What it takes to become a Pro bike mechanic
27 May 2016
You can also listen to these podcasts directly from the Old Mutual app, which is available here.
Gerald de Kock: Welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast. This is as you know by now, if you’re downloading regularly, thank you for doing that because hopefully we’ll bring you a little insight into this great sport of mountain biking. Which really has captured the imagination of a large sector of South Africa’s sporting community.
Today I’m talking to a man who earns a living out of the sport in a way that perhaps is a little bit unusual. He’s not a rider although he does ride, but he’s a mechanic. He’s the man who looks after the team NAD Pro Mountain Biking pair, Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck. Mornè is with us right now. Mornè, hello.
Mornè van Rensburg: What’s happening, are we good?
GDK: All right, yes. We’re sitting here at a water point in fact, during one of the races. In fact, it’s one of the KAP Sani2c, where it’s the second water point on stage one awaiting your guys. Do you know where they are?
MVR: I just went through the, or checked them at the first tech zone and so that was like on 30km odd. So we’re awaiting them now but they are flying because the single track is a little bit muddy. But it’s been compacted with the sun, we’re sitting in a lovely sunny day today. So the guys are fast and they are bullets out there. The guys are hauling it, yes.
More than just a mechanic
GDK: Right, that just plays into, we’re sitting here, you’ve got a set of wheels, a couple of sets of wheels and a pump next to you. Probably a few tools as well. So that is all part of your job here. When they come in here, what will you be doing with it?
MVR: Basically it’s just a precaution inspection that we do obviously prior to the race. Because they are racing and it’s so many teams that are on a really high level, if you lose two seconds in this race you drop from first place up to 10th easily. If you get a puncture, if you get some mechanical technical things that are happening on your bike. So obviously we have a couple of spare wheels with pumps, with tools, with extra bottles.
Obviously also nutrition wise, we give them their bottles and stuff so they can only ride for a certain time only on one bottle. When they get there they refill and if they’ve got a mechanical problem anyhow, we just swap the wheel in like six seconds. They go again. Where normal people will stop, put in a tube, it takes 20 minutes, you know it’s a long story but that’s it.
GDK: I know.
MVR: Yes, with that it’s quick and it’s fast and it makes the life of the cyclist super-fast because we’re professional teams. I’m a professional mechanic, so we do it quickly and fast and efficient. It’s basically, it’s a super pit stop that they don’t even feel like something went wrong. So it was all good.
How does one land up becoming a pro mechanic?
GDK: Let’s go back to this. Now you’re a professional mechanic working full-time in this business. It’s a fantastic business you work in, in sport and whatever but how did it all come about that you end up as a pro mechanic?
MVR: Actually this is my 11th year. I’m 26 now and I started, I think when I was 14. But I started in the industry, I always did a lot of sports and a lot of variety of sports. My one junior friend, he’s still cycling, Bryce Monroe. He was at a time the fastest on the circuit and we became good friends.
He introduced me into cycling. He was working at a time, at a bike shop in Pretoria at Fritz Pienaar Cycles. Fritz is still in the game and he still is a long haul. Fritz literally, I was an underage boy that was not, I’m not really valid to work because I’m 14 years old and you can’t earn.
Fritz pulled me into the bike shop and he said, “Just come and work on weekends and we’ll help you and we’ll sort you out and we’ll show you the ropes”. I started actually on sales, like just on weekends and helping out and carrying boxes. Going to some races with Fritz and you know, just being a guy that’s just doing all the odd jobs.
Then it ended up when I hit matric then I had to go and decide exactly where is my future lying. My parents were very all over the show because they need, they want me to go study. This is like the only thing that, because that’s the normal thing that a student does or like a normal person does. My heart was so much in cycling and I love every bit of it.
At that time I didn’t really like the retail part, like going into a shop and stuff. I wanted something different and then my first contract came from a team called Garmin Adidas when I was 18. It was some other okes that are still racing, and Phillip Buys and Francois Theron and Manie Heymans.
Manie Heymans was basically like my mentor and people still call me, he’s my dad, slash my brother. It all happened like that and that was my first pro team. That’s when I started doing the races and when I did that first year and we went overseas. We travelled and every race I was just feeling very privileged to do what I do.
GDK: Yes, it is a great privilege. Now you’ve obviously learnt on the job all the way through. I suppose mechanics has become more and more regulated if you like. People can do courses and you can go and do specialised, get certificates and that sort of thing. Did you do that or is this part of learning on the job?
Can you study to be a bike mechanic?
MVR: Basically, my occupation is invalid in the world that we live in, in South Africa. Like I’m currently on the top step of what I’m at and in terms of the teams and stuff. But it’s my heart, it’s my passion and you can’t really study for what I do. In Europe and the UK you can go study a four year degree. But we’ve had guys now here in South Africa, in Pretoria that has brought the whole programme over, which is fantastic. I went to go and see them last week.
GDK: TalkZone guys?
MVR: Yes, TalkZone guys, Dirk and them. They got a couple of guys together and brought the whole project and I went to go see what’s happening there. Last or just before Joburg2c, it’s fantastic. It’s so great to get people in for two weeks, give them a degree, give a valid, you study properly.
GDK: It’s an internationally recognised certificate.
MVR: Yes, basically a certificate comes from the UK base. So you get a printed certificate from UK which is fantastic and because our jobs have become very, our bikes are 160 grand. Our jobs are more like engineering jobs than just putting on tyres and fixing the normal things you know.
GDK: Yes, so let’s get to that. At the end of the day the guys will get into the finish here, they hand their bikes over to you, what is the process from there?
What happens to a pros bike after a stage race?
