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The Unsung Heroes of Cycling Ė A Mechanicís Story
By Magpie Latham
Date: 6/30/2005
The Unsung Heroes of Cycling Ė A Mechanicís Story

You have heard the phrase that behind every successful man there is a good woman; well, behind every successful cycling team there is a good mechanic. The Discovery Channel Team is known as a well-oiled professional machine but the smooth running of this team would not be possible without the support of the skilled workers behind the scenes, especially the mechanics who are in charge of all the bikes. I have yet to come across an easy job in cycling, but the mechanic's job is particularly arduous; they start work before the race, work during the race and finish long after the last cyclist has received his massage.

To throw more light on the essential role that is played by the mechanic, I was able to conduct an interview with Alan Buttlar of the Discovery Channel Team after the second stage at the Setmana Catalana in March. The scene outside the hotel was organised chaos, Sean Yates was chatting with the mechanics about the next dayís stage. A thick hose ran from the truck to somewhere in the depths of the hotel lobby to provide a water supply to wash the bikes and to wash the team strip. Some bikes rested against the truck waiting for their spruce up whilst others rested in frames as they were checked over, and one had become debris after an accident. As the loud hissing of pressurised water surrounded the air, a host of bikies surrounded the truck checking each bikeís set up and drooling over every aspect. Inside the truck, one side is lined with racks of wheels and frames and on the other side is a workbench with drawers and the washing machine.

Alan comes from a cycling family: they have had a cycle shop in Long Eaton, Nottingham, for 112 years so in one way it seems he was born to take on the physical challenge of the mechanic's job. His father raced on the track and his uncle also raced on road and track, so unsurprisingly Alan took up cycling and raced on the road, track and time trialing. His uncle Alf Buttlar was a mechanic for the Great Britain squad in the days when the Tour de France was for national teams only, and as a child Alan would go along and help him whenever possible. When he was older he helped out as a marshal or motorbike rider on the British races such as The Milk Race. In 1984 he broke his shoulder, which kept him off his bike; at around the same time the British Cycling Federation found they were stuck for a mechanic and they asked Alan to fill the gap and he has not looked back. Since that time he has worked for the British team at the Olympics, the World Championships and of course he has worked with the most successful Tour de France team ever.

Can you tell me about a typical day in the life of a mechanic, from the time you get up until the time you finish?

The time we get up depends on where the team is competing. Last week at Tirreno-Adriatico the stage starts were always early and often the team needed to travel a distance to the start so I was getting up at 6am. Here at the Setmana Catalana with signing on commencing from about 10.30 and the race start at about 11.30 I donít need to get up until 7am. In France and the more northern European countries in the spring it is darker in the mornings so the starts tend to be later.

What we tend to try and do is have the bikes already prepared from the night before, so in the morning the cars are prepared with the spare bikes and wheels and then we have breakfast at about 8.30am. Normally we have two mechanics on a race, sometimes both are on the race and sometimes one is on the race whilst the other takes the truck to the hotel for that night and gets things prepared for cleaning the bikes after the stage. When both mechanics are on the race, the first mechanic goes from the start to the feed zone and the second mechanic goes from the feed zone until the finish.

How long you spend on preparing the bikes for the next day depends on how bad a day you have had. After the race all the bikes are washed, checked over and oiled, tyres are changed and often the wheels are changed. The amount of work and changes depends on whether the following dayís stage is on a flat course or a mountain course. There are three types of wheels, one for bad weather and two sets of carbons, one for the mountains and one for the flat. This means that you can be changing wheels every day depending on the course and weather. [I now realise why the organisers always supply the teams with a weather forecast for the following day.]

Late arrival at the hotel means a longer working day and it very much depends on the country you are in as to the start and finish times. Today, for example, is good; the hotel is only 500m from the finish and there is not a lot to do to the bikes. Preparing for the race, all has to be done in advance - we try to have the equipment ready tonight for tomorrowís finish, especially if there are to be changes. If we know that we are going to be late at a hotel and itís been bad weather we try to be two days in advance for the changes. So if we are changing from one fabrication to another, alloy to carbon, we try to be a day in front instead of trying to get it all done after the stage and end up working to midnight. It is difficult working late at night as you are tired and when you finish you canít get anything to eat.

