Last week as I watched ‘the tour’ on Eurosport I found myself nodding in agreement at the television as Kelly described the job of a cycling mechanic as the toughest on the race .
The riders have it tough for the duration of the stage , but as soon as they cross the line they are pampered like newborn babies . They are washed down , given warm clothes and a nice cool drink , loaded up onto an air-conditioned bus and whisked away to the team hotel . Once there they head for the lift where an A4 sheet is to be found telling them which room number they have been given . No hassle of check in desks etc. Upon entering their allocated room they find their bags already in place and just remove the PSP or ipod before having their shower . After the nice warm shower they are straight into bed and the soignoeur arrives to give them some water and more food . They are also told what time dinner will be served and what time to come down for their rub ( 30 mins to one hour of deep tissue massage ) . The soigneour will also take away their sweaty gear to wash and dry it for them . Oh yes , it is a tough life alright !
The people looking after the riders have a slightly different time however .
Back in April 2002 I got a call one Saturday morning in the shop . There was an Irish team heading over to a stage race in France and they needed a mechanic . The race was starting the following Friday in Thionville in Eastern France and would entail eight stages over six days . It was short notice but I was all excited in anticipation of my first experience as a stage race mechanic . The team was managed by Morgan Fox who had only received his call the day before me and the masseur was Claire Moore who missed the first three stages as she too had only been contacted at the last minute and had work commitments . (I must hasten to add that although this was common practice with Cycling Ireland teams at the time it has improved slightly since then )
I met Morgan in the Cycling Ireland Offices on the north circular road in Dublin on the Tuesday afternoon as we had to drive the big blue van across England and onto France to collect the riders in Charles de Gaule airport outside Paris . From there the plan was to collect the rented team car from Hertz and to drive across to Thionville .
We shared the driving as we traversed Wales and England , only stopping for diesel and a few plastic sandwiches . Through the night the traffic was light and we made good time . However we still got caught in the early rush hour traffic on the M25 around London and it was 10.45 as we boarded the ferry in Dover bound for Calais . We had just sat down on the ferry when Morgan’s phone rang . It was one of the riders – Martin O’Loughlin , who informed us that they had just arrived at Charles De Gaule and were wondering where we were . They had all been booked on an early flight out of Dublin which was a few quid cheaper than the flight three hours later and were now waiting to be picked up . All Morgan could do was to tell him that we were on the way .
The team was made up of ;
Mark Scanlon – former junior world champion
David O’Loughlin – currently on the plane to Beijing olympics to compete in the pursuit
Brian Kenneally – winner of two stages of last years RAS
Stephen Gallagher – Winner of this years RAS
Martin O’Loughlin – Current National Veterans champion
Paul Griffen – Current professional with Giant Asia team
This was before Garmin and their sat-nav devices became popular so much of the journey was spent with a big map of France sprawled over the dash . We arrived at the airport just after three pm to find Ireland’s top cyclists playing football outside of the arrivals area . As with most athletes before a competition these were delicate souls who greeted us with hand shakes and how’re things ? , which were underscored with subtle observations of ‘where the fuck were ye until now ?’
Allowances were made and excuses were proffered as a certain office on the North Circular road in Dublin would have had it’s ears burning . Next stop , the Hertz office across the car park . Morgan went in to collect the car which we were told would be awaiting our arrival only to be told that Hertz hadn’t a clue what he was on about . There was no car booked for any cycling Ireland team . Once again a certain office in Dublin was being spoken of .
Now it was time for plan B . Load up all of the riders , bikes and bags into the van and all head off for a nice five hour tour across France with a former World Champion sitting on a milk crate . The journey passed quickly enough as the subject of ‘fitzy ‘ came up and everyone seemed to have a few tales to tell of his exploits throughout the cycling globe . see here
Around nine pm we arrived at the Race HQ and saw the Credit Agricole and Francais de Jeux team cars nestled among many other professional outfits . I accompanied Morgan into the building and noticed that the general flow of people seemed to be coming out against us . We had just missed the pre race managers meeting . We approached a few officials who were still sitting behind a desk and Morgan announced the arrival of Team Irelande ! Now I wasn’t exactly expecting a round of applause but the reaction did seem a bit strange . The three guys just looked at us before one began to gesture and gesticulate to his colleagues . Now , I’m no fluent French speaker but I do know enough to get by and can understand more than I can speak . Morgan is fluent and as I looked across at him I noticed the colour draining a little from his face . The french voices were becoming louder and the gestures more pronounced as an older looking gentleman was called over . He came over and informed us that an invitation had been sent to Cycling Ireland to participate in the race but that no reply had been received so we were not included on the start list and had not been expected . Once more a certain office in Dublin was mentioned !
