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Mechanics telling stories

Words and photos by Caley Fretz

Five men work in an inauspicious parking lot behind the gas station that sits across the street from Cannondale-Garmin’s rest-day hotel. Nine bikes hang like Christmas tree ornaments on a thin metal fence; behind it swells a green sea of vineyards and fruit trees, lined up in perfect rows, conquering topography for a hundred miles.

It is here, under mild sunshine and with moods brightened by the view and the weather and the relaxed schedule an Italian rest day brings, that the American team’s mechanics do their work, washing and tuning and perfecting before the Giro sets off to the North.

Alan Butler, the smiling son of a cycling family from Derbyshire, England, is wearing the only uniform I’ve ever seen him wear: a faded Morgan Blue apron over a shirtless torso, comfortable shorts, comfortable shoes.

Butler hates washing cars, but he’s washing cars now, because that’s what’s done.

Geoff Brown, a Canadian whose 20 years in Europe haven’t loosened the firm grip of sentence-ending ‘ehs,’ who wants to retire to become a migratory RV enthusiast, is in his team-issue New Balance shirt covered by the another grubby Mavic apron with a 4mm Allen key in his right hand. He waves it about and hits it against his other hand sometimes as he talks.

The two were among the first English-speaking mechanics to enter the European race scene; they worked for small teams first, or national teams, and then with Motorola and U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel and each iteration of Jonathan Vaughters’ Slipstream team, up to the green argyle of today’s Cannondale-Garmin. They have stories.

Stories are important. The big ones, of course, we love those long arcs that run through a race or a season. They are the arteries of sport. But the small ones, those are important, too; perhaps even more so. Small stories make up the days and nights of the people who work behind the circus that is cycling — if you want to know these men, and an increasing number of women, you need the small stories.

The two mechanics, and then the bus driver, tell stories as they work, their hands moving in scripted patterns written over decades as their voices spin yarn after yarn. Long ones, short ones, good and bad. Most are collective, told by both men as each recalls another detail of the moment. All are funny. All flow freely. Here are a few.

“We had to sleep on the floor once,” Brown says, looking up from a small tweak he had been making to Ryder Hesjedal’s matte-black, unpainted time trial bike.

“I was just about to say that,” says Butler.

“Because the VIPs turned up.” Brown says ‘VIPs’ like most would spit out ‘root canal.’ Not disgusted, more exasperated.

“Yep. Because the VIPs turned up. They wanted us to move 60k away. We say, ‘No effing way, we’ll sleep on the bus.’ So the hotel guy said, ‘Come with me’. The food was fabulous, it was Logis de France, so you know the food is good. We wanted to stay. So [we] went upstairs, it must have been a real grand building at one time because it had a huge, like, ballroom.”

“Fantastic, it really was.” They’re almost finishing each other’s sentences, not for the first or the last time this afternoon.

“He put two mattresses on the floor. On the floor also, he put two boxes of wine. We had a toilet and a shower, and two boxes of wine and two mattresses in some grand hall.”

“That’s all you need, eh?”

“That’s all you need.”

Butler hates cleaning cars. He mutters so under his breath at one point. You can’t blame the man. The team cars, both of them, have to be spotless every day. So does the truck and the bus and anything else with a logo on it.

He’s cleaning the team car now. It sparks a memory, and he stops mid-scrub.

“The Italians, when we first came, the toilets … They say you can have a shit, shave, and shampoo at the same time,” he says. “A room like that, there was a toilet, a shower, and a wash basin. I’m like, “What the hell am I doing here?”

Brown chimes in.

“My first Vuelta was like that. In 1993, we were in a hotel, where were we?”

He turns to Butler, but Alan doesn’t know. There were, and are, a lot of hotels like that.

“Anyway, we were staying in a hotel by the train station. I was sharing a room with John. He said ‘Geoff, come over here into the bathroom.’ We go into the bathroom and there’s a hole in the floor, covered by the bath mats, and you could look through to the toilet downstairs and watch someone go.”

“World’s worst show,” says Butler.

Pascal Derame, a French domestique, was second at the world time trial championships in 1994 and once came in fourth in a stage of the Tour de France behind Magnus Backstedt. He is also handy with a screwdriver.

Butler holds up a hand as a memory comes back.

“Motel 25, I remember,” he says. “A rider came, Pascal Derame came. ‘Alan, you have a driver? A screwdriver?’ I hand him one. ‘Non, non, flat, flat,’ he says. I hand him one of those.”

“He got my screwdriver, brought it back. I had no idea what he did with it. Then I went upstairs to the room, and the beds were like this.” He bows his hands into a half-circle.

“Then I looked over at this hole, and thought, ‘Where’s Pascal’s door?’

“He’d pulled the effing door off, laid the mattress down on top. Mattress didn’t bow anymore.”

Andrea Bisogno drives the bus. He’s lean, young, good with a Garmin and fond of riding between the time he arrives at the finish line and when the riders get there.

He was a mechanic before, and driving isn’t his only job now. He does a bit of everything. He was at the top of the Madonna di Campiglio on Sunday, handing jackets and bottles to Hesjedal and Davide Formolo and the rest of the team.

Once, he got his bus stuck. 

“I have a friend who is a farmer, so when I’m home sometimes I park the bus in his field. It was before the Tour de Suisse, I parked the bus in the field, and the night before we leave for Tour de Suisse I saw that the forecast is for rain. So I thought, ‘Maybe it’s good that I take the bus out.’

“Then when I went there, there was a car parked in front, so I couldn’t take out the bus. Okay, no problem, I wait.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, and it was raining, raining, raining. I went in the morning and I was stuck. So stuck.

“I called everybody. I called the fire department. They said ‘Oh, you’re on the road?’ I said ‘No, I’m in a field.’ They said ‘Oh well then we can’t help you. Only if you’re in the road.

“I thought, ‘What do I do now?’”

“In my town, there is a [rock mine]. I had a friend who works there. He said, ‘I have a big, big, big machine, but it’s without number plates. So maybe I can’t come now, but at 12 o’clock all the police will be at the restaurant. I’ll come then.

“I had already tried with tractors, but this was much bigger. It took a few minutes. And I made it to the Tour de Suisse.”

Life at the top of European cycling is not as glamorous as it may appear.

“We were in Lourdes in 1999 on the rest day, when Lance had the yellow jersey,” says Brown. “Crazy Willy, the team chef, came running out to the back of the truck. He says, ‘Geoff, you must come with me.’ I say, ‘Yeah, Willy I’m busy.’ He insists. ‘No no, you must come with me.’

“So I’m like, ‘alright.’ We walk around to the back door and there’s this smell of rotten meat. I’m like, ‘ooooooof.’ I ask what it is.

“He says, ‘That’s the fridge.’ The owner of the hotel turns the electricity off at nighttime to save money. At the hotel where the yellow jersey is staying.”