Last year I did a couple of cyclocross races and got bitten by the bug. I started shopping for a cyclocross bike in late July because bikes in my small size are few and far between. I was scouring online forums and bike shop web sites for something, anything in my size so that I would be outfitted come race day in September. It was suggested that I visit a certain bike shop in Boulder because it was known to be “the” cyclocross bike shop in the area.
I dedicated an entire afternoon to making the drive up to Boulder with the intention of test riding as many bikes as I could find to fit me. The first (and only) bike that I rode was a Focus Mares CX Disc 105. I rode along South Broadway in Boulder to some open space where I could take the bike on the dirt. Overall the bike felt large and sluggish. I gave this feedback to the sales rep who was helping me. He suggested swapping out the stem so that I would feel less stretched out on the bike. We went to the back of the store where he did this while we chatted.
He asked me to take the bike in a loop around the parking lot before departing for the open space just to get a general sense of whether it felt any better or not. I gave him the thumbs up and once again headed south on the sidewalk parallel to Broadway. I was bunnyhopping, jumping, and generally riding aggressively on the bike as I pedaled alongside the busy road. By the time I reached the tunnel that passes under Broadway, it became evident that there was a problem with the bike. As I entered the tunnel and it became darker, I became very confused about what was happening. I realized that while I was still going straight forward on the bike, the handlebars were turning sideways. I had absolutely no control over the direction this bike was going. I gingerly placed one hand up to run it along the tunnel wall and bring the bike to a stop. As I rolled to a stop in the dark tunnel, six kids came charging through the tunnel as they rode their bikes home from school. I was subjected to bells ringing and verbal reprimands for stopping so foolishly in the dark tunnel, which only added to my confusion and fear.
After dismounting the bike and pushing it back into the light, I was able to confirm what had happened. In swapping out the stem earlier, the sales rep had failed to properly tighten down the headset. All the jumping and aggressive riding I’d done between the tunnel and bike shop had loosened the one bolt that he had tightened. I started the walk back to the bike shop. As I walked by all the obstacles I’d jumped, I wondered how it came to pass that I had not lost control of that bike and veered off into the traffic speeding by on that busy road.
When I finally arrived back at the bike shop, a couple of their team members snickered as I walked by with the bike. I suppose it was quite a sight: me in my loose fitting shorts, t-shirt, and shop-loaned helmet walking a bike with the handlebars turned completely to the side. When I entered the shop, one of the sales reps looked at the bike in horror asking what happened. I rolled the bike toward her and told her I was sent out with a loose headset. As the gravity of that sank in, I retrieved my driver’s license from the sales rep who swapped out the stem. He seemed as appalled as I was by what had happened and took full responsibility for it.
Later that night I received an email from the shop owner inquiring about the situation. He assured me that this incident was the first of its kind at his shops. We exchanged a couple more emails and ultimately he reassured me that he’s ridden for years and nothing has ever stopped him from getting back on a bike. I knew it wouldn’t stop me from riding either. I’ve had too many good experiences on the bike to let one incident like this stop me from riding. I also knew, however, that a most basic level of trust had been violated. The nightmares I’ve had about biking since this incident confirm that it affected me on a very deep level. As I said before, it hasn’t stopped me from riding, but it has stopped me from returning to this shop.