Ask Nick: Rider positions, helmet changes, and Euro team bike racks

VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan answers more questions about life in the European pro caravan: broken helmets, rider positions and those cool car racks that Euro' teams use.

Editor’s Note: This is the third 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.

2007 Tour de France, Fabian Cancellara in the caravan
2007 Tour de France, Fabian Cancellara in the caravan

As a team mechanic, do you have a spreadsheet of riders’ measurements for seat height and bar reach that you set up verbatim day in and day out, or do riders vary these measurements for a particular stage? For instance, would you adjust the angle of the seat or the bar reach for a mountain stage differently than for a long, flat stage?

Secondly, what is the team dynamic for mechanics? Are there often multiple bike techs with one crew chief or is it a one-man show? — Jonathan

Over the years, my methods for documenting riders’ positions have evolved. I started with a simple spreadsheet and updated it often as the riders tweaked. I took all my measurements using a drywall square and a four-foot level (I still do, as it is the most mobile and reliable system I’ve found). This was maintainable with 15 riders and one mechanic.

On Garmin we had Retül measurements for each rider, which was a huge help. Their Zin measurement is ridiculously accurate. In fact, it’s a standard that is hard to replicate in the field without their system. But when you have almost 30 riders, you need to be organized. The biggest problem on a ProTour team is communication among athletes and mechanics. For example, a rider will lower his saddle on his race bike at one event, but only two of the seven mechanics are at that race. If this change isn’t communicated to the others, at the next race I’m likely to check his seat height and raise it, thinking it slipped. It quickly becomes complicated.

Riders rarely change their position for specific courses. Most changes are due to fatigue, injury or muscular tightness the rider is trying to manage. Carlos Sastre rode slightly higher bars in 2006 for climbing stages, but he was an exception to the rule.

In 2005, I was the sole mechanic for the HealthNet team. For Tour de Georgia and the Philly week we hired a second mechanic. The next year I went to Europe with CSC and I was suddenly working with eight mechanics from seven different countries. With some mechanics I spoke English, some French, some Itanish (that’s a mix of Italian and Spanish). The head mechanic ran the show. With that many mechanics, you need a clear leader.

So it varies from team to team and it’s based mostly on team budget.

Hello Nick,
I love watching ProTour racing and am always amazed that the guys get up after a crash and start riding again. While it’s common to see a bike change after a crash, I never see helmets changed out. Did the TV coverage miss it or are helmets not getting damaged? I thought a helmet is supposed to be thrown away after one hit. -Scott

I’ve heard that helmets deteriorate over four or five years, even unused ones. True of false? -Phil

Scott and Phil,
In two days I received four emails about helmets. You guys must be psychically connected! Every team I’ve worked for carried a couple of spare helmets in the team car. This was mostly in case riders forget theirs before the start.

I never handed up a helmet to a rider after a crash. But the soigneurs are well aware of those who crash and issue them new helmets that evening. It’s not ideal.

After a crash, assuming an ambulance isn’t involved, a rider’s first concern is getting back into the bunch. Once there, he or she can go back to the doctor’s car and the team car can service their needs at the back of the peloton.

So I don’t think the television coverage has failed to cover it. It just doesn’t happen that often. If a helmet is obviously destroyed in a crash, that rider needs a doctor, not a new helmet.

Helmets do deteriorate over time and especially when exposed to UV. Nic Sims at Specialized told me Specialized destroys any helmets in its warehouse that are four years old or older. So, Phil, you’re better off looking for a new lid.

Could you shed some light on the custom roof racks many of the Euro teams use? These are almost never seen in the U.S. but the de facto standard in Europe. Who builds these for the teams? How much do they cost? What’s so unique about them? When I look at them I notice many are quite elaborate and I would love to hear more about them from someone who has worked with them first hand.

The racks you see on every Euro team car are custom. I know of three builders, one in Belgium, one in the Basque Country and one in Italy. The racks we used on Garmin ran 1,200 Euros each. When you consider how many cars a ProTour team has, the cost adds up quickly.

Whoever is building them, the goal is the same: maximize the carrying capacity of the car. Each rack is designed to the specs of the head mechanic of the team. And he’d better like it, because they are often repainted and re-used year after year.

You’ll see variations, some with spare wheels on the front of the car, some on the back. Seven bikes is pretty normal, with four complete and three with the front wheel removed. Four pairs of wheels are usually crammed on the roof as well. The Spaniards call the wheel racks la galleria, and I like the sound of the word: We’re putting our bikes and wheels on display.

Milram had their racks chromed and I never saw anything more beautiful for carrying a bicycle.

In the U.S. there isn’t a big enough market for anyone to build them. Toby Stanton, Hot Tubes frame builder and painter, has built some racks in the past for Mavic neutral cars and motorcycles. But U.S. teams have rack sponsors. So Thule or Yakima aren’t going to be too happy if their products aren’t used.

It’s all a matter of budget (which seems to be a recurring theme here).

Related: All Ask Nick columns

NLeganEditor’s note: After graduating from Indiana University with honors and a degree in French and journalism, Legan jumped straight into wrenching at Pro Peloton bike shop in Boulder for a few years. Then, he began a seven-year stint in the professional ranks, most recently serving for RadioShack at the Tour de France and the Amgen Tour of California. He also worked for Garmin-Slipstream, CSC, Toyota-United, Health Net and Ofoto.