokes in the process. But if that happens to you, your best bet is to pack it up and grab a beer. Imagine if it happened twice in the same day – that’s hara-kari time. However, if you simply must have another cyclocross bike I strongly suggest that you make it a single speed. That way you can race two races per day and double your pleasure. And if you can’t quite bring yourself to go single, perhaps consider a monster-cross and hit the trails.
If you are still leaning toward getting a pit bike and you start asking around, you are going to hear all the stories about how a pit bike saved this one dude’s race, or how some poor soul broke his bike on the pre-ride before a huge race and he wouldn’t have even been able to start without the pit bike. Sure, that stuff happens. The real question is how much do you want to spend for that anti-DNF insurance policy? Do you want to haul that bike around to every race? Do you want to do maintenance on that bike as well as your race bike?
Another advantage of the pit bike I’ve heard is that you can use it to pre-ride the course, saving your race bike from needing a cleaning before your start. We all know how congested that one hose way out in the field can at muddy races and not having to spray down your bike after the pre-ride is clearly appealing. But then you are left with a mud encrusted pit bike (less attractive for a bike change) that you are going to have to clean when you get home.
Pit bikes, not all that fantabulous.
While you are here, enjoy some of my short track mountain biking …