The role of mechanics at stage races
23 November 2016
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Gerald de Kock: Hello and thanks very much for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, I’m Gerald de Kock and mountain biking is where we’re at, of course, all things mountain biking. It is the events time of the year, so naturally we get around to a few of these events and it’s a great opportunity to meet the people that make this sport tick, that make it flow.
Perhaps event organisers and route planners might disagree, but there are no more important people in this business than the mechanics who keep our bikes rolling, particularly around a stage race. I’m at a stage race in the Southern Cape and the race mechanics, there’s a number of set-ups here, but I’m standing with Francois from ManicCycles here in Worcester. We’re not in Worcester, but what is your role here?
Francois Esterhuizen: Basically Gerald, we got approached a few years ago to come and help look after the bikes, we’ve got two options. Some guys pre-book their bikes for a package for the whole week, but we also have to be here to help the guys that we call a ‘walk-in’ customer, that’s had a problem. It might just need a touch-up or have a major issue, so basically we’re here to try and ensure that everybody gets to the start of every stage and gets to the finish with his bike in one piece.
GDK: It can vary, I’m sure, from being very busy in rainy seasons to being fairly calm and quiet which is I think where we are now. It’s not been a particularly rainy event thus far, what sort of staff complement have you got here?
FE: We’ve got three mechanics, basically what we’ve learnt over the years is we try and have 10 bikes maximum per mechanic, which helps for the pre-bookings. Then everybody is capable to help a few of the walk-ins, sometimes we work late at night, other evenings we’re done by supper time. This year, so far, touch wood, we’ve been finished by 8:00 or 9:00, so it’s not been too hectic.
Essential stage race spares
GDK: Spares and things obviously you’re a bike shop owner at ManicCycles and you can’t carry everything, what are the key things you’ve got to carry?
FE: Look, these days it’s becoming challenging with ten and eleven and even now the new Eagle 12 speed, so the spares list is getting longer and longer every year. The most important things are obviously a lot of tyres, this year we found a lot of the Europeans pitched up with tubeless ready tyres and tubes. So we’ve been converting a lot of them to tubeless –
GDK: They still do it!
FE: They still do it, this year at least we haven’t had anybody with latex tubes yet. So yes, tyres, then a lot of topping up of sealant, the odd rear derailer disc pads, this year we haven’t had too many, but that’s something that everybody needs to carry. Then the occasional shifter or disc rotor, but that’s the main components that we carry.
GDK: We’re going to walk with you, you’ve got your desk here, there’s a laptop open, there’s a lot of books and a booking sheet, that’s important isn’t it?
FE: Yes, basically we try and keep tabs of, not only when the guys have come in, but also the order because especially some of the grumpy guys, his bike came in early this morning –
GDK: Grumpy mountain bikers? NO!
How to deal with the demand
FE: Just try and keep track of which guys came in first, make a note of exactly what needs to be done. Because invariably what happens is you get three guys walking in at the same time and if you don’t make note immediately, you forget exactly what that guy wanted to have checked on his bike.
GDK: There is that guy who comes in and says: I picked this up this morning and it’s still happening or this is now happening.
FE: Like I said, you either didn’t make notes or the communication from the rider to the mechanic, it’s happened, or also I’ve had guys where he doesn’t understand. His bike was in, he finished early, he’s one of the racing guys, but his bike hasn’t been washed yet, so why is it in the back of the queue. We also try to get that system in place to make sure that the bikes that have come in first get done first so that they get processed.
GDK: Must they bring them in washed?
FE: We prefer to wash them ourselves, especially with the drivetrain, it’s nature. What happens is the guys, the first few bikes, the guys are enthusiastic and washing properly and then later in the day and later in the week the guys are tired.
So the bikes don’t get the attention they really need. We find, especially with the drivetrains and stuff, we prefer to make sure that the drivetrain is properly cleaned because you can’t really check the gears and set everything properly if the drivetrain is not properly washed and cleaned.
GDK: You’re quite lucky here at this event and this particular stop is that you’ve got a building to come into, an old garage it looks like. Who is your staff here?
A great dedicated team
FE: I’ve got my regular mechanic, Christopher, whose nickname is MacGyver, if he can’t fix it, then we have to replace it. Then I’ve got a very special guest, a lot of people might remember a guy called Jacques Big Blade Rossouw. His dad, Oom Pieter has helped us this year. Then I’ve also got my regular mate, Kevin all the way from East Coast Cycles in Jeffreys Bay, he’s helped us with a couple of events.
So we don’t have that many fixed staff, so we try and outsource a few guys. We’ve got a couple of guys that have been helping us at a lot of events. Just to come back to this specific garage, in 2014 with the rain, this was literally a store room. They actually evacuated the store room to accommodate us inside and now it’s a fixed booking every year, they give us the same spot, which helps.
