Pro maintenance (don’t try this at home)

Monday, 18 April 2011

Imagine a fancy hotel where you return from a ride or race to hand your bike over to mechanic. You could mention a creaking bottom bracket or you maybe you want a different cassette on the back for tomorrow. It’s done, not only that but the bike gets cleaned and even the bar tape looks new. Well that’s exactly what a pro rider gets. Obviously they have a duty to ride the bike to exhaustion and beyond but they can always count on getting the bike fixed.

Cervelo wash

Only I wouldn’t give my bike to a pro team mechanic for an overnight service. Just as a pro rider can be tough on a bike, the same is often true of a pro mechanic. Their job is to get the bike race ready and make sure it’s looking good enough to buy.

The first thing that happens when a rider gives a bike to the mechanic is that it gets cleaned. Prior to that the mechanics will have opened up their service truck and then gone in search of water. Now you might have many tools at home and your local bike shop has a proper workshop with more specialist tools. But every pro mechanic has something special: water keys and hose attachments. Water is essential and locating the local supply is essential, each team has a box of pipe connectors, hoses and rusty keys so they can connect their hoses to any kind of tap, valve or even a fire hydrant regardless of the country they’re in. They’ll also hook up the team bus to the water so the soigneurs can get the kit into the washing machines.

Once the bike is with the mechanic, the first job is cleaning the bike. Most mechanics “paint” the chain and drivetrain with a solvent, even petrol, although many teams these days are sponsored by companies providing more eco-friendly solvents. Either way, the solvent loosens and dissolves anything hanging around. One trick used is old water bottle with the top cut off, this is then put in the bottle cage on the seat tube to provide a ready source of solvent, the mechanic can just dip a brush back and forth between the drivetrain and solvent.

Don’t try this at home
With the dirt under chemical attack, it’s time for a jet wash and the powerful spray of water blasts everything off. It’s possible to clean the chain by this means alone, high pressure can blast the chain clean. If it makes the bike look good, it also lets water infiltrate the wrong places, including inside bearings and on spoke nipples. Obviously the mechanics don’t aim direct at the bearings but the daily process and high pressure means water often gets in. But in the short term the bike is shining. It then gets wiped down with a cloth to remove excess water and stop drying water drops leaving marks.

Felt mechanics

The disassembly line

Depending on whether there’s a problem or not the mechanic will then go about checking the bike. Any crash damage gets fixed, a scuffed saddle gets binned, torn bar tape is removed and replaced. Tubs and tyres should be inspected for cuts and any embedded items picked out. On a hot day any melted tar stuck to the bike will be rubbed off with a solvent.

Different
All this fundamentally changes the way a rider looks at their bike. They can abuse it, smashing the wheels into a hole is ok because they’ve got spares and the mechanics have to get a bike shining for show within no time. It’s now how you should look after your own bike, care needs to be taken to avoid water ingression.

You’ve paid for your equipment and it has to last, many pro bikes get used for three months on the road and then become spares or get used for training. It’s not uncommon to change the chain every couple of weeks, perhaps more if the weather’s been bad.

Responsibility
One detail from Garmin-Cervélo is the mechanics are given responsibility for specific bikes. They “own” the machine and rider is tasked with riding it. But it subtly encourages the mechanic to take more care and to link up with the rider.

Hard job
Riding is hard but the life of a mechanic is not easy. Early starts and late nights are guaranteed when at races and the conditions are not always easy. Whilst everyone is fussing over the riders, the mécanos are outside cleaning bikes and making repairs. During a race day they might be cramped in the back of the car, spare wheels digging into their ribs; or they are driving the truck to the finish, using side roads to avoid the race. Outside of the races, there are hundreds of tubs to glue, TT bikes to set up and more.

Sale
At the end of the season it’s common to find some teams selling their bikes. You might find a bargain but be careful as the bike will have been ridden hard and worked on even harder.

