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By virtue of their trade, pro team mechanics operate outside of the limelight. In addition to their backseat position in team follow cars, their work takes place at start lines and in hotel parking lots, well before and after racing has ended and the crowds have dispersed.
But every once in a while a team mechanic has an opportunity to shine on a large stage, and never has that been more apparent than during the final stage of last month’s Giro d’Italia.
When race leader Denis Menchov crashed in the final kilometer of the wet stage 21 time trial in Rome, Rabobank team mechanic Vincent Hendricks saved the day — and perhaps the entire three weeks — by jumping out of the team’s follow car before it had even stopped.
Hendriks grabbed Menchov’s spare bike from the roof, alerted his rider to the replacement rig and then ran behind Menchov, his hand on the seat post, while the Russian righted himself, clipped in to his pedals and found the proper gear ratio.
In the end, Menchov won the three-week grand tour by a scant 41 seconds ahead of Danilo Di Luca; a sloppy bike change could surely have meant the difference between first and second overall. Following the race, Hendricks, who has worked with the team for 10 years, said Menchov thanked him about 50 times, and that big-name riders such as Carlos Sastre and even Di Luca himself congratulated Hendricks on his attentiveness and precision.
VeloNews reached Hendricks by phone earlier this week to ask him about the bike change, and the attention he’s received since the Giro ended.
VeloNews: First off, job well done. It was pretty amazing that the entire GC of the Giro d’Italia came down to 41 seconds and that your bike change definitely helped save the win for the team. Can you tell us a little bit about the moment when Menchov crashed? You must have been watching very closely. How did you do the bike change so quickly?
Vincent Hendricks: From the start I knew that it would be risky. It started to rain a little bit when Menchov started the time trial. So from the beginning I was watching him because it was possible that he would crash and I knew if he did I must respond immediately. Then we came to the last corner and we said to him, “be careful, be careful, because you have 30 seconds and you don’t need to risk any more.” And he went slowly through the last corner and we thought it was okay because there were no more corners. Then he passed the last kilometer [sign] and then I saw the bike go under his body. Immediately I jumped out of the car and grabbed his spare bike. I saw him crash and I thought, “Oh my God!”
Before I knew it I was already out of the car and I had the spare bike and I was waiting. I pushed and pushed him but his left foot wouldn’t go into the pedal. I didn’t know if I had pushed him 50 meters or 100 meters, because I felt nothing. I only ran and ran as hard as I could. I ran back to the [crashed] bike because the team director had to follow Menchov. I took his bike and put the chain back on, because when he crashed it fell off. And then I rode the last kilometer on Menchov’s bike, and I even passed through the finish line.
But I still didn’t know if Menchov had enough seconds or not so I was thinking “Oh no, I hope we won.” I passed the finish line and I saw [team directors Erik Breukink and Adri van Houwelingen] and they were very happy and then I knew that we won. I was standing there thinking “oh my God…” And then all the journalists and cameras were coming to talk to me, and I knew that I had done a great job.
VN: Everyone has been talking about how you could not have changed the bike any faster. You had the door to the car open before the car had even stopped.
VH: That’s true. I jumped out of the car and while it was still rolling. It was slippery, so I held the door of the car and I was slipping with the car I think three or four meters before the car came to a stop. Then I jumped and I took the bike. Menchov took the bike that he had crashed but I was already there with his spare bike. After the race he came to me and said, “Sorry for not taking the spare bike. I didn’t think you would be there so fast.”
VN: It looked like you were yelling to him “No, no, take the new bike!”
VH: I screamed to him “Denis! Denis! New bike!” Because he didn’t know that I was already there. But he took the bike and he went. After the race he came up to me, said he was sorry. He was really happy. I think he thanked me 50 times. He was really happy.
VN: It would seem that you might have saved the Giro for Rabobank, a team that had not even won a stage at the race before. I would imagine maybe there’s been a little bonus for you?
VH: I hope so! They thanked me already. Maybe I’ll get a bonus, I don’t know. It’s my job. I think all the mechanics on the team would respond the same. You have to think at that moment, “what am I going to do?” and then act. I reacted at the right time.
VN: Had you been in this situation before? Obviously not with the entire Giro d’Italia on the line, but had you been in a situation during a time trial where you’ve had a rider crash and you’ve had to give them a quick bike change?
VH: No, never — never with a time trial. That was the first time I’ve changed a bike from the roof in a time trial.
VN: The morning before the stage started, when you were putting Menchov’s spare time trial bike on the roof, obviously you knew that it was a possibility, something you’d have to be prepared for.
VH: That’s true. Before we started I spoke with Denis and the team directors, and we decided, no matter what happens, we always give him the spare bike — always. It’s always better to give a new bike, because it’s faster, and you’re sure that it’s good. You never know after a rider crashes if something has broken. Always give a new bike, that’s what I said to the team directors and Denis.
VN: Apparently, from your reaction, you were watching every second of the race very closely.
VH: If you asked me now how many corners were in the time trial, I couldn’t tell you. But I knew the roads were bad. I also followed Bram De Groot earlier in the day, and I was paying attention to the course then, but when I was out with Denis I didn’t see anything, I only focused on Denis. After the race, when I was driving home, I was thinking about this and that, but at that moment, I don’t remember anything, I was only focused on the bike for Denis.
VN: I would imagine you’ve heard from a lot of friends and family in the weeks since the Giro, people congratulating you, people telling you how important that bike change was.
VH: Yes, a lot of people, even people I don’t know have phoned me and sent me emails. It was really great. Denis’ wife thanked me, his manager, they all thanked me. Sastre, Di Luca, Mario Cipollini, the director of the Giro, they all thanked me and said I did a great job. That’s special. It’s nice to hear. I did my job. The whole team did great for three weeks, and I was thinking, “Oh my God we’re not going to lose the Giro in the last kilometer.” I did the best I could do. It’s great that we won. For me it was also a victory.