Morgan has been a professional in Belgium and is very adept at the nuances of cycling . He pleaded our case , the long journey , the former world champion , I think that Kelly’s paris Roubaix and Roche’s Tour de France were even mentioned , but whatever he said seemed to be working . Hard faces began to soften and when a certain ‘bureau’ in Dublin was mentioned there were oooh’s and aaaah’s . Eventually there were handshakes and pats on the back and we were in the race . Next came the hard bit , we had no accommodation and no team car . Accommodation was block booked by the race organisation so there were rooms available but the team car was another issue . For a few moments I thought that this was the bridge too far until a guy who had been in the background steeped forward and volunteered to let us have his car for duration of the race . He was a race Marshall but was our Guardian angel .
So away we went , off to the hotel and were told that we could pickup the car the following morning , which we did .
A day by day account would be more book than blog so I’ll just go through some of the highlights :
The end of the first stage and it was lashing rain . We had a few crash victims and ended up being one of the last teams to leave the finish area . As we drive down the hill towards the hotel we pass the Credit Agricole team hotel where the three mechanics are outside under a floodlight awning at the side of their team van washing the bikes . Two bikes per mechanic .
I pull the clapped out cycling Ireland van into our hotel car park and try to park under a streetlight in order to see what I’m doing . Six bikes all to myself , rain all day so plenty to clean and repair and no awning or light . I pull on the oil skins and think out loud ‘ glamour my arse ‘ . I miss dinner as I’m out trying to get the bikes ready for the following morning and my evening meal consists of a few chocolate wafer biscuits and a powerbar . It’s impossible to see what I’m doing in the rain and non-existent light so eventually I call it a very frustrating day just after midnight .
Morgan is just back from a laundrette twenty km away so we both get stuck into washing the bottles and preparing the race food for the following day as Claire isn’t here yet . My head touches the pillow just after 2.00 am as I set my alarm for 5.00 am , just three hours later .
Luckily it starts to get bright around six am and I can finally see what I’m doing , the rain too has abated . I look over what I did the previous evening and see that it was mostly a waste of time as I have to go over all of the bikes again now that I can actually see what I’m doing . The riders walk out just after ten am . A few moans here and a few groans there . I’ve just finished the last bike and I’m not in the form to humour anybody . I’m tired and hungry , still haven’t even contemplated a bit of breakfast and am in no form to listen to requests for last minute jobs which should take an hour but have to be done in under ten minutes .
The riders don’t care about the effort that you’ve put in for them and rarely even acknowledge it . The mechanic and team staff are almost seen as servants even though you are giving up your holiday time and not getting paid a penny for it . I’ve been on both sides of the fence and as a rider know that you are so focused on the race that sometimes everything and everybody is taken for granted .
But then you arrive at the start line and the buzz hits you . You organise the spare wheels in the back seat and get your small bag of tools ready on the floor beside you . You remove the passengers headrest so that you have a clear view of the road ahead .You set up the riders small race bags with rain capes , gloves etc. where they are easy to reach and you check that you have enough race food and bottles on the front seat and floor . You hop out and do some last minute job that some rider will always want done and check the air pressure of all spare wheels one last time . Check that the spare bikes on the roof are tight and make sure that no spectator has loosened anything . You hear the signal for the race to start and you hop in the back as the manager hops into the front and you are away .
Now you are glued to race radio and looking at the list of riders and numbers which you have taped to the back of the seat in front of you checking to see if any of your riders are in any of the moves , or if anybody punctures or needs assistance .
The evening before we needed a few bits and pieces from town , so as we headed in along a wet road suddenly a patch of diesel landed us up on top of a roundabout . Luckily the only damage was a front tyre which was now in a garage being repaired . The result however was that we were now in the cavalcade on a 160 km stage with a front driver side donut which advised only 30 km with no greater than a speed of 50 kph . Fingers and toes were crossed whenever we thought about it .
