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by James Huang
June 16, 2016
Photography by James Huang
At any given bike race, the riders are invariably the stars of the show. They’re the ones who are competing against one another, it’s their names that are on the results sheet, and it’s them that the spectators have come to watch. But behind the scenes is an entire infrastructure of support staff. For them, the hallmark of a job well done is invisibility; attention is often only directed their way when something has gone awry. But without them, there is no race at all.
It’s 10am on the day before the start of the Tour de Suisse, and I’m standing in a hotel parking lot packed with wildly customized buses and box trucks. The teams aren’t scheduled to head out for their training rides for another hour or so, but the area is already buzzing with activity. Bikes are being prepped, for the day’s ride and the prologue the following day. Bottles are being filled. Rain bags are tossed into the back of team vehicles.
The riders eventually stream out of the hotel, all sporting the seemingly requisite dress code of socks and flip-flops. They chit-chat briefly with the mechanics and soigneurs, share a few jokes — they are all friends, after all — and then strap on their helmets and shoes, do their own final checks, and head out for a couple of hours of easy pedaling on the country roads of Switzerland.
The riders may have gone, but it’s hardly idle time for the rest of the team. Soigneurs are scrambling inside the hotel with a variety of tasks, which always involves laundry — so, so much laundry. Out in the parking lot, the mechanics are seemingly even busier than before, taking the opportunity to get some of the bigger tasks done with two precious, undisturbed hours.
Wheels and tires are glued up in assembly-line fashion, with water bottles and pastry brushes repurposed to speed up the task. Over at the FDJ area, mechanic Karl Guillois is set up behind the team bus with little more than an expansive field of grass and trees as his background to distract him as he transfers a Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 groupset on to a fresh Lapierre Xelius frame.
FDJ mechanic Karl Guillois stores small parts in cigarette and cigar tins; no, he doesn’t smoke.
Lotto-Soudal mechanic Frederik Moons isn’t working with bikes at all at the moment. Instead, he’s trying to fix one of the countless cords that teams use to feed electricity from the hotel mains. The bikes may be human-powered, but nearly all of them now have batteries that need recharging. The mechanics’ pressure washers need a steady diet of electrons, too, as do the washing machines and refrigerators found inside every team truck.
Mechanics for top-end teams differ from shop mechanics in a lot of ways, and one benefit is having a tool sponsor. BMC Racing is supplied by Park Tool, for example, Lotto-Soudal by Zebra, Orica-GreenEdge by Beta, and Sky by Unior. Mechanics’ cases are meticulously packed and strikingly color-coordinated with an array of tools that would make many brick-and-mortar shops envious.
Orica-GreenEdge mechanic Xabi Remon Arana gives this custom-etched Abbey Bike Tools Crombie cassette tool a regular workout. Beta is the official team tool sponsor, and the mechanics’ area was certainly awash in orange.
That said, few of these mechanics are new at the game, so they invariably have a few non-sponsor favorites they still travel with — some purchased, some made by hand. Guillois has a nifty 2mm T-handle he made from an old multi-tool; Moons repurposed a worn-out driver into a pick for digging out tire debris. Orica-GreenEdge mechanic Craig Geater has a titanium hammer from Abbey Bike Tools that helped him get his small case down to sub-5kg, while colleague Xabi Remon Arana has five different torque wrenches at his disposal.
Eventually, the riders return. They unclip from their pedals and hobble back into the hotel where a massage and specially prepared lunch await. Outside, though, the stream of riders funneling back into the parking lot means just one thing for the mechanics: time to wash the bikes.
Lunch for them will come later.
While your office may be the same week after week and month after month, pro mechanics find themselves in a new setting almost daily. Wherever the truck goes, they go.
All of the big teams have a number of customized vehicles. Race fans are used to seeing the big team buses that the riders travel in, but this is home for the mechanics and soigneurs.
Even the team buses serve multiple purposes. In addition to transporting the riders, they also house equipment for the mechanics and soigneurs.
Soigneurs are constantly doing laundry, and these machines get worked hard.
Every team truck has two requirements: water and electricity, and lots of both.
A gentle reminder that while team support staff often get to enjoy working in the great outdoors, it’s not always warm and sunny.
The Lotto NL-Jumbo team is apparently quite fond of cherry juice.
An on-board compressor speeds up the task of inflating tires.
FDJ mechanic Karl Guillois worked in his own quiet corner of the hotel parking lot.
The life of a team mechanic isn’t exactly glamorous but it still beats sitting at a desk, no?
This frameset will be built up in rapid fashion.
Preset torque wrenches certainly speed up a day’s work.
