The team zone before a race is a hectic place to be. The designated parking lot is filled with team RVs, cars, and hundreds of people milling about. The riders are going through their pre-race routine, team staff are shuttling bikes and gear around, camera crews and reporters are trying to get some quick interviews, and fans crowd around the race favourite’s RV hoping for a mere glace of their idol. In the midst of this organised chaos, one mechanic stands out as she goes through her usual pre-race duties. In her black, team-issued polo she’s easily lost in the parking lot crowd, but what makes her stand out is that she is…well, a woman. Yes, even at a professional women’s race a female head mechanic is a rare sight. So unique in fact, that she is the sole female mechanic on the pro road tour.
Her name is Andrea Smith and she is the team mechanic for the Colavita Pro Cycling Team, a team that boasts an all-female staff.
Choosing to support women
One of the top-ranked teams in the US, Team Colavita has quietly been providing big career-building opportunities for women in cycling for years. Colavita, an Italian pasta and olive company, has been supporting women’s cycling longer than any other organization in the pro peloton. It has provided a stepping stone for many Olympians and national champions over the years, including well-known names such as Georgia Bronzini, Alison Powers, Tina Pic, Rachel Heal and Kathryn Bertine.
A long-time sponsor, team owner and Colavita USA founder John Profaci was faced with the difficult decision to cut either the men’s or women’s program during the 2008 recession, it was the women’s team he decided to keep.
“Back in 2008 when the market crashed and I had to make some decisions for my company on where to make cuts in marketing, I dropped the men’s program and kept the women. People criticized me for that, thinking that I was giving up the bigger side of publicity in the sport, but I felt strongly about keeping the women. I thought that little by little, they were giving [my company] as much publicity for the right people. My brand is a grocery item and the women control 90 percent of the decision making for grocery making [in the US],” Profaci explained.
Business aside, Profaci gets personal satisfaction from supporting a women’s team.
“Having had men’s and women’s teams side-by-side since 2003, I am not embarrassed to say that women’s teams are so much more interesting. Because the money in the women’s sport is so much lower, the women are also professionals outside of the sport. Kimberly Wells, for example, is a doctor. Gretchen Stumhofer is getting her PhD. The stories in women’s cycling are fascinating. I love the idea that I can support these women and the passion that they have.”
An all-women staff
A photo posted by Colavita-Bianchi Pro Cycling (@teamcolavita) on
In 2014, Profaci decided to take his support of women in the sport a step further and actively sought out an all-women staff to run his women’s team.
“I had worked with a female mechanic on the men’s side before and I just loved the idea of having all-women staff for our women’s program,” said Profaci.
Rider-turned-manager Mary Zider became the team’s Director Sportif, and massage therapist Amanda Rose Shission joined the staff as soigneur and, ahead of the 2015 season, Andrea Smith joined as the pro road tour’s only female head mechanic.
“It’s not like I added just any women. Mary, Andrea, Amanda –these are three very capable and professional women. But yes, it was a conscious effort to set up an all-female staff. I wanted to give women the opportunity because they aren’t provided with these opportunities a lot of the times.”
Meet Andrea Smith, the only female mechanic on the pro road tour
Finding a female mechanic for a traveling cycling team was easier said than done.
“When [Profaci] initially suggested having an all-female staff in 2014, I just loved the idea, but I was also immediately concerned that I may not be able to find a female mechanic,” said director sportif Mary Zider, adding that there are no other teams she knows of that have a female mechanic.
But she found one in fellow former racer and shop mechanic Andrea Smith following a chance encounter at Ride Studio Café in Lexington, MA.
“I dabbled in road racing and raced cyclocross for five years and I had raced a little bit against Mary. She came into the shop where I was working, reached out later and here I am,” said Andrea Smith.
Smith has been a mechanic since 2004, a career that was sparked simply by working on her own bike.
