La Perfection A Tout Prix, Part 1
(Perfection at Any Price)
Velo Magazine November 1998
as translated by Ric Hjertberg
24 Hours With a Mechanic
At the hotel all is calm, but in the parking lot its already far from the cozy bed. Jean-Marc Vandenberghe, head mechanic for Telekom, goes and comes from his truck workshop inspecting the bikes of Zabel, Ullrich and Riis. He changes a gear wire on one bike. On another he sprays a bit of oil and, for safety’s ake, turns a screw to adjust one last time the brakes and derailleurs.
Twenty-seven racing bikes shine in the sun of early mornign, three for each rider. One for the race, one backup which, if everyhting goes well, wills tay on top of the team director’s car, and another bike for time trials.
The duties at Telekom are clearly didived. Vandenberghe is concerned with the bikes of the stars. Dirk Tyteca and Geert Rombouts take chargeof the other riders and their steeds. This way ther’s no doubt who is responsible for any problems or breakdowns. Bandedberghe remembers with regret one of those black days in the life of a mechanic: July 26, 1997. It was the final time trial for the Tour de France when Bjarne Riis threw his bike into a field. “Later, Bjarne told me it had been his fault, but that’s something I dont’s want to revisit.” At the end, according to Vandenberghe, the two took glasses of red wine, toasting the “incident” and all was returned to normal. Ultimately, confidence is the basis of this work. Racers leave the hotel in the morning and have blind confidence in the mechanic’s work of the previous night. A screw badly tightened, a defective gear, a stop wrongly adjusted…a mechanic incedent can reduce to nothing the team’s work of an entire week.
The mechanics aren’t fond of technical extravagence or cutting edge innovation. And their influence on the choice of materials is minimal. In contrast, they possess a total confidence and absolute commitment to the team. Those who cannot take that to heart are quickly excluded from this scene. Most mechanics know how to adapt themselves and stay for a long time: on a pro team, at the least, three mechanics will represent an accumulation of thirty to fifty years of prefessional exprience. If one team dissolves and another forms, the elder mechanics are rehired. It’s a never-ending circuit of migrant labor, 250 days per year where everyone is well known to each other. Days of racing are followed by training in winter and spring, during whcih mechanic’s sservice are owed to riders.
How does one come to this work and what are the characteristics of a good mechanic? More than the motivation and experience, there is another particular trait of these folks: they are of few words. Guisepe Archetto, chief mechanic of Saeco, shrugs, “Passion and love of the sport.” Ok. Angel Moreno, of the Festina team, has worked for ten years with the pros and confides, “cherish your bikes like your wife.” That’s advice which wasn’t followed by Dino Falconi of Mercanto Uno. He’s put in a thirty year career with the pros, without wife or children. His family is the racing scene.
The race begins. Vandenberghe takes his schedule and tools to the back seat of the team car and waits quietly for the next hours to come. His greatest concern hendforth: a crash, first for the rider and then for the bike. Then he’ll need to be vigilant, wuick with a good bike at hand. But as long as the peleton rides together and the cars follow he has the time for a little nap. Tension grows when a group escapes with the Telekom riders. Thent the team car is authorized to insert itself by charging to the front. Generally its the same thing: change a flat for the umptieth time. Dismount the wheel, remove the sheel, replace it with a new one, restart the rider for 15 meters in a fresh race. For the moment everythings quiet in thepeleton and the chief mechanic Vandenberghe let’s himself be transported across the countryside byt the team’s director, Walter Godefroot.
The pro peleton’s image has evolved dramatically in recent years. Bikes are often state-of-the-art with the majority of teams riding today with aluminum which makes light, strong bikes. Same with the components, made lighter and lighter. With weight of less than 8 kilos, the Bianchi of Mercanto Uno has reached the limit which is useable by the competitor. The chouce of bicycle is an affair of sponsors: that which pays determines what gets used. The riders and mechanics have little influence.
Standard equipment are Campagnolo’s Record and Shimano’s Dura Ace groups. Numerous manufacturers are proud that the bikes of the pros are built just like those they sell: bikes of the stars for the whole world. It isn’t always obvious when one looks deeper int he machines. The frames of Pinarello, Cannondale and Bianchi are equipped with carbon forks by Time. A clue: the steerer is superlight carbon. Vandenberge points out the inside of the tube: “You see, the reinforcement in the shape of a cross, it makes the fork very, very rigid.”
Returning to the rear of the bike which is known for aerodynamic wheels, in normal road races we see Shamal and Cosmic, etc. wheels less and less often. The technical support cars always carry such wheels on board but out impression is that they are used exclusively for time trials. Faustino Nunoz of Once, always prefers classical wheels with thirty-six spokes. “They last the longest.”
And most of his collegyes share this opinion. If they need specific equipment the teams prefer the prodcut of their sponsor. In the case of the light wheels for the mountains, as the entire last generation of riders enjoyed, MAvic’s Helium and Campag’s Electron appear sporadically.
In Tire’s it’s always the tubular which are in the spotlight. To this date, only Michelin has succeeded in creating clinchers to the taste of riders with their “l’Axial Pro” which is relatively widespread. Michelin offers its “Race Support: label for tires with particular dimensions and mixtures of materials, as well as some tubulars.