Less than 24 hours before the start of the 2017 Tour de France prologue, the BMC Racing team bus hums with last-minute bike checks and a back-log of tune-ups. On one side of the service course, a young mechanic urgently preps Richie Porte’s Teammachine SLR01 for the training ride slated to roll out soon. On the other side, Belgian Jurgen Landrie hoists a Timemachine into his stand, prepping it for the time trial. New cables and housing, shifting adjustments. Cameras click on all sides as fans bustle about, and journalists sniff out stories. We’re all there to take in the circus.
It’s threatening to rain. Landrie doesn’t seem to notice or care, and it’s a safe bet he wouldn’t make much of a fuss if the rain finally started falling. He has his tools; he has a raincoat. And there’s a job to do.
“You have to really go into details,” Landrie says of prepping the bikes for the Tour’s opening time trial. “You only have one shot. If it’s a road race and it’s 200 kilometers, normally nothing can happen. But a TT is completely different.”
With new bike technology coming at pro mechanics incessantly, those details become finer, more nuanced, and more crucial to master. Today’s bikes represent the boldest experiments bike designers have yet dreamt of to make riders go faster while remaining within UCI design constraints. With those bold designs come unprecedented complexities, both in the build and maintenance of each bike.
WorldTour mechanics know this and prepare for it — and the best ones are excited about it. That’s what makes a successful wrench: The ability to adapt, work through problems, figure things out. They are, in a sense, a class of engineer all their own — not to mention translator and sometimes first-responder. Aside from the riders themselves, experienced mechanics are perhaps the team’s most significant asset. That kind of experience doesn’t come easy.
“THIS IS PART OF my life, this little toolbox,” says Landrie of his blue Park Tool case. “There’s nothing special, nothing that has an emotional value. You have to keep updating your tools. And don’t carry too much, because you have to walk around for a few weeks with a too-heavy toolbox.”
He makes no mention of the toolbox inside his mind, the one that really makes the difference between a mechanic and a WorldTour mechanic.
“I really support every kind of evolution,” says Landrie, who has been a pro mechanic for over a decade, transitioning to the WorldTour from the velodrome, where he wrenched for the Belgian national team. “I’m open to being involved in testing. It’s very nice to see the things we do now — they show up with numbers to show, ‘Okay, this is better, this is worse, this doesn’t make any change.’ The data doesn’t really make it easier, but it makes things more interesting. It’s not just a bike. There’s passion in it.”
Landrie grew up in Oudenaarde, Belgium, where the Tour of Flanders currently finishes. He raced as a pro for a while, using the iconic cobbled climbs around his home as his training ground. His family, all cycling fans, supported him, and while his pro career was short-lived, the passion for the sport still burned.
“I remember as a kid I was a big fan of cycling. But [instead of the riders], I knew all the parts and gear from the team, what they were using, the shoes, the sunglasses, and helmets — all the details. I already had a big interest,” he says.
That’s how it begins for so many pro wrenches on the WorldTour: A childhood passion turns into something unexpected after the path changes from racing a bike to working on it.
Just ask Orica-Scott mechanic Craig Geater, another grown-up kid who turned racing aspirations into a career working on race machines.
“I wasn’t anything special,” Geater says of his racing days. He’d seen the Tour de France and other races in New Zealand, where he grew up. He decided to go to Europe even though he wasn’t a great rider; he just wanted to experience it. “I went to Belgium and raced for a little bit and I realized I was way out of my league.”
As a poor racer without any support, Geater was left to maintain his own bikes. He worked in bike shops to fund his cycling habit. “I just got interested in the equipment I was using. I read all the magazines to see what was new, and that got me hooked,” he says. By chance, Geater was asked to help out the Linda McCartney Racing team back in 1998, and in his own words, he was just “lucky and available.”
Not long after, he was traveling the world for a living.
IN ALMOST 20 YEARS as a pro mechanic, Geater’s been around long enough to see just about everything, especially among fans. Cycling fans have unimaginably close access to riders and equipment, so mechanics are always on the lookout for lurkers with sticky fingers. But sometimes the fans get bold in other ways. Geater recounts a recent story in which he was
helping retrieve bottles on a Tour de France climb. He returned to the team car to find a new passenger.