FDJ mechanic Karl Guillois made this 2mm T-handle himself from a salvaged multi-tool, a section of threaded rod, two flanged nuts, and some plastic tubing. Guillois says it speeds up the task of making quick brake and derailleur adjustments.
Rain bags are piled into the back of a team car in preparation for a training ride.
Soigneurs certainly have a lot of bottles to manage.
It’s definitely much easier to prepare water bottles when drink mix is housed in a giant bucket — with a handle!
One of the lifelines of this team bus.
The undercarriage of team buses are packed with supplies and equipment.
Drying racks aren’t always used for clothes. Looks like an FDJ soigneur recently cleaned out the refrigerator.
Team mechanics are meticulous when it comes to packing their tool cases.
No, you can’t borrow a screwdriver.
What’s Christiaens Jean Pierre’s favorite tool? The Lotto-Soudal team mechanic says this Ritchey Torqkey preset torque wrench is just the thing for checking stem and seatpost clamp bolts.
Team mechanics don’t just work on bikes. They also need to maintain — and occasionally build from scratch — other support material.
Team buses and trucks use a lot of electricity when they’re stationed at a hotel parking lot during a race.
This is not your standard group ride.
Needless to say, riders get thirsty.
This pump-style spray bottle is typically used for fertilizing lawns and gardens. Mechanics often use them to spray bikes with degreasers and cleaners.
Team mechanics possibly spend more of their time washing bikes than anything else.
Brushes, sponges, and soap, oh my!
Lotto-Soudal mechanic Frederik Moons repurposed a worn-out driver into a pick for digging debris out of tires.
Lotto-Soudal mechanic Kurt Dierckx fashioned this handy gadget to help him feed Campagnolo EPS wires through frames.
Conveniently, this Jagwire housing ferrule fits perfectly with Campagnolo EPS wire connectors. Once connected, Lotto-Soudal mechanic Kurt Dierckx says he can then easily pull wires wherever they need to go.
Lotto-Jumbo mechanic Sander Snijder says his favorite tool is this Abbey Bike Tools cassette lockring and chain-whip combo. The two tools nest within each other so they’re not only lightweight but unusually compact, as well.
Power, power, power!
Will that be sparkling or still? Orica-GreenEdge soigneurs clearly have both covered.
How important is proper torque to Orica-GreenEdge mechanic Xabi Remon Arana? There were no fewer than five different torque wrenches inside his case.
Two more torque wrenches…
And yet another one.
If a handlebar slips after hitting a bump, you can bet that the mechanic will hear about it later. A little friction paste goes a long way.
Team mechanics often have to fly to races, and given airline weight restrictions for both checked and carry-on baggage, it’s critical to get things as light as possible. How far did Orica-GreenEdge mechanic Craig Geater go to get this kit down below 5kg? Well, that’s his name laser etched on a titanium hammer from Abbey Bike Tools.
Orica-GreenEdge mechanic Craig Geater took barely a couple of minutes to wrap the bars on Michael Matthews’ Scott Foil.
BMC mechanic Ian Sherburne’s favorite tool is this adjustable T-handle torque wrench from Park Tools. Extra bits are stored inside the handle for added convenience.
This socket handle is especially useful for low-torque applications when space is tight.
It’s not always an option to plug an electronic drivetrain or power meter into a wall socket so many teams resort to large-capacity Li-ion battery packs.
Team mechanics don’t typically use a standalone truing stand for building and repairing wheels, or for gluing tires. Instead, they make use of the bench vise that each truck has inside its work area.
This Dimension Data mechanic stores small parts in used breath mint containers.
Pro team mechanics go through an incredible amount of tubular glue, so the usual single-serve tubes just won’t do. Every team has thousands of water bottles at their disposal, so frequently one is repurposed for gluing duties.
Team Sky mechanic Sam Hayes gets to work applying glue to the base tape of this new Continental tubular. When it comes to the noxious fumes of tubular glue, there’s no place better to work with it than in the open air.
Team Sky mechanic Sam Hayes doesn’t use the typical, cheap metal acid brushes that most amateurs use when gluing tires. Instead, he has his own supply of pastry brushes.
According to Hayes, the pastry brush is not only more substantial in his hands but holds more glue and covers a greater area per pass, which greatly speeds up the process.
Team Sky mechanic Sam Hayes’ favorite tool is the locking adjustable pliers from sponsor Unior. He says he uses it for nearly everything from installing (and removing) valve extenders, to pulling on brake cables, and just about anything where he needs a good grip.
Every rider has multiple bikes and it’s critical that the mechanics get the position correct on each and every one. Every team has some sort of measuring jig.
Saddle placement is quite possibly the most critical dimension to get just right.
This wheel stand was purpose-built just for gluing tires.