“I was a runner in high school and college, and got into mountain biking as a form of cross training,” said Smith. “I had purchased a new mountain bike, which I at the time thought was super expensive. And so, since I spent all that money, I wanted to learn how to take care of it. That’s what started my interest in bike mechanics –working on my own bike.”
Choosing wrenching over her degree in athletic training, Smith took a job at the outdoor retail store REI.
“At that point I thought I knew a lot about working on bikes but really, all my training came at REI,” said Smith who would stay with REI for six years before moving on to other bike shops.
All the while, she was always the only female mechanic.
“At REI, there were women doing the purchasing or retail but there weren’t women wrenching on bikes like I was,” Smith said. “But my coworkers and management staff have always been extremely supportive. They always believed in my ability and my gender played no part. It was more the perspective of the customers.”
“Customers would call or ask to speak to a mechanic or the manager of the shop and then I’d come out and they be surprised; “Oh I wasn’t expecting a woman.” You have to break that barrier with them, one on one. We never ran into any bad situations or anything. I only ever had one customer who didn’t want me working on their bike. One in six years, out of thousands of interactions, isn’t bad.”
When she joined Colavita as the team mechanic ahead of the 2015 season, she exchanged shop life for life on the road and customers with professional athletes.
“I was very well received by the team and by other team mechanics. Everyone is super friendly, because we see all the same people weekend after weekend, and we are all in this together, but I was nervous starting with the team,” Smith admitted. “Being female, I did feel like I had to prove myself 10 times over. I didn’t want there to be any question or any mechanical.”
“To be clear, they did not make me feel that way but I, I wanted everything to be perfect. I didn’t want anyone thinking ‘Can she handle this?’,” Smith continued. “I got their trust and support right away. No one was double checking my work or looking over my shoulder or anything. It’s been an amazing two years and a great ride.”
And Zider had nothing but praise for Smith.
“I’ve been very fortunate to experience a number of professional teams during my professional racing career, and I can easily say that Andrea has by far been among the most meticulous, hard working and approachable mechanics that I have ever worked with,” said Zider. “When you’re confident in your equipment and you feel comfortable on your bike, it’s two less important things that a rider has to worry about. And it provides more energy for riders to be able to focus on what they are ultimately there to accomplish. Having raced herself, Andrea is sensitive and aware of the many small details that can make a huge difference for the riders. She is a role model to many females who are working jobs that are typically male-dominated.”
Getting more women wrenching
Smith said she’d love to see more female mechanics, but said the barriers to entry are significant. To get more women wrenching, we need them riding.
“I think a lot of women are intimidated going into a bike shop, let alone work at one,” Smith said. “I think there is a direct correlation between women riding bikes and women working on bikes. A lot of guys start in bike shops as an after-school job in high school because they’re riding bikes. Girls tend to stop riding bikes by the time they are of high school age. I think we need to get girls interested in bikes earlier and keep them interested in bikes.”
Reasons to Become a Bike Mechanic:
- You get to interact with people.
- You get to spend your day working with your hands and problem solving.
- Understanding leads to comfort on the bike, and
- leads to self confidence in learning how to fix things, to problem solve and a general understanding of how things work.
- You’ll be working with people who share your passion of a lifelong sport,of being healthy and being in an active, outdoor community.
So does having an all-female staff make a difference?
“In terms of competence, no,” said Smith. “Men and women are equally competent, but in terms of team culture and dynamics, I think having an all-female staff makes us very unique. The riders feel proud to be part of the team.”
“Let me first say that I don’t see any deficiencies in having a mixed, female-male staff, but in my professional cycling experience to date, having an all-female staff and team has only strengthened the Colavita team,” said Zider.
“We are fortunate to have a highly focused team of very professional lady cyclists, unselfish individuals who understand that to consistently excel, we will always be strongest when we work together as a team. We strive very hard to create and maintain a solid foundation built on fostering a positive and supportive environment with a ‘family-oriented’ culture. In our case, having an all-female staff and team has proven to be very beneficial and important to noticeably strengthening our team culture.”