Summary
Pros just have to ride their bikes. But a pro mechanic works differently from a shop mechanic, treating the bikes in a way that suggests they are more disposable. This is not to say they are careless, a mechanic cannot afford to make a mistake as their job can depend on a functioning bike. Rather the lifetime of the bikes they work on are different to those a shop mechanic would work on. That’s only reasonable, the equipment usually comes free from sponsors and the job is hard enough already.

benDE April 18, 2011 at 10:59 am

A side question: As the lifespan of a pro rig is indeed so short is there a danger for the rest of us that would like a bike to last longer? In an interview a nautical engineer charged with designing an America’s Cup yacht was asked, ‘what design life do you try to achieve with your boat’? ‘I design my boat to fall apart the second it crosses the finishline and no later. Anything longer only slows it down’ Any comparison/danger for us weekend riders?

GluteCramp April 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I’d like to say “yes” but, in the world of being sued out of existence by an overzealous american fatty who broke a nail when they fell off their beautiful expensive team bike after it cracked a BB weld because they’re too heavy and can’t steer around potholes, probably not.

Reality is somewhere in between the America’s Cup and the above example. Different manufacturers probably steer closer to one example than the other, but I don’t know enough about the show to know which would be which. I could guess a few, but that would only be my small slice of experience.

Neil April 18, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I regularly use diesel to degrease my chain and block. Take them off and pop them in a half milk carton of diesel for half an hour. Give them the occasional shoogle to get it working. After that drain it off and the components will wipe clean with a rag. Much cheaper than an expensive degreaser and the components won’t rust afterwards if you don’t oil them. Baby wipes to take the scum off the frame after each ride and bob’s your uncle!

Oli Brooke-White April 18, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Great article, and very accurate as always. I’ve never worked for a ProTour team but I learned most of what I’ve used on the teams I have worked for from Kris Withington, the Garmin-Cervelo wrench on the left of your photo. Cheers for the wrench perspective – keep it coming, please!

Larry T. April 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm

BICYCLE MECHANICS by Steve Snowling and Ken Evans ISBN 0880112948 though published way back in 1986, is still quite timely these days. Back then the bucket-method was used for washing the bikes, the pressure-washers came in when Karcher got involved with the TdF, I don’t remember seeing many until that time. The Italian Polti company increased their use as well. They certainly made the mechanics job of keeping the team cars clean every day easier!

ElBeeJay April 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Very accurate description of the way pro mechanics work. Therefore I would never buy (nor recommend, of course) any ol’ friend a bike from the pro ranks. They’re hard riodden, crash marred and even the “substitute” bikes from the roof of the DS cars are totally wrecked by the end of the season because they’re rattled to pieces.

The bikes may look nice, they may be equipped with hi end groupsets, but really you’re better off with a brand new mid range off the peg Focus (or whatever)

The Inner Ring April 18, 2011 at 4:52 pm

benDE/Glutecramp: it depends but most pro material lasts some time, it has to be commercially available and is made for the mass-market, not for one off use. They don’t use fancy carbon parts made in some German guy’s workshop. But it’s the maintenance that ages the bike, plus as ElBeeJay says these bikes go on the roof and at speed, it’s the same as jet-washing. Water gets into parts.

Oli Brooke-White: thanks!

Larry T: he used to be Sean Yates’s mechanic, no? I wonder if the book could be re-released, but these days there are differences, notably all the proprietary parts, from BB30 to Aheadset to even the chain tool. It’s hard to write a summary book.

Alex April 18, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Another good source of “Wrench” stories is the Ask Nick series at Velonews with Nick Legan – http://velonews.competitor.com/author/nlegan

Some questions are a little basic but there are some good insights.

Larry T. April 19, 2011 at 1:26 am

Snowling’s old book’s not much good for specific repair instructions but even today it’s a good look at the life and work of a pro mechanic who looks after the equipment of the pros. I think more has stayed the same vs changed. Most wheels get trued the same way, bikes get washed and serviced pretty much the same way and the organizational methods and mindset required is similar, though perhaps even more complicated today. My tasks “on tour” with our clients in Italy these days are similar, though rather than daily washing and service, our rental bikes (as well as our own machines) and support vehicle(s) get the works done to them weekly. Scott Parr’s “Tales from the Toolbox” ISBN 1884737390 is pretty good too. While being more modern, it lacks much in the photography category compared to Snowling’s.

gildasd April 19, 2011 at 10:11 am

I’ve got 2 ex Garmin bikes (TT and Roubaix) and they are in great condition. Slipstream never sells anything that could come and bite them in the arse latter with bad publicity. Not all the best offers are at the end of the year, you need to check their website form time to time.

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