Ask Nick: Best team cars, backward brakes, cable lube and a special pump head

What's the best team car? Do you lube cables? What's with backwards brakes in the peloton? And more.

A Mavic Skoda wagon at the 2007 Tour

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. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.

I was wondering what the best team car that you have used has been and why?
— Joe Legan

(yes, that’s my brother, a car mechanic and fellow tech geek)

The best team cars are without doubt station wagons. A perfect team car would handle well, have an automatic transmission, a great suspension, oodles of torque, fantastic brakes, a comfortable back seat and a spacious trunk. In Europe, it would run on diesel, in the U.S. on gas. I like a big front passenger seat back pocket, too, for rags and lubes.

The best car I’ve ever worked out of was a Skoda wagon. They may not be fancy, but the diesel engines are strong and reliable. The back seat is comfortable and the trunk area is big and has a separate 12-volt accessory socket to charge my phone.

Best of all, most of the other teams in Europe use the same car, so you’re not faster or slower than anyone else. This is important. In the caravan we drive extremely close to one another. Reaction times are important, but if the car is front of you has the exact same braking performance as the car you’re in, you’re a bit safer. It’s much like riding the velodrome. If one fella had brakes, he’d take down the whole bunch.

BMW and Volvo make great wagons as well. Many teams in the U.S. have to use ridiculously small cars due to sponsorships. I don’t want to call out any manufacturer in particular, but I can tell you that a hybrid hatchback is NOT ideal for anyone in the race caravan.

What’s with some riders running their brakes “backwards” (right hand front brake/left hand rear brake)? I always noticed Pantani’s bikes set up that way and I notice Cadel Evans’ set up that way in photos. Is it common? Is it just a “Euro thing?” Is it confusing as a mechanic to keep it straight what to run where?
– Adam Rodkey

This isn’t as common as it used to be. There are some Italians who do. Pantani, as you mentioned, certainly did. In Australia bikes are sold this way. That explains Evans’ preference. Many Australian pros change when they start racing in Europe.

The reason most British and Australian bikes are set up this way is to allow for hand signals. They ride, as most readers know, on the left side of the street. Safety commissions felt that while signaling with the right hand (the hand in traffic), it was better to have the left hand on the rear brake.

On Garmin last year, Trent Lowe, an Aussie, was the only one running his brakes that way. I have to admit that I did once cable Lowe’s bike incorrectly, but I caught it before he ever saw it.

I’ve also worked on bikes owned by motorcycle riders. They often like to run them that way because a motorcycle’s front brake is actuated by the right hand lever (the left hand lever is the clutch). Cyclocross is the other place you’ll see it. Many riders will do this so they can feather the rear brake once they’ve begun to dismount with their right hand already on the top or down tube.

For years I’ve seen conflicting advice regarding lubrication for gear wires running in lined cable housing. On the one hand, it is claimed that NO lube is best because a bare wire running through a Teflon-like housing liner provides maximum slipperiness. Moreover, any lube added to this combo will sooner or later only add stickiness and attract dirt. On the other hand, Shimano, for one, actually makes a special grease that is supposed to optimize gear cable performance on their products. What’s your take?
— Jim Hargett

I lube cables. In the past, on CSC, we used a wet oil to lube the cables before we installed them in the housings. More recently, I’ve used Shimano’s Special Grease on Shimano bikes. On SRAM bikes, I’ll use the Johnny Snot provided by SRAM to sponsored teams.

SRAM’s Gore cable kits can be completely sealed. Because of this, the lube stays clean and runs smoothly for quite a long time. You can also install Gore cablesets on Campagnolo and Shimano-equipped bicycles and I think they make a big difference. If you can install a completely sealed system, taking care to eliminate cable drag wherever possible, lubing is the way to go.

It’s best to experiment with different lubes. What’s best for the soggy northwestern U.S. probably isn’t the best for arid Arizona. In Colorado, I use Shimano Special Grease.

All other things being equal, which of these two is harder on equipment: 160-pound Tour-level sprinters, or 225-pound weekend warrior Clydesdales? Commenters in forums often remark that a wheel or frame is strong enough for Mark Cavendish, and thus it will be strong enough for anyone. But I would think that, as relatively strong as elite sprinters are, they don’t generate the absolute level of power that an average big guy makes even though they go much faster.
— Will Mouat

I would venture to say that a 225-pound weekend warrior would be much harder on equipment. But it doesn’t have as much to do with weight as you might imagine. Rather I think it’s because a professional rider is, generally, an acrobat on his bike. They have years of experience hurling themselves at speed into corners, over obstacles and down descents. Their reaction times are much quicker than the average weekend warrior and that keeps them out of situations that wreck equipment.

The pro’s weight distribution on the bike helps as well. Your Clydesdale rider will have a much higher proportion of his weight on the rear wheel. This can be a wheel-destroying situation on rough roads.

The majority of modern bicycle equipment is overbuilt, in order to handle the strain of professional racing and the general clumsiness of the average rider. Please don’t take this the wrong way. There are, of course, exceptions. But as a shop mechanic I saw many more ridiculous, preventable problems than I ever did with teams.

Oh, for the record, Cav’ is putting out a much higher “absolute level of power” and he is able to maintain that power much longer than the average big guy. No comparison. That’s why he’s so fast. He puts out huge numbers and yet he’s a compact athlete. That adds up to freakish speeds and dozens of victories each year.

I never expected this to be such a tall order, but I’ve contacted several bike shops with no success. I’m looking for a pump that I can use to pump up my Hed disc wheel without a second person having to hold the “crack pipe” adapter to ensure a good seal. Preferably, I’d like a pump that doesn’t require the adapter in addition to not requiring a second person for holding the pump head tight against the presta valve.
— Jason Amoriell

You’re not alone. I spent years looking for just such a pump head. Luckily I found it when I went to work track World Cups with USA Cycling. The hot head in the track scene is made in Osaka, Japan. It’s called a Hirame pump head and I’ve used it regularly to inflate track tubulars to 220 psi without incident. It is truly a hands-free clamp system. It works on Mavic and some Zipp disks as well as any normally exposed valve. Excel Sports just started selling them. They aren’t cheap at $75, but they work every time and that’s worth the investment.