Ask Nick: So, what was it like, working with Lance?
Editor’s Note: VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. His column appears here every Thursday — this is a special edition because of Lance Armstrong’s retirement announcement. You can submit questions to Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.
As a former RadioShack mechanic, I’m constantly asked for the inside scoop on working with Lance Armstrong. With today’s announcement of his (second) retirement from professional racing, the timing is right to answer that question.
At the end of the 2009 season I myself had “retired” from working with professional cycling teams as a mechanic. In spring of 2010 I was back in Boulder figuring out my next step when I received a phone call. I saw a Belgian number come up on my ringing phone’s screen and scratched my head. When a voice said, “Hello this is Johan Bruyneel” I started shaking my head in disbelief.
For years when I told people what I did (pro race mechanic), they instantly asked if I worked for Lance Armstrong. After that phone call from Johan, I was finally able to answer yes to that question.
A few days later I was in California working with Craig Geater (Lance’s go-to mechanic for the last two seasons) and Glenn Fant (a personal friend of Levi and great wrench). Instantly I had entered a different world. It was bizarre to be on the inside of Lance-mania. The fans were rabid and not always polite. But for every hater, there was a powerful, uplifting cancer survivor story. My family, like most, has been affected by cancer, both as a killer and a scare. As a mechanic, I was for the first time part of something much larger than bike racing.
Team RadioShack is staffed by legends in the sport. I spent time with Julien Devriese, Eddy Merckx’s and Greg LeMond’s mechanic. I rode in the second caravan car with Viatcheslav Ekimov. I had dinner conversations with Johan Bruyneel. It was at times very surreal. But with the fun of meeting and working with these people came added responsibility too.
First and foremost was security. Lance never leaves home without it. OK maybe that’s an overstatement, but the security guys were part of the team. They ate dinner with us, laughed with us and recruited us to help. No matter where we were, no matter what we were doing, the entire staff was watching the bikes, cars and trucks like a hawk. Everyone wants a souvenir and some are more than willing to steal to get one.
In California, Lance’s bike was washed each day by Glenn or myself and then handed to Craig for its daily maintenance. Often mechanics view bike washing as lowly work, but I was washing the most photographed bicycle in the world. My work showed everyday on countless media outlets. I took the job seriously.
After California, Johan asked me to stay on with the team for the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France. I was being invited to work for the world’s most famous cyclist at the world’s biggest cycling events. I accepted.
On the tech side of things, it was amazing what was at our disposal when Lance was racing. Ben Coates from Trek and Alex Wassmann from SRAM were always on hand to help out or remedy any situation. If Lance needed something, it simply had to happen.
Lance is very technically oriented, with three things in particular. The first is his beloved San Marco Concor saddle. He won’t ride anything else, but he hates them when they are new. There’s a story that his personal mechanic in Austin would hand out new Concors to local riders to break them in for Lance.
Second are Lance’s race tires. Julien Devriese ages them. The tubulars Hutchinson provided to the team all came with a manufacturing date stamp on the base tape. A few dozen are held back every year for Lance. They are stored in a cool, dark place (his wine cellar) for years before being brought out and glued to wheels. The “youngest” tire I glued on for Lance was five years old and in perfect condition (better than new actually thanks to the aging).
Lastly, Lance didn’t like changing frames. From before the Tour of California through the end of the Tour de France Lance rode the same frame and fork in both racing and training. Even the most meticulous of mechanics cannot exactly reproduce a position from one bike to the next, especially when it comes to broken-in saddles. Most pros have a training bike that stays at home and a race bike in the team truck. Lance flew everywhere with the same bike. (Of course, the risk of damaging the bike was greatly reduced because he flew Mellow Johnny’s Aviation).
Lance is a brand, a phenomenon, a savior and a pariah. He is also a person. Each time we met at a new race, he shook my hand, said hello and asked “what’s up?” There were jovial times when he would share a bottle of wine with the mechanics and mood killers like after his puncture on the cobbled stage and crashes on the stage to Morzine in the Tour. With Lance no longer in the hunt for the general classification, the pressure was off. Lance seemed to relax and with him so too did the entire team. It wasn’t easy after that, with two weeks of racing left, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Working with Lance was career defining for me, in the best possible way. My experiences with Lance and Team RadioShack showed me what cycling at the very highest level can be: professional yet personal, insane, intense, exhausting, memorable, but most of all, rewarding. Thanks Lance.