The Tour's oil-stained, unheralded spanner men

A look at the men who keep the bikes rolling

GHENT, Belgium, July 9, 2007 (AFP) - They might not have the same slick clothes, top salaries, fast cars or attract the same amount of female attention as the cyclists riding the Tour de France.

But a closer look at the men who spend hours slogging over the peloton's bikes - average price 5000 euros apiece - shows that they are really among the unsung heroes of the sport.

Mechanics, like soigneurs (physios), team managers and osteopaths, have a huge role to play in any cycling team. That is especially true afer a multiple-rider high-speed crash like the one seen today on Stage 2 of the Tour as the peloton tore through Ghent. But while they are crucial to their teams, it's far from being a glamourous job.

"It's a great job - if you love cycling," the Milram team's head mechanic, Geert Rombauts, told AFP.

"We get to travel around the world but we're also away from our families quite a lot. It's not easy. Of course, the wife often complains."

On the road, there's no rest for the mechanics - especially when the team has endured a tough day of racing.

"When we had crashes, like we did yesterday, we got back to the hotel and didn't even have time to eat," Predictor-Lotto mechanic Steven Van Olmer told AFP prior to Tuesday's second stage.

"We had a nibble, but nothing substantial. We had to spend most of the night washing the bikes, checking them for damage and making any repairs.

"We had a good look over Robbie McEwen's bike after his crash yesterday (Sunday), but all we had to do was change his handlebar tape."

A late night does not rule out an early start the next day, when it is essential to check the weather forecast.

Rain was on the menu Tuesday as the peloton left Dunkirk for Ghent in Belgium, and more rain is due this week when the peloton ride back into France before gradually making their way to the Alps.

That means adding a special grease to the chains, oiling all the moving parts and making sure that all of the tubular tyres used - Milram has about 70 for their nine-man team for the Tour - are free of debris.

But when the rain pours down, there's little the mechanics can do.

Unlike motorcycling, where wet or dry weather tyres can mean the difference between triumph and disaster, cycling's mechanics stick to a trusted formula.

"We don't really use classic tyres any more, it's tubulars which are glued on," added Rombauts, who like many in his field of work is an ex-amateur rider.

"When it comes to wet weather, all we really do is let a little bit of pressure out.

"Usually the tyres are (pumped up to) nine bar, but when we know it's going to be wet we take them down to eight and a half."

Arnaud Desoeuvre, who works for the Francaise des Jeux team, added:

"Nowadays it's more or less all-weather tyres we use. When it rains, there's not much you can do. The riders are always going to be scared about crashing anyway.

"Some of them will maybe race a little slower, especially when they're going over the white bands in the road, which are really quite dangerous.

"The bottom line is, they're going to have to take risks if they want to win."

In the event of disaster during the race, the mechanics are always ready to jump out the team cars to change wheels whose tyres have been punctured.

On very rare occasions, they have to change a bike too.

"It's not often we change bikes because the frame is broken," added Rombauts, who tends to the bike of top German sprinter Erik Zabel.

"But it does happen. Every rider has a spare bike anyway. Well, except for Zabel. He has three."

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