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Justin Wagner: The Pennsylvania bike wizard

The Pennsylvania bike wizard

Words by Karen Brooks
Photos by the Trans-Sylvania Epic Media Team

As dusk falls in the lush Pennsylvania woods, things are winding down at the NoTubes Trans-Sylvania Epic mountain bike stage race. The awards ceremony and slideshow are over, so racers filter back to their cabins. Birds stop singing and evening quiet envelops the rustic Boy Scout camp. But one pavilion off to the side of the dining hall is still a hub of activity — lights blazing, conversation, occasional clanking and hissing noises. This is where local shop Freeze Thaw Cycles does its mechanical support for the race.

Co-owner and chief mechanic Justin Wagner is like a young bike wizard, with a full, bushy beard and tattoos that resemble the pages of a bike repair manual. He’s got an exploded diagram of an internally geared hub on one shin, the shop logo on the other; one forearm sports a wheel-dishing tool, the other a very convenient chainring bolt-circle-diameter gauge. Wagner jumps from one repair job to the next with efficiency, but always taking the time to talk to his customers, explaining what’s going on with the bike, giving advice, or just swapping stories.

Wagner has been doing race support for the Trans-Sylvania Epic (TSE) for all six years the race has been held. He first found out about it at an IMBA summit attended by promoter Mike Kuhn and offered to come out. That first year, he thought it would be similar to other mountain bike events. “I went out there and soon realized the scope of the race, the number of people showing up and the level of bikes — it kind of blew me away,” he says.

The race is tough — besides being a full seven days (though there is now a three-day option), it traverses some of the most famously rocky trails in the country, which tend to beat up on bikes as well as riders. The first couple of years he pulled double duty at the race and at the Freeze Thaw shop in town. “I would work in the shop from about 6-7 in the morning until about 3, I would then drive out to Scout camp which is at least 15 miles, I would work — some nights I was out there until like 2 in the morning, then I would drive back home, so tired, and then I would do the same thing over the next day, for the whole week. What I found was that there was some major stuff going on out there as far as repairs — it wasn’t just lubing chains, it was like replacing entire drivetrains, doing all kinds of weird stuff.”

Since then, Wagner has got the support for this race down to a science, stuffing his Sprinter van full with a huge arsenal of tools and parts, as well as accessories for sale. He sets up shop in the pavilion and sleeps in the van after finishing the evening’s work. Shop mechanic Adam Shrigley pitches in to lighten the load. In six years, Wagner has gotten a grad-school-level education in race support from this event. “I’ve learned my mobile support just from doing that race,” he says. “I like to try to be prepared for anything, think on my toes — you literally don’t know what you’re going to get, it could be really small or pretty crazy. I bring pretty much enough parts to build an entire bike out there. With all the new bottom brackets out, I go out prepared for that, and I see a lot of those going bad, so just having the tools on hand to do that, and all the different bearings and whatnot. Entire drivetrain replacements every year — chain, cassette, rings, derailleur, cables.”

Wagner deals well with the pressure and does his best to keep people rolling. “Most times, people have to ride that bike within the next few hours, the next morning. It’s not — give us a day with it, we’ll get it going, it’s more quick thinking, quick solutions.”

Once Wagner found himself drilling out the dust cap on a carbon crank on board a $12,000 S-Works. “I’m out in the middle of the woods doing that. I’m thinking, this is pretty wild. If I was at the shop doing this, I’d have my little mini-machine shop to work with… here, I’m out there with a power drill and a set of tools I’ve mustered up.” The atmosphere at the pavilion is like the best of brick-and-mortar shops — casual and inviting. People wander over, some bringing bikes with cables dangling or tires flat, some bringing beer to share. Wagner’s shaggy dog Bosco barks at newcomers for a bit and then settles down. “I get really tech-oriented racers hanging out,” Wagner says. “Some people show up to race really hard; some people go to finish each day and hang out and talk to some of the locals. I have made pretty decent friends at that race.”

Wagner brings a lot of experience, not just shop-based, but also mobile repair through his participation in the local race scene from a young age. “I had been doing local stuff since college, since 24-hour races were popular, doing a lot of road racing — I was always the one bringing a tool box. I started mountain bike racing when I was 12. After a while, I was looking for something else to do at those events. It was a little weird, being on the other side of it at first, but now it’s fun.”

Wagner and his shop have earned a good reputation from the event, and people come to him for service they can’t get elsewhere. “I’ve noticed some people showing up at TSE with specialty parts for me to install that their shop at home didn’t have the tools to do … had a guy from Panama last year that brought this really fancy bottom bracket for his press-fit bike and he had me install it for him. So it’s almost like ‘bike mechanic tourism,’ kinda cool.” However, he has to decline fork rebuilds. “I don’t do that out there; it’s way too dirty. I wouldn’t tear my own fork apart out there.”

Despite the hard work and long hours, Wagner considers providing support for this race to be a “working vacation,” and his dedication to the craft shows. “I do it to clear my head, but also for the challenge. Often I get to work on new products that we haven’t even gotten yet, or very few of. It’s a fun, different experience for me. I work a lot, but I don’t let it stress me out. It feels a little self-serving, honestly, to go out to [the TSE] each year. Even though it benefits the shop, it’s just so fun. The setup couldn’t be better. Swimming in the morning, going riding in the afternoon.”

Besides fun, doing support for this race has made good business sense. “It’s a really good advertising thing for us, too, to be honest,” Wagner says. “It’s gotten our name out far beyond any reach it had, just because there’s customers from so far around. We just hit our 10-year mark, and we’ve always been heavy on word-of-mouth, and soft on actual advertising. We’re pretty conservative with that. But then when I look at our involvement with the TSE — I consider that our marketing budget.”

The friendly atmosphere of this particular race makes it special for both participants and for those who help make it happen, including Wagner. “I get a lot more thank-yous there than at other events I do,” he says. “The type of people that show up for this race — even the very serious racers are pretty respectful. I’ve dealt with all the top-end pros there for years, and I keep coming back. If I wasn’t getting treated well I wouldn’t want to.”