In spite of less-than-ideal preparations for my second triathlon (including a bum back, hot weather and a birthday celebration involving a staggering number of carbs), I had a really fun day. I had a less-than-stellar swim (in which I learned not to take my strong suit for granted!), but still had the fastest swim of my group. My bike felt AWESOME, which I'm so excited about because I've really been training hard for it. And I nearly had a PR—a personal record—in the run, which I'm particularly proud of because the only 5K I've done faster was just a road race, without swimming and/or biking first. Whee!
Turns out I won the run, too. But I ended up second overall because I was second on the bike, 8 minutes behind first place on that one phase, which ate up the 6 minutes of lead I had on her from my good swim and great run. I lost by 2 annoying little minutes.
Out of curiosity, I had a peek at what first place was riding. And sure enough, it was a road bike. For the uninitiated, I ride a hybrid bike, a useful and utilitarian all-purpose bike, with useful and utilitarian all-purpose tires. It's the bike you want to dabble in anything; it's equally functional on- and off-road, which is to say that it's not really all that good at anything. A road bike is lighter, leaner and much, much faster, though it is, of course, less useful when you want to just nab down to the store. And it's much, much more expensive.
To top it all off, as I did when I bought the bike I'm currently on, I'm finding myself really having to put my faith in my professionals. I just don't know enough to know what I like and don't like. When I went to my bike shop (right after the race, to take advantage of the adrenaline high and, accordingly, low impulse control) to look at road bikes, I sat on one and immediately thought, "This is weird." Because it's so different from what I'm riding now, every road bike, from the base model to the Tour De France bikes, is going to feel weird.
It's a lot like being a beginner rider buying a horse.
You start by taking lessons at a riding school, or by borrowing horses from a friend or neighbor or trainer you met somehow or whatever. But at some point, you pretty much have to buy your own. Chances are good that you buy the base model, the useful and utilitarian all-purpose horse, the Quarter Horse or draft cross whose ancestors were bred to be quiet and tolerant, or the older fellow who just doesn't care about your mistakes all that much.
And you learn a ton. You develop a passion for the sport. You get your feet wet at some competitions; you do some fun things. And because you're a beginner person, you keep things in perspective. You pick shows that aren't The Olympics (like, for example, a local triathlon instead of the Ironman). You compete at a level where the expectations aren't so high (like a Sprint distance instead of an Olympic distance), and track your progress in appropriate company (like, for example, caring about where you place in your age group at the triathlon instead of whether you win the whole thing or not.)
And at some point, you outgrow that horse. You learn everything you can from him. And you have a choice to make.
Do you adjust your expectations and goals to the animal, or do you go in search of a new one? Sure, I could keep doing tris on this bike. Frankly, it's a helluva workout, because I'm working twice as hard as everyone else to go as fast. But what if I want to move up a division? What if I want to try a longer-distance race? And what if I'm not satisfied with second place? It's inevitably going to take some money. But if you can afford to do so, you probably shouldn't let your equipment keep you from your goals.
But then how, as a beginner person, just starting down the path to Enough Knowledge To Have An Educated Opinion, do you go to that next equipment step without getting taken to the cleaners? We've all heard the stories, met the people who, sweet and doe-eyed, could be seen coming by the villainous, mustache-twirling horse dealer from a mile away, and spent lord-knows-how-much on the lame, the ill-tempered, the generally unsuitable horse.
This is where you have to trust your professionals.
For me, on my journey to Triathlon Awesomeness, that's The Bike Stop  in Warrenton, Va. A year ago I walked in with my 20-year-old mountain bike, complete with basket on the front, and said something to the effect of, "Hi, I want to do triathlons. Can I do them on this?" And when they could have laughed in my face and said, "Oh noooo, you need a $6k bike, let's pick one out for you, little girl," they instead helped me make a real plan.
We talked about my goals, and they respected my budget and stayed in it. This time around, Will sat down with me and took me through catalogue after catalogue, explaining gear differentials and the quality of derailleurs and the difference in spokes and shifters. All the guys in the shop have taken their time to make me better educated, all without ever making me feel dumb and without pushing me into anything I didn't want to do.
I did my homework before going to them. I looked online, checked out reviews on Yelp, talked to friends who are avid bikers. One such friend, who was briefly a biking pro, came to check out my hybrid when I first brought it home, and after poking around it for a while, declared it to be exactly what I should have done.
I try to give the same advice to horse people. Google the trainer's name. Take everything with a grain of salt—particularly in the realm of the equine professional who specializes in beginners, you're always going to read a review from some doo-doo head who declares on Yelp that the barn is disgusting and the people are awful because they haven't yet figured out that horses are both dirty and expensive in their very natures. (Amazing.) Always, always, always bring a coach you trust with you into the equation. If you meet someone with a horse you really like, ask her where she got him, or who she used to find him.
And in the end, be ready to take a leap of faith.
Remember this, too—just like in bikes, no horse is so fabulous that it can do the dressage test, the hunter course, the cross-country run, by itself. I could buy a $10,000 bike and still be the yutzy girl who occasionally can't clip out fast enough and fall over, turtle-style, still stuck to my pedals. And miracles happen, too. When you've learned a lot and can spot a good one, you just might find a fabulous road bike in disrepair on Craigslist, or go Grand Prix on a non-traditional breed horse. But at this point in my bike career, I'm sticking with Known Quantities, staying as close to a sure thing as I possibly can.
Then I'll train hard, get good coaching, and come next year, I'll blow those 2 tiny minutes away!