A bike race is rarely just a single race. Within even a single criterium, there are usually a multitude of races taking place. There’s the race the organizer has with the clock and the permit. Roads are kept closed only so long before traffic is allowed to resume, even if it’s only the odd car in or out of an industrial park.
There’s the mad rush to get all the racers registered in time for their event. And for savvy organizers, an equally mad dash to grab podium finishers following their race in order to get photos of smiling athletes standing atop the dais as proof that a terrific event occurred and fun was had by all. In the event of a crash, there’s the race to make sure the rider(s) in question get the care they need as quickly as possible.
And then, of course, there’s the race itself. It’s not hard to find riders who think racing means just riding hard at or near the front. A moment or two of inattention can leave a team scrambling to get their anointed leader back to the front.
But if you’ve ever worked as a bike mechanic, yours is a race unto its own. A race mechanic’s job, when done well, is an event that is less transparent than invisible. For all practical purposes, the job of a race mechanic is to correct an event that shouldn’t be allowed to change the outcome of a race. So when done well, a wheel change is a non-event; it’s as if it never happened.
At the Giro and Tour this year I haven’t been able to help noticing the sheer number of wheel changes shown on TV (which suggested many more were occurring that we never saw) and how many of them seemed to take longer than a trip to the dentist.
Some riders climbed off their bikes and just laid them down on the ground. Some did a poor job of communicating which wheel was flat. At least one tried to remove the wheel only to get the quick release tangled in the chain. (Really?) And others simply stood next to their bike as if they weren’t really sure what the next move was.
During my time as a race mechanic, I was fortunate to have been educated by two fantastic teachers, one in-person and the other on TV. The in-person teacher was Wayne Culpepper, who was then one of the U.S. National Team mechanics, and one of the guys who trained me when I got my license. Wayne had been trained by the revered Bill Woodul (with whom I would later share some time), and he wasn’t shy about showing me every trick he’d ever learned from Bill.
The first thing he showed me had nothing to do with the wheel change itself. He handed me a water bottle. Then he told me to pull that from the bottle cage and hand that to the rider the moment they pull up to the pit if I was supporting a crit. The rider would get a free lap and you needed to get them calm and thinking about the race, not about mouthing off and bitching.
The next thing he showed me was how to pick up the rear triangle with my right hand while flicking the quick release open with my left. If the course was fast, the wheel would drop out even if the rider wasn’t in his small cog. On a 12-19 cassette the wheel would drop out even if the chain was on the 14. If the rider had had to ride a little distance around a crit course to get to the pic, then a quick yank back on the derailleur parallelogram would allow me grab the wheel even without upshifting to the 12. Before pulling the new wheel into the dropouts, I was to check the brake quick release and make sure it was open. If a wheel didn’t immediately slap into the dropouts, many riders would freak. You needed them calm he said.
Last, he said, was after tightening the quick release, you picked up the rear triangle one last time to give the pedals a quick turn and make sure the chain engaged properly. Once done, you told the rider to climb back on and then you held them as in a TT start. And when the pack came by you started pushing until they literally rode out of your hand.
In 1993, at the Junior National Championships, I saw Seth Pelusi’s right hand go up. Pelusi was one of the favorites for the win; he would go on to a pro career with Saturn. The right hand meant a rear flat. This was in the day’s of 8-speed which meant that you had to have both Shimano and Campagnolo near at hand. He was running Shimano, the wheel I already had in my lap. I was out of the van even before it was stopped and in a single, breathless movement I had the new wheel in and was pushing him back to the breakaway. He rejoined the break in less than a kilometer.
One year at Fitchburg someone from the Pro/I/II race rolled up with a front flat. He was unnaturally calm. As he braked to a stop, he clipped out his right foot, then his left. With his feet spread enough to avoid a chainring tattoo, he leaned down, opened up the brake quick release and then grabbed the hoods and picked up the front end of the bike. All I had to do was open the quick release, chuk the flat and whip the new wheel in. I closed brake quick release and realized we were through even before the pit official had the rider’s number written down.
But my favorite lesson on wheel changes came from Davis Phinney. I believe it was CBS coverage of the ’87 Tour when the 7-Eleven sprinter had a flat. He calmly pulled over to the right side of the road. He clipped out his right foot and touched it to the ground. The next thing he did awed me. He grabbed the front brake and pushed the bike forward so the rear end lifted up.
Then he simply waited for the mechanic.
I think he must already have shifted into the 12, because the wheel slid into the Serotta frame flawlessly. Phinney released the brake and rather than standing up to sprint, with his first pedal stroke he slid into the saddle and the mechanic pushed him up to speed, and with only one pedal to clip into, he was away in moments.
That combination of composure and knowing exactly what to do to make the mechanic’s job as easy to do as possible has always struck me as one of the most PRO things I’ve ever seen.
I always lamented that none of the riders I ever dealt with at crits knew this trick, but while I could accept that the riders I encountered weren’t as savvy as Davis “Cash Register” Phinney, what of all those guys in Europe? Some of those riders are more clueless than the Cat IIs I dealt with at Podunk crits.
Alas, the very first time I got a flat as a result of a crash that earned me a free lap, I pulled into the pit and tried to do Phinney’s trick. I grabbed the front brake, pushed the bike forward and the mechanic screamed at me, “Get off the bike! Get off the bike!”