10k into the stage and Morgan says ‘ oh shit ‘ . My first thought is that I’ve missed something on race radio and something has happened to one of our riders . But no , the red light has begun to flash and we are almost out of petrol . So we look out for a petrol station and pull in . Hoping that none of our riders punctures . I stay in the car and listen to the race radio as Morgan fills her up . By the time we pull back out onto the road we are out of range and are now stuck behind the traffic which has become caught behind the race . Then our saviour arrives . He wears an orange and blue and red and green jacket with a half face white helmet and a pair of biggles goggles . He travels on a white and grey ten year old 100cc moped and we call him Ernie , after the Sesamie Street character . He beckons us on to follow him as he guides us between the traffic that we are now passing out and the oncoming traffic which he is waving his six inch timber lollipop at telling them to pull over . He stops traffic and brings us on through red lights . He deposits us safely back into the cavalcade and as we beep and wave our appreciation he gives us a boy scout salute as he touches his hand of the side of his helmet as much as to say all part of the service .
As we begin to settle back into the race one of our riders numbers is called out over the race radio and we immediately take off up the outside of the cavalcade and find that David O’Loughlin has punctured . I jump out carrying a rear and a front and see that it’s a rear that’s flat . I change it immediately and give him a push off . He says thanks as I push him off and I grab the punctured rear and the front and dive back into the car . We resume our place in the cavalcade in time to see him safely back in the bunch . I switch the punctured rear for a good one from the back of the car and once again have a pair of good wheels beside me on the seat .
Just as the riders stop for ‘nature breaks’ so too do the cars behind and as it seems all quiet up ahead we pull over and relieve ourselves just as the big mat team car pulls over to do likewise . The Fakta team have a girl on board and as they pull over there is almost a crash in the cavalcade . The Palmans team manager is so busy trying to see what she is up to that he almost drives into the back of the panaria team car in front . There is a screech of brakes which filters back along the cavalcade and disaster is narrowly avoided . We say that she can certainly stop traffic .
100k into the stage and we hear that Scanlon is in a break which are quickly gaining time on the bunch . Cancellara and Bernhard Eisel are there from quick step as are Cristophe Mengin and Andy Flickinger so it looks good . The gap grows out to over a minute and they begin to let some of the team cars through . Morgan is on the race radio asking to be allowed up and as it reaches 1.30 we are called through . Just as we are passing the bunch the road narrows and we are consumed by the bunch . There we are surrounded by riders and I look out the window as nonchalantly as possible at Jacky Durands bars which are about four inches from my nose and hope that Morgan doesn’t clip anyone . He stands on the horn and eventually we make our way through . The gap is now two minutes and we have to get across quickly . We travel along a twisting narrow rolling closed road at speeds approaching 150 kph and I briefly think about our donut front wheel . We are up there for 30k before the bunch led by Francais de Jeux reels them in . Jimmy Casper wins the gallop and rewards his team for their efforts .
We load up the bikes on the roof and pack the riders into the car before heading back to the hotel . In the car on the way back the conversation turns to doping . All of our guys are clean but are easily able to pick out some of the big names who are not . What goes on is accepted but the price that is paid is just as widely acknowledged . Some of the lads raced against guys who have since died of heart attacks and the complications of later life do act as a deterrent for most who have a brain .
Claire arrives the following day and one of the first things that happens is that she drives over a plastic box containing all of the Russian teams’ bananas’ . They go ‘ape’ . Their budget is minuscule . The previous day they got 17 punctures and have gone beyond new tubes and are now on their third puncture repair kit . The bananas’ were their race food for the week and possibly their evening meals also . I was concerned that a KGB hit could be ordered but disaster was avoided as Morgan promised to buy them a new box and fill it with more Bananas than before . Peace resumes again .
We got through the race and dropped most of the lads to the train station before Morgan and I checked the team out of the Hotel . All week we had been told that Cycling Ireland were sending over the money to pay the hotel but as we tried to check out it had still not arrived . Another conflab ensued with the manager mentioning Gendarme etc. but once again Morgan got it sorted by getting the President of Cycling Ireland to fax over a signed guarantee of payment . This got us out the door where we jumped into the van and floored it to get away before we got arrested .
I dropped Morgan off in Paris and drove the rest of the way back myself and had plenty of time to think about the events of the previous week . There were times that I said never again but there were also times that were fantastic . The buzz and exhilaration of being in the team car during the race itself made up for much of the hard work that went on outside of that . The professional teams are so well organised that it is a much easier job for the mechanic although most still put in between twelve and fourteen hours each day .
So tonight when you sit down to watch the tour spare a thought for the poor mechanic, the guy who helps to keep the show on the road .