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.
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.
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.