The race mechanics to the world’s fastest seem to have a near-perfect job – travel the world; work on bikes; hang out with cycling's biggest names... With this enviable stereotype in mind, we thought we'd take you behind the scenes to show what it takes to turn a wrench at this level and what a day in the life of a pro race mechanic generally involves.
We were given this opportunity at the 2015 Santos Tour Down Under, where Australian Pro-Continental Drapac Professional Cycling outfit invited us into their team car.
The Tour Down Under is generally quite relaxed for mechanics – the stages are relatively short and dry and the home base doesn’t change for the week. With stress levels low, we joined two of Drapac’s well-established and respected mechanics – Jeff Crombie and Jesse Geisler – to see what their working lives entail.
Jeff Crombie is privileged to have a tool named in his honour
Canadian Crombie, originally from Calgary, has recently worked with the likes of Sky and Orica-GreenEdge but started out in bike stores many years ago. If you’re a fan of quality bike tools, the name Crombie may be familiar – with Abbey Bike Tools' cassette tool being named after him.
Jesse Geisler started out in the early-days of professional MTB racing as one of the few specialist technicians
Australian Jesse Geisler comes from a fabrication background, where he takes great pride in being able to create things from a concept. Geisler has been in the Australian cycling industry for more than two decades and runs his own repair and fabrication shop, based in Melbourne, when not wrenching for Drapac.
Work days for Geisler and Crombie start with getting the tyres for all team bikes and spare wheels inflated for the race. From here, team cars are packed, with bikes and spare wheels loaded onto the roof. Key riders are given priority in that their spare bikes are positioned in the quickest to reach spots.
Crombie told BikeRadar that if the mechanics do their jobs and have everything prepared in advance, the job needn’t be high stress – it’s usually just pitching up at the start and helping the team and other staff in general preparation.
A quick fix to a cleat before the stage start
Occasionally this isn’t the case, and sometimes last minute things arise. We experienced this with Martin Kohler wanting his cleats adjusted 10 minutes before the stage start, something Crombie completed without issue.
“If riders wake up feeling a bit sore in the back or something, and know what they want adjusted, then we’ll oblige," he said. "It’s when riders are guessing that it can become a problem and turn stressful for everyone involved in the last minutes before the race or even once the race starts.”
Once the stage starts, there’s one team mechanic (Geisler and Crombie alternate this each day) who joins the Directeur Sportif (sports director) in the main team car.
We sat with Crombie as he worked with Drapac’s DS Tom Southam in closely listening on general race radio for updates of rider mechanicals, riders falling back to feed, pit-stops and general events in the race. Crombie was hands on with finding rider’s overall positioning in races, while Southam decided if the breaks or attacks were threatening and communicating this information over the team race radio.
Crombie may be sitting in the back seat, but he's constantly busy either communicating race information or handing out bottles
This is all happening while Crombie awaits with spare wheels ready, in case of a rider flat. Next to Crombie on the cramped back seat is a large cooler, holding the bottles he hands out to the domestique riders when they drop back.
“You can be the best mechanic in the world, but that isn’t what the job is about," he explained. "The wrenching is just a small part of the daily role.”
Once the stage is over and the bikes are once again loaded onto the team cars and taken back to base (usually the hotel, or the event centre in the case of the Tour Down Under). Here, the mechanics get busy with preparing the bikes for the next day of racing.
Bikes and cars must start the following day spotless
“Cleaning is half the job,” Crombie continued. “Our sponsors are what keep the peloton rolling and they want their product shown in the very best possible way – that means keeping them perfectly clean every day, including the cars."
That cleaning is something Geisler and Crombie take in turns, alternating between wrenching and cleaning every second day. Once the bikes are suitably spotless, they're almost ready to be hung up for the next stage.
First though, we'd see Geisler grab a freshly cleaned bike and bring it to his stand. The bike would be dried with compressed air and a clean rag before being completely checked over.
Checking bolts on a daily basis
We watched Geisler check over every main bolt on each bike, check through the gears, the brakes and carefully inspect the tyres and chains for any signs of damage. If all is well, the chains can be lubed and the bike hung up in storage.
Where a rider is involved in a crash – or has perhaps locked a wheel to avoid one – parts are serviced or replaced. As the wheels are all tubular, they're prepared days in advance, so a flat-spotted or cut tubular is simply swapped with a fresh wheel. The swapped-out wheel has its tubular replaced for future days to come when time allows.
“The idea of opening up bearings and replacing cables every stage comes from the days of Merckx – those bikes would otherwise fall apart," Crombie noted. "These days, the bikes are so good you’re not pulling them apart after each stage or race – it’s mostly about keeping them clean and double checking for any problems that may arise.”
When asked about chain wear, Crombie responded: “Things like chains we replace every 1,000 to 1,500km. Often it’s not about wear, but really because these guys ride cross-chained so often on climbs and the last thing you want is a rider going head first into the ground because of a snapped chain. We’ll replace all the chains after [the Tour]”.
“It’s a hard job – there’s always something to do – and when we’re at events, we really don’t get time to go see the sights," added Crombie. "It’s a bit of a thankless job, especially when you consider that these riders are entrusting their lives in our ability to safely and correctly put their bikes together.”
Crombie and Geisler, like all the other mechanics at the Tour Down Under are clearly passionate about what they do, and hard work seems to be part of the job description.
Click through our gallery above for a photo journal of the day with Drapac, as well as a sneak peek at prototype tools from Jeff Crombie’s bag.