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Book excerpt: ‘Bike Mechanic: Tales for the Road and Workshop’

The wheel change during a bike race is a pressure situation; practice and a calm approach are essential

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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Bike Mechanic: Tales for the Road and Workshop,” a new book from VeloPress.

The wheel change is the one time that a mechanic can really help his riders during a race. Good changes take a few seconds. Rear wheels and time trial bikes create another set of problems but the essential aim is always the same: to get the change done as quickly as possible.

Calmness is required to achieve this aim — not just from the mechanic, but from the affected rider. Riders know to wave for attention to the commissaire’s car before they stop. They hope that their team car also immediately sees the problem although either way the commissaire will radio to let the squad know that one of its riders has an issue. The rider will stop on the right-hand side of the road, allowing all the team cars, motorcycles, press, TV, and race cars to pass safely to the left.

If it’s a rear wheel puncture, the stricken rider will shift his chain into the smallest sprocket to enable the wheel to be removed quickly. If the team car is a ways down the string of following vehicles, he will probably remove the wheel and hold it up in the air for greater visibility. If it’s a team leader who is affected, the action will be even quicker: Teammates will drop behind and usually give their own wheel or even bike. This allows the leader to return to the race more quickly — and leaves the domestique behind to receive the service and then endure the long slog back into the race.

During the 2013 Milano–Sanremo, Pablo Lastras of the Movistar squad finds himself with a puncture. Time for the mechanics to spring into action. First of all, his flatted front Campagnolo Bora wheel is quickly removed and unceremoniously dumped on the road while the new wheel is installed. The mechanic assisting Pablo presumably has to wrestle with the “lawyer’s tabs” on the fork ends — the lips that retain the front wheel should the quick release lever come undone. In the past, many mechanics filed off these tabs to assist quick wheel changes. New legislation from the UCI intends to stamp out this practice, however. Now the mechanics have to reset the quick release correctly. The result will undoubtedly be slower race service.

Once the change is done, it’s time to get the stranded rider on the move as quickly as possible. A push usually helps him on his way. In addition to the mechanic, the directeur sportif will normally have gotten out of the team car. That means that as one finishes up the change and picks up the wheels, the other can push the rider back up to speed. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that Pablo is in a reasonably large sprocket at the back so he can get on top of the gear quickly. If it is a rear wheel puncture, the rider will have to be pushed until he can shift into the correct gear and start pedaling.

The moment the rider is clear, the car chases after mechanic Francesco, who thoughtfully collected the flatted wheel. He may have had to run 200 meters down the road to get Lastras back up to full speed.

All this takes a few minutes at most, although it still normally leaves the rider facing a long chase back to the race. Often the rider therefore calls for more service from the mechanic once back up to speed. This could be regarded as a bit of gamesmanship, as invariably there is nothing wrong with the bike, but it allows the rider to hang onto the car and get some needed assistance for the chase. The race judges will usually turn a blind eye if it’s following a crash or puncture, but riders certainly can’t hold on for a free ride all the way.

“Usually, in the car during quiet moments, we chat or talk by radio with the guys in the other Vittoria cars, exchanging information and commenting on the race. But that day we were all tense. It was freezing cold, and the riders were racing in unbelievable conditions. We helped them to dress, to open their energy bars, to shake off the snow from their backs and shoulders. In the car the heating was set to maximum level so my hands were warm enough. And then Lastras of Movistar had a flat — I had no problems and replaced his wheel in seconds. As I pushed to get him started again, I saw his eyes: He was really overwhelmed by the effort, from the cold and from that absurd situation. I saw him again at the Giro this year and he thanked me for that help. I just remember the intense cold, the heavy snowfall, and the tension of it all.” — Francesco Villa, Mechanic Vittoria Neutral Service, on the 2013 Milan-San Remo