MVR: They come in, I do the setup obviously, then I take the bikes. They obviously have full trust in me and they know exactly that I know what to do. So basically I take the bikes, I first take it to the wash bay. We obviously can’t work on dirty bikes. Then it needs to be spot on clean, it needs to shine and then we literally have a little bit of a breather.
We eat something small and then we start but then you start from, sometimes Nico and them, on a different day they want slicker tyres, faster rolling tyres. Maybe sometimes a little bit of oil change in the suspension, depends on if there’s a lot of downhill, a lot of fast roads. Brakes needs to be, you know there’s, like sometimes it’s only two bikes but it takes me like four, five hours per day per bike, depends on the amount of terrain. Also obviously wet and dry at the difference.
GDK: So the muddier they are, the longer it’ll take.
MVR: We’ll be out there for days if it is muddy.
GDK: Do you completely strip the bike?
MVR: Bikes are not made to strip every day because then it wears and tears. That’s the thing and that’s where people gets it sometimes wrong. But obviously we strip a big part of it and we obviously knew what I did the day before and the day before and the day before.
So then obviously but we do most of it. Like a big, big, big part of it we’ll change cable and housing every day and we’ll do brake pads obviously after muddy stages because then we have to clean out all the mud and gunk out of the brakes and stuff. So we strip it literally 95% of it, yes.
What do Gawie and Nico look for?
GDK: You’ve got Gawie and Nico at the moment. I mean do they have different requirements? Are they specific and quite perfection about certain things?
MVR: Yes, I’ve worked with I think almost every single athlete around the world. You get guys from Christoph Sauser that’s top world champion and he has his ways. But he’s also very easy in terms of, he really trusts people to work on his bike.
But then you get Nico as well and Nico has his own specialised bike shop in Nelspruit. He also likes working on his own bikes or not, he knows his way around the bike. So he has a lot of specifications as well. Gawie just lets me do what I want.
But Nico has a couple of things but it’s very, when they trust the person that works on the bike it’s a nice feeling for me as well. Because then they just give it to you and you do your thing. There’s no hanna hanna and always, you know like you do it and you do your magic. You trust and you do your profession and then they do their part and as a team you work together like this thing, yes.
When the going gets tough…
GDK: What was the toughest day or toughest time that you’ve had as a bike mechanic in recent times?
MVR: Four or five years ago we had Cape Epic where there was a stage that was just like brutal. You work for literally from the morning, you woke up and you do stuff until the next morning 04:00. You sleep for half an hour and then you go again.
For like a week long, that eats you yes. But you need to be a different character, a different person. A normal person that presses buttons in an office will not be able to do what we do because they’ll get frustrated, yes. When you go on with the industry and you do it every year and year by year. I think this is, I think my 11th Sani that I’ve worked.
You know the routes, you know everything, you know where the techs are. I don’t even go on the coordinates anymore to know where the tech zones are and I know I know my job. I know what I’m capable of and it’s very easy. So I don’t stress, I cannot stress, that’s the problem. People sometimes think why don’t you stress, I’m like I can’t stress that.
GDK: Yes, and do you ride but you obviously don’t do too much of that because you’re pretty busy with this?
Personal riding helps my work
MVR: This year I changed it a bit around because I need to ride. It’s so important for me, like always I was just support, support, support. But never, obviously from a support perspective you can see exactly, you see a different way. When you’re a supporter you only see the tech zones you know, which is way different.
But when I started. Like last year I did Wines2Whales by myself as well and then I saw actually where the equipment goes through like the amount of hammering. The amount of pounding and all of that you know. Then it’s, so I love riding but I’m doing a lot of triathlons nowadays which is fantastic.
GDK: All right, now I can tell you that there’s a bit of activity starting here because the bikes, the motorbikes, the lead bikes are coming through, which tells us that the guys are about to fade to 10 minutes behind. We’ll see as they come through here this tech zone very shortly. Mornè is looking down the track and he can’t see his men. Where are they?
MVR: No, but obviously this part, it looks like they went through a lot of mud because the first water point they were still clean. Now we can’t see their bikes or their clothing as sorts but it looked like it was maybe a little bit of climbing, but my boys will be here. Obviously, it’s a bit of a rough section, so if you are a bit pap then you’ll take some shots. So it’s how it is.
GDK: Now you can recognise them. They sometimes wear black, sometimes white.
MVR: Yes, it’s just they like making work for me. When it’s muddy they wear white shirts and then I have to wash it again and it’s –
GDK: That’s part of your job as well.
MVR: Sometimes yes, but sometimes I refuse. But they were at the first water point about 10 seconds behind. Now it would have dragged maybe to like 20, 25. So it’s not that bad but they’ll catch up yes. If they can haul in a little bit of time.
GDK: Is part of your job to give them splits?
MVR: Yes, we’ll do it. Sometimes I give them like a smaller split so they feel encouraged, yes.
GDK: There we go. They’re coming in now. Mornè’s got a bottle in each hand and Nico Bell is going to drop a bottle and he gets one there. So there we go about 25 seconds, that’s Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck going through water point two and heading off to the finish at McKenzie Club. Which is where Mornè will be going very, very shortly because you’ve got about a 20-minute break and then it all starts all goes off. So enjoy the rest of the day.
MVR: Thank you. I’m going to jaag now to the finish and then we have to set up camp and then get the bikes ready and wait for the riders.
GDK: Thanks for the chat.
MVR: Cool, have a good day.
GDK: That’s the man who looks after a team, NAD Pro Mountain Biking, Gawie Combrinck and Nico Bell, that’s Mornè van Rensburg. Their full-time mechanic, a professional mechanic in mountain biking. It’s just one of the man yways one can earn a living out of this great sport and still enjoy it to its absolute maximum. Thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking. Please do so again, until then, cheers.