Unsung mechanics toil to keep riders in top gear

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am
 

It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. Perry Moerman has been at it for 20 years on the professional cycling tour, serving star riders past and present such as Erik Zabel and Mark Cavendish.

Behind the glitz and glamour of the Tour de France, the 50-year-old mechanic for the Astana team chugs away quietly at a daily work routine that begins hours before the riders get flagged-off and ends well after the stage is done.

For the Belgian from Flanders who once aspired to be a top-level cyclist, it's a dream job. 'It's the second best thing you can do on the Tour if you fail as a rider,' he says.

Mechanics are an integral part of every team, much like the pit crew of a Formula One outfit. They ensure glitch-free operation of the machines that riders use to propel themselves to the finish line, and, on a good day, victory.

Chris Horner, an American cyclist with Radioshack-Nissan, says mechanics are a 'huge' part of the team's success. 'The bike has to work and it has to work perfectly. So you've got to have good mechanics to keep the bike functioning correctly and keep us in the right place.'

On stage 10 on Wednesday, a gear-shifting problem with Horner's bike on the tough climb up the 17.4km long, 1,501-metre high Col du Grand Colombier meant he had to ride his big chain ring to the top. 'The amount of energy I had to expend was enormous to stay with the front group and all that energy was spent because of a bike problem and not because of legs or anything like that. So yes, [the part that mechanics play] is huge,' Horner said.

A typical work day for a mechanic at the Tour de France begins at about 7.30am. The bicycles are prepped for the day's stage, Tyres are pumped. Nine bikes, one for each team rider, are loaded on to the team bus; 16 spare bikes, along with food and drink supplies, are loaded on to two team cars that follow behind the peloton during the race. Everything is then driven to the start, which could be a town or two away.

The team usually arrive at the site about two hours before the race is flagged off, which is typically around noon. Here, mechanics - each team usually have about three or four - are on standby should any bike need tuning or fixing.

After the race begins, the mechanics hop into the team's two cars that follow the peloton. A crash, puncture or mechanical problem along the way may call for a change of bikes within seconds. 'We plan for everything so that when it does happen we already know how to handle it and we can work quickly and calmly,' says Ian Sherburne, 42, a mechanic with the BMC team since 2007.

Once the race is over, usually at about 5pm, the team drive to the hotel. While the riders eat, rest and recover, the mechanics begin washing and servicing the bicycles. Tyres are changed every second day; handlebar tape every third or fourth. Post-race work takes about three hours.

Work for the day wraps up at about 9pm. Despite reeking of degreaser, oil and sweat, it's usually straight to dinner. 'The advantage is everyone smells, so it doesn't matter,' says Moerman.

The toughest part of the day, says Inaki Goiburu, 32, a mechanic with Orica GreenEdge, is ironically when he's off his feet: sitting in the car following the peloton for five or six hours straight. 'I'd rather be riding the Tour,' says the Spaniard.

At the professional tour level - the apex of competitive cycling - this daily routine repeats over three weeks for the Grand Tours in France, Italy and Spain; up to a week at the smaller tours, and then there are the one-day classics and other races.

This schedule puts mechanics on the road for about 200-250 days a year. But the chance to travel and see the world is one of the attractions of the job. 'I get to see a lot of the world,' says Moerman. 'And someone else pays.'

Sherburne, who has been a mechanic since 1990, says: '[This lifestyle of] not being in one place for long - you get tired of it and miss it at the same time.'

A pro tour team mechanic earns Euro50,000-Euro60,000 a year, and unlike in the peloton, there isn't really a 'star' mechanic, says Moerman. 'Every [pro tour] mechanic is at the same technical level. But another big thing is how you get along with your colleagues. The job demands good social skills.'

With all that time spent together on the road, the team inevitably become family. Everything is done as one body. When a cyclist wins, it is a victory for the other team members and support staff, too.

'The job satisfaction is working with people who are the best at what they do,' says Sherburne. 'The staff is like a big family - we have a glass of wine together at the end of each day. When Cadel [Evans] won the Tour last year, we all felt like we won it, too. It's a group effort, there's no way one person even as strong as Cadel can do it alone.'

If you're dreaming of joining the pro tour ranks as a mechanic, the best way to start is by experimenting on your own bike and then working your way up, starting at a bike shop or a club team.

'It also helps to know the riders and team managers,' says Moerman. He started with Team Stuttgart in 1993 and stayed on with the same team (though their name changed from Telekom to T-Mobile to HTC) until last year when HTC-Highroad dissolved owing to the lack of sponsorship. Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov, leader of the Astana team whom Moerman had worked with at T-Mobile, offered him the Astana job.

'It's not easy to get into the world [of the pro tour], but once you're in there you're set,' says Sherburne, a native of Santa Rosa, California. He says he 'was in the right place at the right time' and got his big break as a mechanic for the US national team based in Colorado Springs.

Once you're in the big league, life as a mechanic actually gets easier. Says Moerman: 'In a big team, we have a bigger budget and sponsors, so we hardly repair - we replace. For example, if someone has a problem with shifting, we just screw off the rear derailleur and replace it. In a small team, you would have to learn how to fix it.'

But what never gets easier is sacrificing personal life for the job. Moerman's girlfriend last week gave birth to their first child - and for the first time the Belgian is considering getting an office job, such as working at the Astana base in Nice, France.

Goiburu doesn't see himself on the road for long: 'I had a girlfriend for 10 years but she left me - maybe this job is the reason.' Sherburne had 'retired' from the pro tour and worked in a bike shop between 2003 and 2007 to spend more time with his then-girlfriend. His return to the tour coincided with the couple splitting up. 'I'm looking to work in the office more,' he says. 'My [current] girlfriend sees me more on Twitter.'

Interestingly, when the mechanics are not on tour, they say they spend their spare time riding - what else - bicycles.

Tools of the trade

The team truck is a mobile workshop that is part of each team's motor entourage. A typical truck has:

5 bikes per person (3 road bikes, 2 time trial bikes)

120 pairs of wheels (including those on the bikes) - mixture of wheels for all terrain and races

15 spare groupsets

12 spare frames of various sizes

100 tubular tyres

Other spares: cables, brake pads and tools

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