What do professional mechanics do during a World Tour stage race? What are the biggest challenges they face to keep the equipment race ready on a daily basis?
Team Novo Nordisk’s head mechanic Jorge Romero gives the lowdown on the how the royal “bike keepers” experienced the inaugural UAE Tour. A tale of sand, grease and the daily grind of fine tuning some of the world’s best bikes to withstand the rigors of racing in the desert.
Describe a typical race day for a Team Novo Nordisk mechanic in the UAE Tour.
In a stage race our number one priority is to make sure we stay healthy and and in good physical condition to do our work. In that sense we make it a priority to have breakfast at a minimum one hour before the riders so we have enough time to go through our own personal rituals of what we want to eat and be ready for the day.
So typically breakfast time is around 6:30am for us mechanics. Afterwards we start our normal routine. We head out to the site the race organizers have allocated to each team and start inflating the tires on the bikes which were all revised the day before. We make sure everything is pressurized correctly for depending on the stage or the weather.
Then we prepare the vehicles loading the bicycles on top of the vehicles, the spare bikes and the spare wheels. We load the coolers and any personal items that the riders may require as well as any lunch packages they give for the staff to have during the day inside the car. Once the vehicles are prepared we move them as close as possible to the exit of the hotel where we are staying. This is done so that the directors that can find us easily and the riders waste as little energy as possible moving around before the stages.
In this race we had some longer unexpected transfers either to start or a back from the finish which made for our days a little bit longer than we anticipated, at least from the mechanics point of view.
During the Race:
During the race proper we provide any mechanical assistance that is needed but also take notes on the breakaway riders numbers and time gaps for instances. We do this to help our DS’s who are focused on driving the course so they always have this information ready.
I also like to have the updated information on the course and weather, such as wind direction and any specific route obstacles coming up so the team can anticipate race situations that can impact our riders.
After the Race:
After the race my colleague Sergyi and I get out of the car as quickly as possible, look for the riders and collect the bikes and load them into our van as well as any spare equipment and leave the finish location for the hotel as quick as possible. Once we get there one of us goes straight to washing the bikes while the other starts doing the bike checkups for the next day. This was sometimes challenging as the washing location was some 300 meters away from our designated work station which meant a lot of walking back a forth, so a bit more time consuming than we would like.
For the bike check up it’s important to make sure they are thoroughly clean and well lubricated. Make sure all the bolts are checked for torque and nothing has come loose. Check the frame and make sure it has no damages and once that’s done and if there are no special requests from the riders – typically I exchange messages with the riders on the drive from the finish to ask if they would like to make any changes on the bike, like a saddle swap or a wheel selection – I replace any flat tires that need replacing and once everything is thoroughly checked up we clean and fuel up the race vehicles. Only then can we head back to the hotel and if we’re still in time get some dinner with the rest of the staff. In this race, due to the long transfers and logistics, we ended up missing dinner twice as we only finished our work past 10pm. It’s an occupational hazard sometimes.
On the last stage we start the packing up process which needs to be meticulous. Bikes and equipment need to be travel ready to endure the trip back to Atlanta or Italy, where our service course is located, without any damage.
What is the biggest challenge in a race like the UAE Tour from a mechanics point of view?
In a race such as the UAE Tour your equipment is very much exposed to sand and that puts the mechanics in a situation where we have to pay a lot of attention to detail in terms of cleaning and maintaining the equipment in good working status because the sand can cause major, major chaos. Potentially creating situations where the equipment would fail. So that puts a little bit more of a demand in terms of workload for the mechanics on the cleaning aspect.
Can you be more specific and what parts of the bike are more subject to damage because of the sand?
Sure. Number one is we’re running Shimano mechanical equipment group sets and so right off the bat the mechanism is a bit exposed on the inside of the unit itself. The brake shifters of the STI levers have a mechanism that is a little bit exposed on the inside of the unit itself. If sand gets in there the riders may find themselves in a situation where they may be unable to shift gears.
As well as the detailers themselves. Specifically the rear derailleurs. Those are the most challenging since the course in UAE is mostly flat so the rear derailleur is the one that’s mostly used and it’s actually the one that sits more closely to the ground and therefore more exposed to sand which can cause major issues.
Besides bike maintenance are the mechanics in charge of other tasks?
The mechanics are also responsible for the vehicles that were used during the race – DS’s cars and team van – so washing and maintaining these vehicles clean and looking spotless day in and day out is also an extra demand for the mechanics because, again, the sand gets just about everywhere and you don’t really have a high pressure compressors to help with the washing that you typically have access to in European races.
Is there any tool or gadget in your toolbox that you don’t abdicate in order to perform your job as a mechanic in a race like UAE Tour?
Besides the staples that I always carry with me in my Parktool Toolbox for a race such as this one I typically like to bring extra cleaning brushes. What’s helpful is Dubai and Abu Dhabi are quite modern cities. So it’s quite easy to go to an office supply shop or hardware store and get these compressed air cans that you normally use to clean computers or electronic devices and you can use those to get compressed air into the small areas where it’s difficult for you to get at in order to blow the sand away.
These have become quite useful for us in events like these. In Abu Dhabi the organization did provide us with a small compressor to inflate the tires but we do travel with our own air guns so that we can blow off the sand and dry the equipment and we had our own inflating gauges to make sure that we put the right tire pressure into the tires.
What are the biggest concerns for a mechanic during a stage in a desert race?
During the race proper since it was mainly flat stages the speed averages were pretty high and this creates a bit more tension for the mechanic because if a mechanical or a flat tire were to happen the peloton may be rolling at 60-70 km/h and this doesn’t allow us a lot of time in case of an emergency. We need to be able to change a wheel in eight to 10 seconds tops otherwise you could jeopardize the position in the bunch for our riders and their chances in the race. In this sense we need to be 100% focussed and pay attention at all times.
What was the most stressful in race situation you experienced during this UAE Tour?
Fabio Calabria was involved in a multi-rider crash in one of the stages and he required a bike swap. Sergyi, who was riding in car 1, provided the spare bike to Fabio and let me know that I needed to replace the saddle on his main bike. Because we weren’t allowed to stay parked on the side of the road during the race I quickly removed the wheels from Fabio’s bike and got inside car 2 and proceeded to replace and adjust the replacement saddle.
This was quite stressful as we needed to have the bike race ready as soon as possible should Fabio have another incident. After I did the adjustments and had the saddle set up we moved up the peloton, got out of the car reassembled the bike with the wheels and set it up on top of the car , all set to ride if it was necessary. I’d say that was the most stressful situation. Other than that our equipment performed remarkably well and we only had three punctures during the entire week, which is a very good number compared to some of the other teams.