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Ask Nick: Questions about classics gear, crashes on carbon bikes and lined-up handlebars

Nick takes questions about spring classics gear, frame inspections after crashes and how to line up handlebars perfectly.

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Editor’s Note: This is the second of a new regular weekly feature on “Ask Nick.” Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. Nick also is our new Tech Editor for VeloNews magazine and You can submit questions to Nick at [email protected].

2010 Tour de France pre-Tour training on the cobbles. Lance Armstrong
Nick worked for Team RadioShack at this year's Tour. Here the team is doing a pre-Tour ride on the stage 3 cobbles.

I had a question regarding the spring classics: The cobbles, mud and rain must be brutal on the equipment. How much of a rider’s setup is discarded after a race like Paris Roubaix? Are the wheelsets still rideable? What about bottom brackets, headsets and cables etc? Are the frames a one-time use for a race like Roubaix? – Charles O. Jones

Great question. The work involved in preparing for a day like Roubaix is enormous. This July we had to do it in the middle of a grand tour. Because so much is invested in one day, we want to throw away as little as possible.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the consumption of pro teams. Some fans actually believe that we glue up new tires for every day of racing. Utter nonsense. Remember that even if a tire sponsor was willing to give a team that many tires, the mechanics aren’t interested in doing that much work!

Roubaix is particularly taxing on riders and equipment. But you’d be surprised to see how much is cleaned up, checked thoroughly and put away until the next season’s classics. Handbuilt wheels are a big investment for pro teams these days because they aren’t mass-produced. They will be re-used season after season, sometimes with the same tires even (after a fresh layer of glue). If you look closely at photos, you might see hubs that aren’t currently produced.

Frames are re-used as well. In some cases these bikes are ridden only three times in a season; Flanders if a rider wants to get on the bike early, Roubaix reconnaissance and Roubaix itself. Unless the frame is obviously broken in a crash, it is saved as a spare for next year.

Cables, chain, bartape and brake pads are the exceptions. They’ll be pulled off and replaced.

Often a rider will hit the pavement in a pile-up only to remount his carbon bike and continue on his way after only a cursory assessment of his bike. Do you consider this to be dangerous? More to the point: after a previously crashed bike makes its way into your hands, would you discard the frame regardless of appearances or carefully examine every single centimeter and continue to use it if it passes inspection? -Geoffrey Brown

It’s true that carbon and big impact are not the best of friends. If you jump back on your bike after a crash, you are taking the small risk of riding a potentially broken frame. But then you lined up in a race, so you’re used to some risk. When I’m in the team car, if there is any doubt about the safety of a bike, we give the rider a spare. It’s safer and it’s faster than waiting for it to show up later in the race and require a second stop.

Many times riders will go down and be back up and rolling before their mechanic even gets to the scene. In these cases, I feel the risk is low. Crashes can be freaky. Sometimes the rider doesn’t walk away and the bike doesn’t have a scratch, and sometimes an unscathed rider is stranded with a mangled bike. If they ride away, they’re probably fine. Once the chaos of the crash scene is behind him, the rider will often come back to the team car and check in with his mechanic.

If you pick up your bike from a crash and roll away, the likelihood of a catastrophic carbon bike failure is low. If it is broken or cracked, the bike may feel strange or soft. Lance Armstong’s encounter with a fan’s musette is rumored to have broken his chainstay. He not only finished on the bike, but won the stage. (I’m not encouraging anyone to ride a broken bike!)

Once the day is done, every bike is thoroughly inspected. If we had riders on the deck or involved in a crash, extra attention is paid to their bike. Often we’ll pull the fork and check the steerer. We often disassemble the bar/stem junction as well. After inspection and a bolt check, they’re good to go.

As I mentioned above in the Roubaix question, there is no need to categorically throw items away. If there is any doubt though, in the dumpster it goes.

Do you have any tricks for putting handlebar levers on evenly? And lining the stem up in sync with the forks? I’m not great at eyeballing those things. I thought you may know of a better way. Thanks, Tom Tallahassee

You aren’t alone in asking this question. Interestingly, several readers asked the same question. I fear, however, that my answer may disappoint.

Like beauty, whether a bar and stem are straight is in the eye of the beholder as far as I’m concerned. I know that plenty will write in with tried and true methods, and I encourage them to do so. But on teams, whether I thought the setup was straight or not didn’t matter if the rider disagreed.

Will Frischkorn and I never saw bars the same. If I handed him a new bike, I’d hand him an Allen key too, to put the stem where he saw it as straight. The cross-eyed jokes were part of the routine.

I’m sure someone has made a device that clamps into the forks and then extends to the stem to make sure it is perfectly perpendicular to the axle of the front hub. But I’ve never seen and I don’t think I’d bother buying one if it was produced.

Best tip on getting your bars straight: Give up. And keep your eyes on the road, the trail, the scenery around you.

Have you ever been caught in the middle of a battle between what equipment a rider wants to use and what the team sponsor has provided? For example, Jan Ullrich usually had a different arsenal of weapons than his team issue kit. Lightweight and Xentis wheels, Walser TT frames, AX-lightness components to name a few. What do mechanics do in situations like these? Are you ultimately responible to the rider’s wishes regardless of how much time and money a sponsor has invested? -Jeff Somerville

This is not a great part of the job. If a rider, even a star, hands a mechanic an item that isn’t sponsor-correct, he shouldn’t put it on the bike. Simple. A mechanic’s job is to maintain safe, sponsor-correct bicycles for his riders. But a mechanic doesn’t answer to the riders on the team, rather to those that put a paycheck in his hand.

The first step is to call the director or the head honcho in charge of sponsor relations, maybe the owner depending on the team’s structure. Sometimes the rider will have previously discussed the matter with the powers that be. At times, the sponsor themselves will OK the product. But a responsible mechanic will check this out (especially before he puts any time into installing something that might have to come right back off!).

In the end, if the team owner says to put it on, you do. In doing so, the owner is taking on the sponsor. It’s up to them to make friends about the situation. The mechanic is just a pawn in this game sometimes.


Related: The first Ask Nick column