Ask Nick: Mechanics in the off-season and tools of the trade

Nick answers questions about what race mechanics do when there isn't much racing going on and explains what tools just have to be within arm's reach in the team car.

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth edition of a new 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.Nick, what are the typical pro-mechanic’s commitments during the season and off-season? Do they have off-season jobs? Are they traveling with the team from the classics all the way through September without time off? —Tyler Swartz

When you join a team, you typically sign a 12-month contract. That means that unless you put special provisions in your contract, you’re at the mercy of the team for the entire year. In practice though, you get an off-season. Obviously it depends on the team, but usually you’ll get from mid-October to January 1 off. That’s changing with longer and longer seasons. December camps are becoming pretty regular on larger teams. Races begin in January now and continue to mid-October.

During the season you do get downtime. That varies from team to team. On large teams with six to eight mechanics you’ll get a week–and-a-half or two weeks off after a long stint on the road. Each tour of duty can be as short as a week to as long as seven weeks. But for the most part you’re gone for three to four weeks at a time.

Between races you may have service course duties though. If the new bikes or wheels for the Tour show up, it’s all hands on deck. In that case, it becomes a 9-t- 5 job. If it’s a quiet time of the season, I try to get out of town and relax somewhere that serves tapas and beer.

Divide and conquer is the tactic. We share the load and try to keep everyone as rested as possible. Most team logistics managers try to keep all the staff working a similar number of race days throughout the season.

In the off-season I worked cyclocross or track, as much for the love of it as for the money. I wanted to experience every aspect of the sport. I also have a bit of a problem sitting still. A lot of mechanics are smarter than me though, and take vacation. Some head for warmer climates, some simply sleep as much as possible, but it is vital to recharge in some way during those quieter months.

Q.Nick, I was wondering if the mechanic’s tools that are hauled around during a grand tour are different from a single-day race? What tools are carried in the team car during a grand tour? — Gary Gaither

My race car tool kit from 2009 with Garmin.
My race tool kit

I never changed my toolbox for specific races within a season. Once you have your box dialed for a specific set of bikes, it’s usually best to leave it alone. Most stints on the road are similar in length, whether for a series of one-day races or a grand tour. Before each trip I made sure that I had zip-ties and hacksaw blades in my toolbox. Otherwise, we focused on the truck and its supplies. On ProTour teams the mechanics always worked in pairs. On Garmin I mostly worked with a Catalan mechanic named Joan Linares. Together we would ensure that we had a full complement of spare parts, tires, lubes, degreaser and the appropriate bikes for the races we were working.

For the classics, you won’t need to carry time trial bikes or parts, but you’ll go heavy on tires, cables and wheels. For a grand tour, you’ll go heavy on everything! It’s common for a Tour de France team to use two trucks, one for time trial material and the other for road bikes. The time trial truck will show for the appropriate stages and return to the service course in between.

Often we will park the truck in a secure location near our next race and fly home if we have time. It’s amazing what three or four days at home can do for morale.

In the car, we’ll always have a bag with spare parts, a pump, rags, chain lube and a spare helmet. (if you’re on a Di2 team, don’t forget a spare battery)

The tools you bring along in the car are a matter of individual preference. I always stash my toolbox in the back with the cooler, spare parts and rider rain bags (clothing for when it rains or cools off). I then have a small set of often-used tools that I pin to the back of the front passenger seat (see photo).

Lennard Zinn passed along this question from one of his readers:

Q.I have seen you write that no professional mechanic that you know of breaks a chain to clean it, as it would increase the chance of breakage while riding. When I clean my drivetrain I take both derailleurs, the crank, the cassette and the chain off and dunk them in a Safety-Kleen parts washer, brush them off thoroughly, and finally blow them clean and dry with compressed air. How do the pro mechanics get the drivetrain in general and the chain in particular clean between races if they don’t break the chain? — Brian

Keep in mind that we are washing bikes every day. They can only get so dirty over the course of a long race. So we have less drivetrain grime to remove. My preferred method for drivetrain cleaning requires a dropout-mounted chain roller (like Pedro’s Chain Keeper, though many mechanics make their own), a water bottle, degreaser and a 1.5-inch paint brush.

Cut the paint brush bristles down to get rid of some of the bristle flex. Cut the top off of the water bottle. Pour some degreaser in and put it in the water bottle cage on your seat tube. Take out your rear wheel and install your chain keeper.

Paint degreaser on the chain rings, shifting from one to the other to access each ring without a chain on it. Paint the derailleurs and rotate the cranks to paint the derailleur pulleys. (Remove lube build-up with the back end of the paint brush handle or a screwdriver). Take your time. You want all the nooks and crannies clean.

For the chain, shift to the big chainring and scrub the sides of the chain on both the inside and outside. Then clean the rollers of the chain as it rolls over the chain keeper. Do this top and bottom of the rollers.

Rinse it all with a spray of water, then wrap a soapy drivetrain-only sponge around the chain and pedal through the length of the chain a couple times. Proceed with cleaning the rest of your bike and rinse. Use your compressor to blow everything dry and then begin to carefully lube everything on the bike that requires it.

Practice this a few times and your bike washes will only take 15 minutes and you’ll spend less time re-installing your drivetrain.

Q.Nick, I recently bought some new tires and wheels for my Specialized Roubaix. The original wheels were 36 spoke front and back with 700c x 25 tires. The new wheels are 16 spokes front and 20 spokes rear with 700c x 23 tires. The ride on the new wheels is extremely harsh. Is this due to the tires or the wheels? — Ron Boetger

I would say that both the tires and the wheels are contributing to the change in ride quality you’re experiencing. In order to build a wheel with fewer spokes a manufacturer needs to use a stronger, stiffer rim. It may be more aerodynamic and maybe even lighter, but it makes for a harsher ride.

Radial lacing (where the spoke goes directly from the hub to the rim without cross any other spokes tangentially) also transmits more shock to the rider. This lacing is becoming common on front wheels and one side of rear wheels. This also contributes to a harsher ride.

Lastly, your narrower tires have a smaller cross-section. In order to avoid pinch flats you need to inflate them to a higher pressure. This lowers rolling resistance, but isn’t helping your riding comfort.

My recommendation would be to first install your 25 mm tires on your new wheels. Then you can truly compare the two wheelsets and their ride quality. I’m a big fan of larger tires for most of the riding population. They are much more comfortable and I personally like the larger tire for dirt roads and long winding descents.

Tires can entirely change the personality of a set of wheels. So before you’re too disheartened, try wider tires (preferably higher quality with more supple casing too!).
— Nick