You think the riders have it hard? In the shadows of the pros there are unseen teams of support staff whose Tour de France schedules are even more gruelling and relentless. Meet the tinkerers…
Last year was my record. I hit the road for 230 days. Two hundred of those were for my pro team, the rest were working for the Swedish national squad at the Olympics. I have a girlfriend but no kids. This lifestyle isn’t conducive to family harmony.’
Klas Johansson is 45 years old, an occasional resident of Gothenburg in Sweden and head mechanic for Vacansoleil-DCM. He’s a former Swedish road race champion, has managed the now disbanded Dutch women’s team Flexpoint (which included double world road race champion Susanne Ljungskog), was a mechanic for Garmin Transition, Cervélo Test Team and, for the last two years, Vacansoleil. Cycling is in his blood. ‘I just want to be inside the race and this is a great way of achieving that,’ he says.
Vacansoleil enjoyed a mixed Tour this year, delivering six riders to the finish line with Wout Poels the highest ranked, at 28th overall. Danny Van Poppel, aged 19, became the youngest Tour entrant since World War Two before being withdrawn on the second rest day. The Dutch team also penned the most heart-breaking tale of the Tour, with Lieuwe Westra abandoning on the Champs Élysées due to a chest infection.
Away from the global gaze were Johansson and his team of six full-time mechanics plus six freelancers, all enduring arguably an even more demanding workload than the riders. ‘A normal day at the Tour begins between 7.30 and 8.30am,’ says Johansson, ‘though some stages, like Alpe d’Huez, saw us hitting the road by 5am. It’s unusual that we’d finish before 10pm.’ That’s every day for four weeks – because the mechanics arrived in Corsica the Sunday before the Grand Départ – and, unlike the riders, there are no rest days for them.
On some stages you know there’ll be a pile-up. You count down for the last 3km and hope the riders are OK
‘It’s a great job, but relentless,’ Johansson says. ‘You have no personal space and we’re not even allowed to ride our bikes because of safety issues. There’s not even time for a haircut.’
Much of the mechanic’s life revolves around the truck. Within this cycling Tardis is space for 50 bikes, plus an additional 60 wheels and an Aladdin’s cave of tools and components. It’s organised to military standards and is the heart of every pro team’s ambitions. Still, that mechanic-truck bond doesn’t prevent inter-team truck envy, with Sky once again leading the pack. ‘They’re the only team who have room to work inside the truck – the rest of us work outside, which is fine when it’s warm but at events like this year’s Giro, where it plummeted to minus two, it’s a nightmare.’
Every minute counts
First task of the day involves Johansson and his team rolling out 18 reserve bikes and 16 wheels to mount onto the two main team cars. ‘Normally you’d have your main guy or GC rider’s bike on the right side of the lead car for a swift exchange if needed. But that changes depending on the day’s objective. So if it’s a sprint stage, that spot would be for the best sprinter’s bike, and if we have two riders who we think might be in the break, we’ll put them on the lead car on either side.’
All the morning preamble usually takes about 45 minutes, although it can take longer, which means less time for mechanics’ breakfasts. Once completed, the truck and cars move to the start, arriving 80-100 minutes before the off.
Host villages, towns and cities take great pride in being chosen as Village Départ. Local music and entertainment, horns (so many horns), vast crowds and even more numerous wine bottles provide a carnival backdrop to proceedings. For spectators, wonderful memories are forged; for the mechanics it’s a nightmare.
‘The pressure can be immense and you have to be calm and assured in your skills and processes,’ says Johansson. ‘By now the bikes shouldn’t need anything major done to them but it can happen. I remember [Juan Antonio] Flecha decided he wanted to ride Bianchi’s Infinito just before a stage instead of the bike we’d prepped for him. It wasn’t race ready so in front of hundreds of pairs of eyes we had to strip it down and set it up to his requirements. We managed it – just – but it reminded me of a key mechanic mantra: assess a job and if you can’t manage it, don’t start it.’
Thankfully for the Swede’s blood pressure that’s not the norm, so for the most part it’s tyre pressures that are the primary concern in the immediate run-up to the start. Track pumps are commonplace – compressors are never used on race morning because ‘they’re not as accurate’. Pressures are based on climatic conditions and each rider’s weight, with some more particular than others. ‘Wout Poels always wants 7.4 bar front, 7.8 rear [107, 113psi],’ while the team’s needs range between 7 and 9. ‘We’ll drop 0.3-0.5 [4-7psi] in the rain. At the other end of the scale are the riders who grew up on a track. They like really hard tyres and it’s hard to tell them any different.’
