Strong and skillful athletes who lack mechanical knowledge risk losing their investment in time, effort and money when they are unable to diagnose and repair what may be only minor problems with their equipment. If they reach a high enough level a support staff will be provided. But the rest of them have to depend on luck and the benevolence of strangers.
I do work for one triathlete who is a great person and a fierce competitor, but not well-versed in the mechanical side of things. As long as transportation is as simple as putting the bike on a rack and driving to the race site, preparing the bike is fairly simple. But she just went to St. Croix, which involved air transport. The bike had to be put in a travel case, which required some disassembly. It was a serious test of my shifter noodle arrangement for the cable housings going into the head tube cable stops.
My friend texted me the morning before the race to say she was not able to get her lowest gear. The problem could have been any number of things as a result of the removal and replacement of the handlebars and the resulting disruption of the cables, even though they were not disconnected from the derailleurs. Or it could have been an issue with the change from daily wheels to race day wheels, although we had tried to iron that out. If anything was going to go from ironed to wrinkled it was bound to happen when she was thousands of miles away on some island, right?
The last message she sent me said that she had found tech support and gotten the gears satisfactorily adjusted. That was still the day before the race. Then I heard nothing.
The fact that she didn't contact me right away after the race indicated she did not have triumphant news. When she did finally call, she told me that for some weird reason she had been unable to shift into the big chainring during the race itself, even though the bike seemed to be working fine the afternoon before. I told her to get it to me immediately.
My nightmare was that somehow my unorthodox cable arrangement had not been as brilliant as it had looked to me and that its collapse had kept her from being able to shift into the big meat once she got to the top of the nasty climb that had made her focus on the lowest gear.
When I finally got a look at the bike the cables were oddly tangled at the head tube, but that turned out to be an illusion because the housings had been pulled, tucked and gathered in all the bike's travels in a way that was easily smoothed back into its intended configuration. But when I pulled the front shifter it would not move at all.
I looked for kinks or places the cable could be snagged. There were none. I tried to move the front derailleur cage by hand. It would not move at all. When I disconnected the cable the cage still would not move. It wasn't jammed on the chainring, as would happen if it had slipped down the seat tube. It was correctly aligned and not bent.
Someone had screwed the limit screws all the way in, blocking out the big ring. This cannot happen by accident. She would not have done it in a misguided attempt to fix the shifting. It had to have been done while the bike was racked in the first transition area.
When I told her she had been sabotaged she said, "Oh, yeah. That stuff happens all the time. Some of these people are really serious about this."
I did a web search on it. In the first page of results I found a forum thread about all the bad practical jokes and sleazy tricks triathletes had experienced at the hands of their fellow competitors. I didn't bother to look further. The information I found confirmed that it's a fairly common phenomenon. Apparently, competition brings out the worst in a few people. The things they do to each other's equipment in transition areas must seem really clever to them. Basically, whoever did this to my friend stole the money she spent on air fare, accommodations and entry fees and robbed her of the irreplaceable time she put into training. They must be very proud.
Personally I avoid competitive events for a host of reasons, but I won't discourage people who feel they still want to try them. I like to do things in my own time, at my own pace, without a lot of other people's personalty problems involved. When someone's sleazery can totally nullify all your best efforts, whether it's by hooking you into a parking meter in a crit or slashing your tires or having teammates block you when you have no allies of your own you have to ask what the whole event is worth in time and aggravation. I really enjoy my utilitarian cycling and aimless rambles, going fast when the mood strikes and enjoying the scenery the rest of the time. But I'm a classic underachiever. The fact that I might underachieve for six hours in the saddle and rack up a hundred miles in the process doesn't alter the utterly frivolous basis of the endeavor.
I'm a big advocate of that kind of frivolity. I keep hoping a large number of people will suddenly notice the small number of us who are out there having fun not hurting anybody, and think it looks like something they want to do, too. Any number can play.
Some people have a lot of trouble absorbing mechanical concepts. They have other strengths to share. My friend might never be able to get herself out of a jam. There are a lot of little variables, so no one can memorize each separate solution. And I don't think the ability to analyze a mechanical problem can be taught to any- and everyone. It seems to elude some people forever. As I said, they have other strengths.
I'll go to races as tech support if anyone wants to pay my way.