Cyclocross Diaries: The view from the mechanics’ pits

What does life look like for a cyclocross mechanic on the European circuit.

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These weekly briefings written by the team share the oddities and nuances of European racing, plus an inside perspective on the strangeness of this cyclocross season.

This installment is from Mike Berry, one of the team’s mechanics.

What does life look like as a cyclocross mechanic on the European circuit?

In Europe, our race-day prep begins 24 hours before. First, we thoroughly wash all the bikes and inspect components while we clean and detail them. We check each bike’s bearings (headset, bottom bracket, hubs, and pedals), chain, brake pads, and bar tape, and replace any worn or damaged parts as needed.

Once the bikes and wheels are ready, we begin packing the van. In total, we fit nine Cannondale Super Xs (three per rider) and 24 Zipp tubular wheelsets, plus a generator, pressure washer, air compressor, and three water barrels (totaling 400 liters), all nestled tightly in an extra-long sprinter van. By the time we finish loading, it is already time for dinner. 

The drives to races here are relatively short compared to those in the United States, but we still depart between 6:00 and 8:00 am so that we arrive early enough to secure parking from the usual gang of friendly Belgian parking stewards. Due to Belgian Federation COVID-19 protocols, inschrijvingen (registration) requires that all staff be present with the riders, and that we all present current negative COVID-19 test results.

In Belgium, it is standard for a renner (rider) to have two mecaniciens (mechanics) and one verzorger (soigneur) to him- or herself; however, it is just the two of us mecaniciens for all three renners, and race officials are often confused by our shared staff structure. From inschrijvingen, athletes receive their race numbers and a plethora of bandje (wristbands); one each to allow us to enter the venue, pits, and start/finish area for each race.

The races here are single-day events, so there is no tent compound setup like we have in the United States. We just have our van and a camper, both with awnings, that are parked side-by-side and with awnings facing each other. After inschrijvingen, we begin unloading the van and turn the heat on in the camper.

We unload the training bikes and set them up on the trainers, then set up the A-frame and begin unloading the race bikes. We set up our repair stands and work area. We unload the pressure washer and fill the wash bucket with soapy water (occasionally with a bit of added hot water from the kettle to make the bucket water more bearable). We set up the generator and connect it to the van, so that we can run the pressure washer and compressor (and coffee maker).

This is where the day gets interesting.

The damen (ladies) will get on-course at 11:00; between setup and 11:00, time permitting, Gary [the team’s other mechanic] and I go for a quick walk to the course. We check the time and start walking to the materiaalpost (pit); at some races we get decent parking, and it is only a few minutes’ walk, other times it can be upwards of 15 minutes. While walking, we look at the course conditions so that we can make tire recommendations when we return. When we get to the pit, we figure out where the start/finish line is.

To keep our “bubble” tight, we do not have anyone else gather clothing at the start lines for us, so we need to figure out the fastest way to get from the start line to the pit. This is easier this year than it would have been in the past because there are no spectators, but most courses are laid out so the start line and pit are in totally opposite directions.

We hustle back to the van and camper and get ready for Kaitie and Clara to go out on-course. Riders select their tires and pressure, and we begin swapping wheels for pre-ride. Typically, they will start on one tire option and we will have an alternate tire choice (depending on conditions) on their second bike. We always bring their second bike and an air gun to the pit for the pre-ride, plus additional tire options if requested. 

While Kaitie and Clara are on-course for their pre-ride, we are in the pit to help with pressure adjustments and tire choice changes. When the riders are happy with pre-ride, we make a quick walk back to the van and the pre-ride bikes get washed, dried, and lubed. Based on their course inspection, Kaitie and Clara determine what they will race with for tires and pressure.

At 12:15, Curtis will head out for his pre-ride. I will go to the pit with his second bike, air gun, and additional wheels (depending on course conditions), while Gary stays with Kaitie and Clara to finish the final preparations on their race bikes. There is usually just enough time between the end of the men’s pre-ride and the start of the women’s race to wash, dry, and lube Curtis’ pre-ride bikes, and eat the lunch we packed. 

Race time (13:40 or 13:45) “minus 25 minutes” is when we leave for the pit/start. I will head to the pit with one race bike each for Kaitie and Clara, plus the pit backpack (with spare parts, tools, drying towels, etc). Gary heads to the start line with the athletes’ third bike (if needed), the air gun, and an empty clothing carry bag. The racers are called to the start line by their UCI ranking (or World Cup ranking, depending on the race) and are given the three-minute warning. At two minutes to race start, the riders take off their masks, tights, and jackets, and give them to Gary. He makes a hasty retreat to the pit based on the pre-race recon we did earlier.

