There’s no getting around it, cyclocross is a dirty sport. Course conditions that are described as ‘epic’ are often despised during a race and then remembered with increasing fondness as time goes by. At least, that’s the only logical explanation we can think of why anyone would repeatedly subject perfectly good bicycles to the mud, sand and grass that conspire to ruin them.
If you’re ever asked to work a pit for a friend, here are 10 tips to help you make sure you do it right.
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1. Practice makes perfect
Meet with your rider prior to race day to practice hand-offs. Just like mastering barriers and run-ups, handing off a bike is a skill that is honed with repetition. “It’s usually pretty hectic in there,” said former Cannondale/Cyclocrossworld.com and LUNA team mechanic Dusty Labarr. “In the bigger races there are a lot of guys [in the pit area]. The more practice you can get of getting a bike to the rider and the rider getting off the bike, the better off both of you will be.”
Brian Dallas, former field operations manager for WD-40’s race support team, agrees. “It is important to move with your rider when they are grabbing the bike and not stand still. Best to hold the bike by the saddle with your left hand and the right shifter with your right. When the rider is close to grabbing on, release the right hand and lightly push forward with saddle so as to continue forward momentum. Jeremy Powers and Tom Hopper practice bike exchanges before every race to get it dialed,” he said.
2. Time is finite
Remember that you are working under a tight schedule. The most common mistake Dallas sees at races is mechanics not paying attention and missing their rider when they’re coming through for a bike swap.
Carry a stopwatch and keep track of how long it takes your rider to do a lap. You may have as little as seven to 10 minutes to prep a bike to go back on course. If the racer is on course longer than expected it is very likely they will need a spare bike when they come around.
3. Communication is key
“You have to make sure the rider can hear you, between the announcers and pressure washers it gets pretty loud, you need to know if the bike’s dirty but mechanically sound, or if there’s something specific that you need to repair,” said Labarr.
4. Have the tools of the trade
Trek Factory Racing mechanic Matt Opperman recommends that pit crews carry a wash bucket (filled with de-icer or windshield washer fluid if below freezing), spray lubricant for ease of application, a floor pump or a handheld air compressor, a pressure gauge, multi-tool, a stiff-bristled brush to remove grass from the cassette and chainrings, and a flask filled with quality whisky.
Dallas recommends carrying a cable cutter, spare chain, extra shift cables and housing, a derailleur hanger, electrical tape, several clean rags, chain lube, tire sealant, and screwdrivers.
5. Dress the part
You’re going to be standing in the muck for at least an hour. Wear warm, water-resistant clothing. Waterproof boots are a must — the pits are often muddier than the course, thanks to the power washers. Opperman recommends against wearing gloves, as you’re more likely to fumble about while making a repair.
6. Powerwashing etiquette
There’s not a lot of finesse that goes into power washing a bike during a race. “You need to get it done as fast as possible; it does not really matter what you spray as long as the critical parts like the drivetrain, brakes and controls are free of mud. You can rebuild the bike after the race,” Opperman said.
“I have seen mechanics take two minutes washing their rider’s bikes. The longest it should take is 30-45 seconds. At the World Championships in Louisville the WD-40 Tech Team were averaging 15 seconds per bike,” added Dallas.
That said, Opperman recommends against power washing with reckless abandoned toward your fellow pit workers. “Try not to run people over or step on others' stuff. When operating the power washer, don’t spray the guy next to you or blow mud all over their clean bike — watch where you point the thing!”
It’s best to work from front to back and top to bottom. Make sure all the contact points — shifters, handlebar, pedals, and saddle — are clean and free from debris.
If you’re working from a bucket, or don’t have access to a power washer, focus on the drivetrain and contact points. “Try to get the bars, seat and the top tube — anywhere where they’re going to be grabbing the bike dried off and clean,” says Labarr.
7. Inspect and assess
After washing, but before the bike is ready to go back on course, check for flats and sidewall tears, make sure the handlebar and saddle are straight, lube the chain and go through the gears to make sure the bike is shifting smoothly. Look for signs of dirt or grass in the shifters, flush out any debris too and ensure they’re functioning properly.
8. Stay calm and carry on
You, your fellow pit workers and certainly all the racers are working under stress.The biggest mistake Opperman sees in the pits are mechanics losing their cool, getting flustered and making stupid mistakes. “Be prepared and have a game plan with your rider if things go wrong so it is not compounded in the pits.”
9. Sweat the details
Last but not least, go through a final 'pre-flight check' before the bike goes out on course. If you disconnected the straddle cable to clear debris or to swap wheels make sure it is reconnected. Go through the gears one last time to ensure the bike shifts smoothly. Opperman recommends making sure the bike is in a usable gearing: “Usually the big ring and upper part of the cassette, with the left crankarm forward so the rider can jump right on it.”
10. The real work begins when the race is over
If you’re not responsible for the bikes once the race is over be sure the person who is knows about anything you found that needs to be adjusted or replaced.
If you are responsible for making sure the bikes are in working order, go through each one with a fine-toothed comb. Start from the front of the bike and work your way back: check the tires for cuts or abrasions, if running tubulars check the integrity of the glue; examine the brake pads for wear and replace if needed; check the wheels for trueness; replace handlebar tape if damaged or too grimy to save; inspect the frame for damage; make sure the derailleur hanger is straight; run through the gears and replace cables and housing as needed. Bearings may need to be replaced after heinously muddy races, but according to Opperman, more often than not popping off the seals, cleaning and relubing them will do the trick.