The pressure can be immense. You have to be calm and assured in your skills and processes
With the preparations done, Johansson will take his position in the lead car. Though Vacansoleil enjoyed a relatively problem-free Tour with just one cracked frame and six punctures, the team must have the armoury to cope with whatever the peloton can throw at them – key among these skills being a polyglot. ‘There are so many nationalities in every team you must handle French, Italian, English, German, Spanish, the Nordic languages… I’m not fluent but I know enough.’
Whatever your mother tongue, the change from mechanical to electronic groupsets has caused problems for amateur and professional mechanics alike, because solving a mechanical issue is a far simpler process. Vacansoleil use Campag’s Super Record EPS system, which Johansson concedes had a few issues when he was first working with Movistar, but is much improved now. ‘There are still occasional issues like the battery memory. If you see a rider stop for no apparent reason and we change his bike, it’s usually because a battery has run out and he can’t shift. It’s a downside over mechanical.’
Johansson will occasionally have to execute a swift wheel change – ‘We can do it in seconds’ – but no matter how uneventful the stage is, anxiety simmers throughout. ‘Some stages are worse than others because you know there’ll be a pile-up. Take that first stage in Corsica. You knew there’d be trouble. Basically you count down for the last 3km and hope the riders are OK.’
For the (hopefully unscathed) riders, crossing that stage finish line is followed by interviews and doping control before heading back to the team bus. But for the mechanics, their day cranks up another notch. ‘It always takes a long time post-stage,’ says Johansson, ‘especially for the dropped riders. But as soon as we have a minimum of five bikes we’ll load up the soigneur’s car and they’ll drive as fast as possible to the next hotel. Two mechanics will be waiting there for clean-up.’
A temporary bike wash is set up in the hotel car park. The team use a high-pressure washer to blast off the day’s detritus before moving onto some tweaks such as replacing handlebar tape. ‘A rider who lives on the drops will require fresh bar tape every six days maximum. But if you have a rider who spends the day with hands on the tops, it completely kills it where the tape meets the bar, so we’ll change every second day.’ Tyres will be replaced if worn down by, as Johansson terms it, ‘panic braking’. No more than a week’s use is the norm. Each rest day sees a new chain fitted, but it’s brake pads that are used with most profligacy. ‘In the worst-case scenario we change the front brake blocks every day. ‘In fact, that’s the biggest talking point with the riders – which brake blocks to use. We have 10 different types.’
More specific changes are dictated by the next day’s route and rider mindset. Each rider is served with a blank spec sheet when travelling between the finish and the hotel. On it they list their needs for the following stage, including aspects like rim depth and cassette set-up. It’s a trusted method that rarely falls down. But faced with fatigue and crankiness accumulated over a couple of thousand miles of intense riding, the riders don’t always follow the rules.
You can be sure that if a rider’s struggling, they’ll change
the saddle height
‘Sometimes they fail to fill it in and you base their ride on your experience of the conditions and the rider. Unfortunately, they sometimes surprise you. You’ll presume they’ll want a 40 [40mm rim] and they’ll see you in the morning and ask for a 60 and Powertap. But the most normal morning change is the saddle. Not three, not five, but 1mm. It’s a head treatment for many, and you can be sure that if a rider’s struggling, they’ll change saddle height.’
In between working on the bikes, the mechanics have dinner, though not with the riders. Despite the critical importance of their work, the mechanics can sometimes go through a whole Tour without ever speaking to a rider. Though not ideal for fuelling friendships, it highlights the single-minded approach required in an event as demanding as the Tour. That focus is finally relieved and a well-earned beer might be opened at around 10-10.30pm most nights. Before it all happens again the next day.
‘Yes, it’s intense,’ says Johansson, ‘and we could all do without some aspects like the driving. In the morning before the final stage, for example, we drove 600km. But I’m fortunate. I’m in a job with loads to do but it’s not work. I want to play my part in every stage. When I lose that passion, I’ll know it’s time to move on. But, for now, I’ll always have a multitool in my pocket.’