Ask Nick: Do ProTour mechanics use torque wrenches? Who maintains pro bikes in winter?

Former ProTour mechanic Nick Legan takes questions about torque wrench use, winter bike maintenance and stiff 'cross frames.

Park Torque wrench
Yup, even the pros use 'em.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a new weekly feature on “Ask Nick.” 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.

Q.Hey Nick, do team mechanics use torque specs when building and adjusting bikes or do they just go by feel (many have been doing it so long I’m sure they have a good feel for the right torque). With so many pros opting for aluminum bars and stems is it even necessary to worry about torque on those cockpits at all, tight is tight, good enough?
— Shawn Varner

p.s. How much downtime does a team mechanic have? When you travel to some pretty cool places do you have a chance to go sightseeing or for some short rides?

We absolutely use torque specs, especially when we’re working with unfamiliar equipment. I always carry a torque wrench in my toolbox. Using them is great, easy insurance for a mechanic. They can also help with product development. If we have bars or seat posts slipping and we know we’ve used a torque wrench to tighten them, we know we need to talk to a manufacturer about a possible issue.

It’s true that you do get a feel for appropriate torque over time, but you’d be amazed how wrong you can be at times. I encourage the use of torque wrenches. But many don’t know how to use them properly.

It’s important when you’re finished using your torque wrench to return it to a zero torque setting or, after time, your wrench’s calibration will be off.

Torque wrenches are designed to be used when tightening a bolt. If you want to check torque properly, you must first loosen the bolt and re-tighten it using a torque wrench. Not many realize this distinction. This in mind, I don’t use a torque wrench for bolt checks.

Aluminum bars and stems are so light these days that they too require a torque wrench for installation. Remember, torque specs aren’t there just to keep you from destroying your carbon bar or seat post. They also keep you from stretching your stem and seat post collar.

Re your post script: Not much time at all. In season, training camps can be a time to get in a couple of rides. I had some great training days in Tuscany and the Ardennes in 2006. If you stay in country between two races, you can sneak in some fun (if you call getting killed on climbs by Tom Danielson fun!). For the most part we’re on call for the nine or so months we’re working. But then we get the winter off to play, so it’s not all bad.

Q.Hi Nick, during the off-season, who maintains the rider’s bikes? Do team riders have mechanics assigned to maintain their bikes or do they just frequent local shops?
— Pete Zampardi

For a lot of the riders, NO ONE! You’d be amazed at how bad a bike some pros are willing to ride. Some are extremely lazy about maintenance and others are too cheap to take them in to a shop. In Girona, Garmin riders got a lot of help from the team mechanics, even in the off season. But once the North Americans and Aussies headed home, they were on their own. I always liked to send my riders home with a functional bike, a spare chain, brake pads, cables and bar tape for the winter. I always encouraged them to buy cheap, tough training tires for the winter. Whether they maintained the bike over the winter or not, at least they didn’t have an excuse. Finally, when they returned the bike, even if it was trashed, it had to be clean!

Q.Nick, cyclocross tires are often run at extremely low pressures, sometimes so low that the bike can squirm around noticeably under the efforts of the rider. At the same time, manufacturers are trying to make ‘cross bikes stiffer, with huge bottom brackets and head tubes now being the norm. Doesn’t the low tire pressure just cancel out any of the efficiency gains made through a stiffer drive train?
— Derek Hardinge

I like your question. Remember that a really stiff frame and fork on a ‘cross bike allows you to really feel what your tires are doing. The oversized nature of modern frames helps get all of your usable power to the rear cassette, and if your rear wheel is stiff, then to the rear tire. Low pressures maximize how much of that power is then transferred to ground to propel you forward.

If tire pressure is too high, the tire loses contact with the ground and energy is wasted. This holds true not only for cyclocross but also for road tires. Too much pressure actually increases rolling resistance on the road.

It is important for moving parts to move well (like tires and suspension) and that rigid items be very rigid. Dual suspension mountain bikes are a good example here. If the frame on a dual suspension bike flexes, the shock settings become a bit moot.

Think of tires and frames as complementary systems with different tasks. If they both work well, all is good.

Q.Hey Nick, how often to pro mechanics “cross borders” and help out riders on other teams? And how far will one go? Would you hang out of a window to help a non-team member? If a rider needs a bike and his car is up the road or something, would another team go as far to give him a bike, a wheel, an adjustment?
-Adam Rodkey

The world of pro mechanics is actually a pretty small one. Not many people are both qualified and stupid enough to want to do the job. It is quite common for mechanics with shared sponsors to lend product when asked. The favor will always be returned.

If I ever saw a stranded team truck on the side of the road, you better believe I’m gonna stop to check on them. We’re a rolling fraternity in many ways. We let the riders do the racing.

We’re all in the rolling circus together, especially at grand tours. Over the course of three weeks every team is bound to have problems. If we can help we will. The next time is probably us with an issue.

In the race is a bit different. Technically the UCI says that a rider can only be serviced by his team car or a neutral service car. My director and I could get fined if we help a rider from another team.

Sometimes though, especially after a crash, there’s a lot of inter-team cooperation. I gave Roger Hammond a wheel in the 2006 Tour of Britain on a single lane road when his car was behind servicing another team member.

Commissaires are less likely to fine a director if he paces another team’s riders. So he’ll do it knowing that his riders are being simultaneously paced by a different team car. You scratch my back …

The other time we’ll help is with bottles. If a rider is in a breakaway or a grupetto with one of our riders, we’ll help with food, Cokes and bottles. Last year at the Tour of Poland I gave a Garmin vest to a shivering Matthew Lloyd on a cold, wet descent late in the race. Team cars were everywhere and he was in bad shape.

All that said, I’ve never seen a team car give a bike to a member of a different team. We are racing after all and I want my riders to benefit from my efforts as a mechanic and the efforts of our sponsors.