“An Australian guy had hopped in the car and asked for a ride to the top of the hill,” he says. “He was kitted out and didn’t have a bike. He was already in the car… so I gave him a ride.”
Having worked for Team RadioShack, and been one of Lance Armstrong’s mechanics, Geater can tell you stories about celebrity visitors, too. He’s quick to mention Eddie Jones, coach of the Australian National Rugby team.
Then, as an afterthought, he lists the B-team of celebrities: Sheryl Crow, Matthew McConaughey, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams. “We’ve also had [former president of France] Nicolas Sarkozy,” he says. “They go in the car during the stages, and they’re so excited that they ask a lot of questions and forget we’re trying to listen to the race radio.”
It’s all part of the fun, but it’s also a major stress. Mechanics, as Geater says, are always on edge. It’s the fans, the driving, the schedule, the weather, and the sum total of long days and weeks of the same routine, repeated over and over again.
When asked about his toughest days as a wrench, Geater doesn’t have to think very long.
“The Criterium International, when it was in the north of France,” he says. “It was always crappy weather, crappy hotels, and then you’d get hit with the daylight savings hours on the last day.”
There’s also the personality challenges. Teams are big and multi-cultural, so language barriers creep up often. “We have a lot of different nationalities, and you’ll have five different languages on one team,” Geater says. “So we sort of develop our own language.” He’s quick to dispel the notion that he’s a polyglot himself. Just as quickly, he admits that isn’t necessarily true.
“I live in Italy now so I speak minimal Italian; I understand French okay and can speak a little of it, and I can speak a little bit of Flemish from my time in Belgium. And I can understand a little bit of Spanish,” he says.
Language aside, riders have their own unique relationships with gear. Some just want to get on the bike and pedal, while others are more meticulous, checking and re-checking. Geater says Levi Leipheimer would adjust his saddle one millimeter at a time, but never before the start at the team bus. He’d do it in the neutral zone and ask to have his saddle adjusted there.
“If you broke a bolt or something, you knew you were really in the shit,” Geater says.
Luke Durbridge is equally meticulous. It’s a good thing, Geater says, but “sometimes when you see him coming you almost want to walk the other way.” Laurent Jalabert was keen to look at any gear that would give him an advantage on the road. Simon Gerrans is the same way today, always asking why things work the way they do. And Lance Armstrong had his own tape measure to check the set-up between bikes. No other tape measure would do.
“He was fussy, but he wasn’t a pain in the ass. He just wanted it done properly,” Geater says.
BESIDE THE GLEAMING PAINT job on Greg Van Avermaet’s bike, next to Richie Porte’s much smaller and unassuming Teammachine, the mechanics tweak saddles and stems. Then the riders roll out. There’s a brief moment — not quite a respite — in which each wrench breathes out and assesses what needs to be done next. The riders are off but the job continues.
“You start to feel it in the last couple of days,” Geater says. “You always get overtired and go into auto mode. Every day is like Groundhog Day: We do the exact same thing every day.”
And that, he says, is the toughest part of the job. The trucks are bigger and more difficult to drive than they used to be. There are more bikes to tend to, more equipment to manage. Years ago, no mechanic would have dreamed of needing a laptop computer to make shifting adjustments. BMC’s Landrie embraces that change and gets excited about it, and Geater says it has actually made life easier. But the sheer volume of things to be done has grown exponentially.
On stage 1 of the Tour, back in Germany, the rain comes and the drama that plays out is beyond any mechanic’s control. There is carnage. All those details — the careful preparations and meticulous adjustments made to each bike — go out the window. Or rather, they hit the pavement and slide. No bother. Each mechanic simply goes about preparing for the next day, and the day after that. The work, the weather, the tedium, the victories and failures, all still lie ahead.
You’ll hear no complaint from the service course. “I like every part of the job,” Landrie says. “It’s a life.”