happy 10th birthday, lightning mcqueen

When I went home for spring break my freshman year of college, I begged my parents to buy me a road bike. I had spent the previous several weeks training for a race on campus, riding not-well-maintained road bike owned by my sorority. Just before the break, I rode it outside for the first time, and I knew I wanted more of it.

I spent the week at home researching road bikes and places nearby that sold them. Before looking into it, I had no clue how much road bikes cost, and I was shocked to see entry level models with price tags in the high hundreds. I had never bought a bike before, but I’d seen them on display at stores like Target and Sports Authority, where I recalled seeing prices in the $150-$300 range.

I think that’s what my parents were used to, too. Their point of reference for an expensive bike was the Schwinn my dad bought himself in 1974 for about $100. (A bit more than $400 in today’s dollars — and for the record, that 48-year-old whip is still around.)

After days of research and an afternoon of in-person comparison shopping, my favorite was a 2006 Specialized Allez triple — $714. Bike geeks won’t think that’s expensive, but it blew my mind.

When my dad told the salesman we would purchase it, he turned to me and said, “You’re going to ride this for the next 20 years, right?” I couldn’t assure him fast enough: “Yes, absolutely.” Later, when I tried to figure out how to get it in the trunk of my car so I could drive it back to school, I started crying. I was afraid of damaging the best gift I’d ever gotten, my most valuable possession. It meant so much to me.

It still does, 10 years later.

It’s not the fanciest bike, but that’s never mattered to me. In fact, that’s always made me love it more. I’m proud to tell people I raced on it for eight years, and I’ve always loved the looks I get in response.

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That’s me on the right, racing my brand-new bike in the 2008 DePauw University Little 5 bicycle race. 

I don’t remember when exactly, but one summer I ended up with a small beach towel with the Cars character Lightning McQueen on it, and I started bringing it with me to triathlons. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Lightning McQueen is a young and eager race car who just wants to go fast, even though he’s not the flashiest car. He’s so low-end, his headlights aren’t even real — they’re stickers. The underdog character made me think a lot about me and my simple bicycle, so I started calling it Lightning McQueen.

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My transition area at a 2015 triathlon, featuring the Lightning McQueen towel.

And like any good, young underdog, Lightning McQueen and I were pretty awkward together early on. At my first college road race, I hadn’t yet mastered shifting, so halfway through muscling up a steep climb, I couldn’t propel us forward, and we fell over into a bush of burrs. At my first college criterium, we raced to the front of the pack, eager to prove ourselves after the burr incident — only to go off course, get lost and get DQ’d for cutting the course.

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A collegiate race where I did *not* fall into a bush of burrs or go off course. [photo: Mama DiGang]

Eventually, we got the hang of it, spending many hours among the cornfield-lined country roads of central Indiana. Then we took on the hills and cyclists’ paradise of Portland, Oregon, taking on a triathlon for the first time that summer in Washington. We’ve gone on adventures together in 10 states, in small towns and big cities. Chicago. New York. Indianapolis. Greencastle. Gainesville. Greensboro.

I raced 23 triathlons on Lightning McQueen, including five national championships. With borrowed aero bars clipped to Lightning’s handle bars, I won my first age group award — together, we’ve won 12. Not too shabby for a simple machine.

We’ve shared plenty of ass-kickings together, too. And we still have awkward moments, like the time I fell over during a bike handling skills clinic, at which point I had been cycling seriously for seven years.

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My patched-up leg post skills-clinic tumble. [If anyone knows who to credit for the photo, please tell me.]

But my favorite ride on Lightning came in 2015 at the ITU Age Group Grand Finals in Chicago. It’s hard to not feel intimidated by everyone else’s fancy gear, especially at such a world championship race, but I had qualified on Lightning, so I had to keep reminding myself that we belonged there. My seven-year-old, entry-level steed and I snagged a PR that day (and beat 75% of the bike times in my age group).

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Proof a fancy bike isn’t necessary to do well in triathlon. (Age group worlds 2015.) [photo: Mama DiGang]

People have told me I’m due for an upgrade, that I deserve to ride something nicer. I’m in no rush.

While I bought myself a TT bike last year, I still ride Lightning McQueen all the time, and I plan to continue doing so. So far, we’ve ridden about 5,100 miles together. And sure, I’ll probably get a nicer road bike at some point, but as long as Lightning stays safe and sturdy, I don’t need to. I’m just as serious a cyclist as the people riding bikes 10 times as expensive as mine. It’s not about price or components. It’s about the joy of riding a bike and everything riding a bike has given me.

Plus, I promised my parents 20 years — we’re only halfway there.

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Me and Lightning McQueen on the Queensboro Bridge after a celebratory 10th birthday ride. [photo: Christine Meyer]
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