Tomorrow the boss, Johan Bruyneel, is coming to the race and there is uncertainty with the weather for the stage and the what sort of wheel we need to use for the very hard climb at the finish. Some guys want climbing wheels, others want the normal alloy wheels, and some want carbon wheels. Then we have a decision to make over whether the guys use a conventional gear system or whether we go to 12/25, so we will let the boss decide. We will be able to see in the morning what the weather is going to be like. At the moment we are using carbon fibre wheels, a new development wheel which is very good, but if it rains we tend to use a wheel which is a bit harder so we go to an alloy wheel, this would mean that we will have to change the brake pads which are especially made for the carbon wheels. Itís easier not to change anything, but in the truck we have got everything we need.

Today we have got a broken frame after Pat McCartyís crash into the medical car on the descent. [I saw the frame with a large crack in it and it is frightening to think that he chose to ride to the finish on it.] Pat is suffering from a concussion and we donít know if he will take the start tomorrow, but we have to build a new bike for him and have it ready. This is why we keep everything in stock on the truck, we have a frame size for every rider and wheels, so we always have back up and also if we have to go straight from one race to another we have everything we need, whichever rider is on the race. [Read our Stage 3 report from the ground here.]

Have you ever run out of anything on a race?

No, never. The equipment we have from the tyre companies is good; we have very few flat tyres. In fact last year at the Tour de France we had four flat tyres on the support vehicles on the race and only two flat tyres on the bikes during the three weeks. So we had more on the cars than on the bikes!

We are very lucky we have very good stock control by our head mechanic in Belgium; he has been in the game for 40 years and was with Eddy Merckx as a mechanic. He knows how to keep and store equipment and tyres so we are never short. Some of the tyres we are using now are two years old and in the Tour de France last year we were using tyres that had been stored for three years, we keep a reserve of tyres if we can for the big important races. We have complete satisfaction from the tyres we use; flat tyres are not a mechanical problem, it is sometimes just hard luck. If we can get a guy from the start in the morning to the finish without problems then the mechanics have done their job. There is nothing you can do about a flat tyre but as a team we have very few mechanical problems as everything is checked thoroughly.

What is life on the road like?

Itís like there are no days, especially when you go from race to race to race, today is stage two not Tuesday. I wasnít meant to be at this race, I was in Italy at Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo and was due to be in Belgium but the race was cancelled due to the bad weather so when the mechanic called in sick I had to come to cover here.

After the race finishes we will drive straight to Belgium without an overnight stop as we have to be at a race on Sunday and after that I will be at a race in France. We will then go back to Belgium to restock the truck and then go down to northern Spain for the Tour of the Basque Country. After that I will go home for six days. We can be on the road from between four to eight weeks. My next stint will be the Tour of Romandie and directly from there to the Giro díItalia, then I may have to stay over to go to the Tour de Suisse in June. So it could be eight weeks before I go home again, then I have a week before we start preparing to go off to the Tour de France.

Do you have to do anything to keep yourself fit?

I try to ride the bike; I normally go on the turbo trainers or go swimming. I damaged my knee two years ago so I had to stop running. The days are long and you are up and down and in and out the truck, lifting suitcases so it is physical work. If you going to the hotel with the truck, after youíve got the team cars ready for the race you help the soigneurs load all the suitcases. When you arrive you take the suitcases out and sometimes you have to carry them up two or three flights of stairs if there are no lifts to the rooms. You are lifting, pulling and pushing all day long so that is good exercise.

How much do the riders get involved with the set up of their bikes?

Very little because at the beginning of the year they have a bike at home and the bikes that they use here on the road are an exact replica. The only time we have a problem is when a rider loses weight and he may need to alter his saddle position to change his position on the bike. A lot of the decisions are made by the team directors as to what equipment and what gears we have to use for the next day. As soon as the race finishes the riders go straight to their rooms for a shower and massage so the riders have to have confidence in us.

Over the years I have worked with Motorola and this team as US Postal and Discovery and we havenít really had any problems. There is always a time when a rider complains, but sometimes they are their own worse enemies; when they have had a bad day they say their position was wrong but itís not their bike, itís their way of dealing with it. It happens in any sport.

There are of course times when a rider crashes and we have to exchange bikes, but I canít remember in the past two or three years when we have had to change a bike because of a mechanical problem. Each rider has a spare bike to his exact set up on the roof of the car, so we have eight or nine bikes on the rack, but if there is a crash or whatever we try to get the bike back on the road working again. There are some riders that like to come and have a look with a tape measure, but it is just to put their minds straight.