Damen race

As soon as the women’s race is over (14:30ish) and depending on results, Gary will take the clothing bag and the podium bag to the finish line to prep for podium and/or to give Kaitie and Clara their jackets back (if they are not already back at the van and camper). I will take the pit bikes and backpack, and dash from the pit back to the van and camper, where I will grab what is needed for Curtis’ race.

The herren (men’s) race starts at 15:00, so there is very little time in-between races. Ideally Curtis’ bikes are set and ready to race before the women’s start, so all they need is a quick pressure check before heading to the pit. Sometimes wheels need to shuffled depending on which tire treads are being used. If there is a podium for us after the women’s race, Gary will stay at the start/finish to take Curtis’ clothing while I head to the pit; if not, Gary will rendezvous with me at the van and take Curtis’ bikes to the pit while I go to the start line.

Either way, Curtis’ bikes and the pit backpack are at the pit with one of us, and the other is at the start line gathering clothing. Same deal here: Three-minute warning, two minutes to race start, gather clothing, and a swift departure to the pit. 

Herren race

Post-race, we bring all our equipment back to the van and start washing. Gary gets started on the bikes right away, while Curtis is on the trainer cooling down. I start packing Kaitie’s and Clara’s third bikes (unless they got used and need washing) into the van and putting trainers away. I put away the repair stands and work table, any race wheels that didn’t get used, and – one by one, after Gary washes, dries, and lubes them – the race bikes. When I see Gary is close to being done with one bike, I pass him another dirty bike to wash, put away the clean bike he just finished, and continue packing the van.

It is a “dance” that we have perfected over working together for several years. When Curtis finishes his cooldown, his training bike gets packed and his trainer put away. Once all the bikes are washed and packed, we take off our rain gear and boots and pack them away to be cleaned later. On average, from the end of the herren race, it takes us about an hour to wash, lube, and pack six race bikes and three training bikes, and put away all the equipment.

We get in the van and camper and drive back to our house in southern Netherlands. When we get home, we unload the van and put the bikes and wheels in a warm room in the house to dry. The athletes have a schedule between themselves for cleaning of the camper.

We eat dinner (which has typically been prepared the day before and just needs to be heated up) together and then it’s (finally) time for bed. If there is a day between races, we will work on the bikes at our house; if the race is the next day, then we will work on the bikes at the venue.

We do this all over again the next day (or day after), with the same cast of characters just on slightly different narrow-road Belgian towns.  

What goes on in the pit?

Typically, we like to choose a box based on if it is near the pit entrance or exit, or closer to the washers, but due to COVID-19 protocols, we are assigned pit boxes based on UCI ranking. At Bredene, we were even given a pit box with an overgrown tree in the middle.

With both Gary and I in the pit, one catches and the other hands off the bike. It’s always easier to wash a bike with two people; one person has the sprayer the other has the job of moving the bike around to make it easier for the sprayer to get it clean. The second person also has to keep an eye open for the riders because you don’t want to miss them at the half-lap.

What are the biggest issues racing abroad?

Since none of us speak Flemish, the language barrier can be an issue, especially with the parking stewards (just ask the guy we almost ran over twice).

What is the communication between rider and mechanics in the pit during the race?

Riders will call out as they come by the pit and let us know if they want different tires or different pressure for when they come in at the next half-lap. Curtis will often tell us what’s up when he does a bike change: “Clean!” or “flat!” etc.

What are your most important tools on race day?

The bikes are 100% race-ready when we get to the venue, so there is not much we need to do for them on race day. The main tools are a 5 mm allen key (or multitool) for thru-axle wheel changes and the air gun for pressure changes.

What’s life like when you’re not at the race?

All of us (Kaitie, Clara, Curtis, Gary, and myself) are living in the same house, so we spend a lot of time with each other. We have several games to play here at the house and we each have different things to occupy our time (schoolwork, painting, puzzles, etc). We eat our meals together every day, and the riders will often train together.

The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany are in a complete lockdown for COVID-19, so there is no place other than the grocery store for us to go, and we try to minimize those trips. All the coffee shops, pubs, and restaurants are closed, so other than a Christmas Eve dinner that we ordered-in, we have made all our meals at the house.

Gary is an amazing chef and works with everyone to plan the meals and cook dinner. I coordinate with our doctors here to organize and schedule our weekly COVID-19 PCR tests, and work with our sponsors like SRAM (to make sure we have all the parts we need) and Challenge (to get replacement tubulars).

Other than that, Gary enjoys heading out for a ride (alone or with the athletes) and I have been exploring the trails around the Watersley Sports & Talent Park.

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