GDK: It does. You’ve got a couple of bikes, some of the guys are having lunch at the moment, which is very important on a day like this. Oom Pieter is standing over a bike here, just pedalling it through, it’s sounding all nice and smooth, is it all nice and smooth Pieter?
Pieter: Fine and ready for tomorrow.
GDK: What did you have to do to this bike?
P: I only had to fine-tune it because this guy had a crash today, so I just checked if everything is perfect, that nothing is bent. He just flipped the saddle a bit, but otherwise the bike is fine for tomorrow.
GDK: How long would you spend on a bike like this?
P: A check-up like this, we talk about 20 minutes to 30 minutes.
GDK: And everything is firing, but sometimes you spend hours and hours.
P: It depends on what is wrong. If you had to change new cables and casing, then it takes a bit longer.
GDK: Are you one of these mechanics who is rather disappointed when there’s not much to do, but when there’s something to get your teeth stuck into you quite enjoy it?
P: I enjoy it, that’s part of life.
GDK: So more to do.
P: I’m a pensioner, now I enjoy it more, I’ve got more time.
GDK: Thanks very much Pieter, we’re going to move over to MacGyver here, who is having lunch, lovely chicken pie for lunch. You’ve taken a break from this bike here, what are you doing to this bike here?
MacGyver: Just setting the gears, he’s struggling with the Di2’s, I’m busy fixing it for him.
GDK: The Di2’s have caused a few issues haven’t they? What’s the most common thing you’re dealing with, bearing in mind this is a dry race at the moment. What’s the most common thing you have to deal with?
ME: With the Di2 specifically?
GDK: With any of the bikes.
M: Mostly, as I said, gears, brakes and fixing punctures and obviously service the bike completely.
GDK: If you were to service a bike completely, how long would that take you?
M: It depends, maybe an hour and a half, two hours max.
GDK: They call you MacGyver, Francois calls you MacGyver, what’s the best MacGyver job you’ve had to do to make a bike work, where you haven’t had the equipment?
M: Now the other day we got a bike that the remote lockout lever doesn’t work, so we have to make it a normal lockout lever, without the remote lockout lever.
GDK: And the rider was delighted I’m sure.
M: It was fine, yes.
Plenty of bikes to get to
GDK: Enjoy the rest of your lunch, we won’t keep you from that because you’re going to need it, hopefully it won’t be too busy here. Kevin has slipped away, I think he’s a bit shy of the microphone maybe. How many bikes would you go through in a day here Francois?
FE: We’ve got about 20 pre-bookings and then we’ve had about 10 walk-ins today. Yesterday was quite a busy day. I think after two long stages a lot of the bikes needed a bit of attention. Then today I think we’re going to have an early evening, we might get stuck into a few CBC beers.
GDK: Keep the morale going! Aside from which you’ve got a shop in Worcester to keep ticking over, so you’re keeping half an eye on that?
FE: Yes, we’re actually busy moving location, just next door. So when we get back to Worcester, there’s another hard week ahead, but dad’s in the shop and all the family are helping just to keep it ticking. Fortunately, these days with mobile phones and laptops and free Wi-Fi, it’s easier to manage everything from remote locations.
GDK: We look across and there’s another couple of mechanics, is this a competitive environment or do you get on fairly well, with all the other mechanics around?
FE: You sort of build up a relationship and some of the guys do get along better than others. I’ve been very fortunate over the years, the guys from Tech Zone, JP from Recycles, we get along phenomenally well, we even try and help each other. Not to duplicate, especially some of the more expensive stock and some of the expensive equipment.
You mentioned Di2 earlier, there’s a whole lot of programmes you need on the software and all sorts of other things, but we try and complement each other in not having to duplicate everything, which makes it so much easier. Invariably I find that there’s one or two guys that don’t get along, but it’s a close-knit community and it’s too small. Because you run into each other at so many of these events that you can’t afford to make enemies.
GDK: By the way, Di2 is the electronic shifter mechanism that’s come in, a lot of the modern bikes have it and yes, it’s interesting, some prefer it and some not. Francois thanks very much for the chat, it’s fascinating to see how it all goes behind the scenes at a race. This goes on long after all the riders have had lunch, had a massage, had a sleep, they go for dinner, they come back the next morning and guess what, their bike is on the start line as good as new isn’t it?
FE: Thanks Gerald, nice chatting.
GDK: Francois from ManicCycles and one of the mechanics here at the stage race, the Cape Pioneer Trek here in the Southern Cape. It’s all part of the service provided by virtually all our stage races around the country and it’s a serve that riders who travel overseas often find is missing from stage races.
That’s why we here in South Africa are so fortunate to have this thriving stage race community that’s going on and they all feed into each other, it’s fantastic. I hope you enjoyed that podcast on our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, until next time, ride safely, keep your helmets on and keep a smile on your face, take care, cheers.