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. You can submit questions to Nick at email@example.com, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.
Q. Nick, We hear all the time about how technological advances change bikes, training, nutrition, and athlete recovery, but how has technology changed the role of the professional mechanic? So many of the little things that make a professional mechanic as good as he is seem to be “old world” technology (hand-made truing stands that are 50 years old, classic’s wheels that have a decade’s worth of service on them, secret chain preparation methods for rainy days, etc), but what new tricks has advanced technology brought to the mechanic’s world to help them do their jobs more quickly, efficiently, or more accurately?
— Andy Payne
If I follow your question (and I think I do) you have hit on something fundamental to the evolution of race mechanics. The job has changed over the years. Not just in a technological way either. Teams are bigger with more riders, larger trucks, up to three simultaneous programs and a longer season than ever before. Logistics take up a large part of a mechanic’s day.
I think the fundamentals are still very important. Wheel building for instance is not something that most pro race mechanics have to do very often. But through lacing, tensioning and final tuning of a wheel, a mechanic gains greater understanding of how a wheel works. Chains may be narrower than ever, but the design is still basically the same. Keep the rollers lubed and the thing is happy.
The way I see it is that for every “labor-saving” technology (sealed bearings, pre-built wheels) another labor-intensive step is added (carrying a bearing press, disposable carbon race frames that won’t handle a crash like a steel frame). Being a current professional race (or shop) mechanic is not easier than it was in bygone eras, it’s simply different.
To be sure, a top-level mechanic from the 1960s had a slightly different skill set than modern ones. But race bikes still use double diamond frames, tubular tires, derailleurs for shifting a chain across a cassette and two chainrings and caliper brakes for stopping. Things like electronic shifting, while extremely cool, are not really huge departures from what we’ve ridden for decades. It’s still a derailleur with limit screws that requires a skilled hand, set of eyes and ears to adjust.
Mechanics now need an eye for carbon, what is a problem and what isn’t when it comes to blemishes or possible cracks.
I think the biggest labor savers are things not used for bikes but that help a mechanic in his other duties. Power washers speed up car washing. A GPS has made life much easier when driving alone, especially in large trucks. Mobile phones … well don’t get me started! I can’t imagine doing this job without a good smart phone.
Why is white handlebar tape so popular in the peloton? It must need to be changed constantly in order to have a nice, new-looking bike at each race. With black it would seemingly last longer thus save on tape and more importantly, save time for the mechanic.
— Scott Allen
White bartape is the sign of a pro mechanic. It is a LOT more work, to be sure. But because it shows dirt so easily, the fact that it’s clean says something about the guy working on the bike: namely that his hands are clean!
Black tape does last longer, but it just doesn’t look as good as bright white (in my humble opinion). I know that I go on and on about the laziness of mechanics, but it’s all tongue-in-cheek. They are some of the hardest working people I know. And they obsess over how their bikes look (most of them see the bikes as their own, not the riders). The goal is to have showroom bikes each and every day. That isn’t always possible, but nothing spruces up a slightly tired bike like brand new white bartape. It also acts as a diversion: if the tape is clean, so is the bike, even if that’s not always true.
It is amazing to see the wheel and bike setup for the different pro teams for riding the cobbles, and mostly, it makes a lot of sense. What doesn’t make sense to me is the current fad for riders going gloveless. Was it incredibly hot in Belgium on Sunday (Tour of Flanders weekend), or is the risk of falling on the cobbles, putting your hand down and removing a large part of hand skin not really a concern? Is it just so bumpy, riders’ gloves vibrate off their arms?
— Andrew Myatt
I didn’t get a chance to talk to any riders who went gloveless on Sunday, but I have a couple thoughts on the matter. I imagine that part of it has to do with bike feel on the cobbles. Too much cushion isolates a rider from what the bike is doing underneath him. When I’ve ridden the cobbles (not extensively, mind you) I didn’t want a big fat handlebar covered in two layers of bartape or thick gloves. I think many pros feel the same way.
To delve further into your question: it was unseasonably warm on Sunday. Maybe their hands were getting sweaty and slipping inside their gloves. Or maybe the riders wanted to avoid tan lines!
My last thought on the matter is pure conjecture. But machismo is alive and well in the European peloton. I’m sure there is some level of riders wanting to look tough. They must say to themselves: “I’m not gonna fall. I’m too good to fall. Cobbles? What cobbles?” Or something to that effect. Point is the pros do whatever they need to to get through a race. If “taking the gloves off” helps a guy psyche himself up, he should.
I have been trying to find some information regarding the team doctors we always hear about in the media consulting on Taylor Phinney’s knee or Levi’s stomach troubles. Who are these doctors and how do they get their jobs working for a pro team? I ask because I am enrolling in medical school this summer and while I know it is unlikely the idea of working for a pro team sounds pretty exciting.
On a side note, maybe we can convince teams to post on their websites rosters of mechanics and doctors along side their riders, eh?
— John Watson
The team doctors are usually cyclists themselves. They are fans of the sport and seek out the job in many cases. Most of them have a practice at home or in several instances run an emergency department at a hospital.
The job of these doctors is pretty involved. While most sign a year-long contract with the team, they only travel to large races and training camps. The rest of the season they simply consult when problems arise.
One of the biggest responsibilities of the team doctor is to ensure that no one takes something on a banned substance list, especially things like cold medicine, etc. If there are special circumstances that require temporary use of a banned substance, the doctor is also responsible for getting a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) filed with the UCI.
During a race, doctors will check that riders are healthy and try to shorten any cold or cough that a rider may develop. Crashes also play a big part in a doctor’s team position. If at a race, the doctor will accompany a rider to the hospital if a visit is necessary.
Your best option for working with a team is simply seeking one out and offering to help once you’ve finished medical school and residency. It’s a big responsibility but teams need good doctors to keep everyone healthy and out of trouble.
As to your side note: some teams do list their staff as well as their riders. After all, without both you don’t have a team!