Does that happen mainly before an important stage, such as a time trial or a mountain stage?

Sometimes with the younger guys, but the mature guys like Lance and a few of the other guys, they donít, as by the time it comes to the important races the bikes are sorted out. All they have to do is physically come to the race and as they know the bike is going to be perfect they just get on the bike and ride it. If you are a good mechanic there wonít be anything missing or wrong. We are at the top end, we may not be there in all the races but when you look at what we have achieved when we have been there, we are at the top. You donít win six Tours de France without doing something right.

Are some riders more interested in technical innovations, and when trying something new, does the whole team try it or just one or two riders?

Yes, some riders have more interest in new things than others. There arenít many new things coming along now, that is the problem, and some of the new developments arenít any good. Someone was telling us the other week that a German guy has developed a bike that is only 4.5 kg out of carbon fibre but as the UCI limit is 6.75 kg this bike would be illegal. As the bikes are reaching the limit of where they can be improved, it is now down to the rider to find ways of improving his performance.

What do you think of Trek bikes?

They are very good. Since Iíve been with the team we have never had any problems with them. The only time we have a problem with the bike is when somebody crashes. The incident today when Pat McCarty hit the doctorís car at high speed on the descent was exceptional. I could hear a clicking noise from the car as he was riding afterwards to the finish. With my knowledge of track and working in the cycle trade for over 30 years with mountain bikes the development that has come in with carbon fibre bikes and the progress that has been made, working with Lance in mind, the bike we have is one of the lightest with all the carbon fibre equipment.

The mechanics will always say we can make a light bike, but will it be safe? At the end of the day we in this team can say that when our guys go down a hill, whether it's a small guy, a tall guy, heavy or light, we know that they are going to get down the hill straight. We have no worries about them wobbling around on a very light frame. The riders never complain that their bike is too heavy and when you get a rider who doesnít say anything, that is good.

What is the best thing about your job, and the worst?

The worst thing is the weather. I was lucky enough to be in Italy last week but when you are standing in the snow working and cleaning bikes you think, what the hell am I doing here? Or if itís raining and youíve got a wet suit on with boots and you are washing bikes in the rain and you think, what the hell am I doing here? I shouldnít be doing this. This is crazy. Also cleaning bikes after a long and dirty day when youíve tried your best and itís dark, then in the morning you think, did I clean this bike?

The best things are that you meet a lot of very nice people from all over the place; you stay in some very nice hotels. We have a very good team spirit and we have a laugh. You can get annoyed with a guy some days but you have to let it go and get on with the work and laugh it off. We have a very good atmosphere between both the teams; we have the climbing team doing this race and at the moment the other team is the Classics squad. Then we all join together for the Tour de France and work as one unit.

As in all jobs you have good times and bad times, but you get on and do your job. The worst things are the hours and the travelling. Most people donít understand how difficult some days are - take last year, we had one stage in the Tour de France that was 180 km, but to take the truck to the next hotel we had to do 402 km because it was in the middle of the Pyrenees and you canít take the truck over the mountains. So we had to take the auto routes and go in a circle to get there, also you canít speed in a truck of that size. I think the Tour de France was something like 3,800 km and despite having a few days in the same hotel we did over 5,000 km in the truck.

When you come out of the Tour de France you are shattered. Last year after the finish on the Sunday we spent a day of preparation on the Monday and we were at another race in Belgium on the Tuesday night. After we finished in Belgium on the Friday we went to Germany for a World Cup race and then we went on to Denmark for a race and then on to yet another race before I could get home. I was away about eight and a half weeks in total. While you are on the go you can cope, itís when you stop you realise how tired you are, when I get home for three days I am totally empty.

It is a life of literally living out of a suitcase, we have our own laundry in the truck so we just have a few changes of clothes and thatís it. I canít remember when I last unpacked my suitcase. I get a new suitcase in January and I donít take it home until October, in between it stays in the warehouse in Belgium where we have rooms. Sometimes in the Tour de France we can be in a hotel for up to five days so I may hang some clothes up. It is strange - after two days you feel like you should be moving; I never feel like we have started until we do our first move.

So dear reader, if you are unemployed, have nomadic tendencies, enjoy driving long distances, delight in all types of weather, are indifferent about eating and shake your fist at sleep, or are just plain masochistic, I know just the job for you...

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