The Wheel Change

The Wheel Change

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.

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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.

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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!”

 

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10 comments

  1. Pat O'Brien

    Sandy and I provided neutral support to the women’r races in the La Vuelta de Bisbee for 3 years until the race was discontinued. I practiced wheels changes and got tips from the neutral support coordinators, our local bike shop, M&M Cycling. In spite of preparing, plus not being a bike mechanic, I was very nervous about making a wheel change. In three years, we only had to do two and they went fairly smoothly. The racers thanked us, along with one big hug, after the race, so I guess we did OK. Plus we got to meet Mari Holden one year when she came to get her spare wheel and thank us for the support.
    I wished I had known some of the techniques described above. If you ever get a chance to do neutral support, I encourage you to volunteer. Seeing the race from the inside is an experience we will never forget. That and chasing the women’s peloton down the Mule Mountain descent at over 50 mph.

  2. Touriste-Routier

    The get off the bike strategy is particularly good for when you have an inexperienced rider and/or mechanic. The time it takes to remount is far less than the time lost due to one of the parties mucking up the change. Taking both feet out of the pedals should you stay astride the bike is typically wise, should you choose to stay straddled; a little unintended pressure to the pedals can send the chain awry in an instant.

    Unfortunately one of the lost arts of current racing (particularly amateur) is raising the proper hand to indicate which wheel requires changing. With so many long term (now masters) racers, one would think these skills would be passed down better. Race radios may have eliminated this tool from the top pros arsenal, but for those of us who never have an ear piece or a mic…

    With bike changes, you can tell the real calm and/or experienced pros; they are the ones who grab at least one bottle to take with them. They may later dispose of it, in order take a bottle sling ;-)

  3. Full Monte

    Davis Phinney’s reaction to his flat is indeed consummately pro. As he was, so he still is, which is why I’m going to take a moment and give him a shameless plug:

    http://www.davisphinneyfoundation.org/

    As we’ve learned, Parkinson’s Disease may have been a factor in Robin Williams’ death by his own hand. So if a Victory Crew event or ride is scheduled somewhere near you, grab your bike, grab some friends. Or just donate or buy some Foundation kit.

  4. Earl

    What a great article! These seemingly simple, although we all know they aren’t always, lessons that make cycling so special. It’s attention to the details that make something PRO and this is absolutely one of them. Thank you Padraig

  5. Shuji Sakai

    I saw that first photo and the first thing I would have done is to tell the rider to get his left foot unclipped. I was a race mechanic for ten years and have done my share of wheel changes.

    I have full admiration for Davis Phinney’s pro tip. Most riders don’t have that presence of mind during a training ride, never mind an actual high-pressure wheel change.

    For the racers reading along: don’t. It’s not what most mechanics expect or want you to do.

    Unorthodox tricks like this work well between a racer and his/her own team’s mechanic where each knows what the other’s going to do. It’s no so great for a neutral support situation where mechanics expect the rider get off the bike and stand off to the side.

    Don’t take the wheel out yourself. I want to see which cog the chain was on so I can put it back in the same place +/- a cog. This helps the replacement wheel slide in easily between the dropouts.

    Do this: Get off the bike. Hold it upright by the saddle. Take that drink of water. Breathe. Let the mechanic do his job. That’s the best thing you can do to get a fast wheel change.

  6. Derek

    Above all remain calm. Neutral support is extra fun with a language barrier but calm is communicated wordlessly. As a racer I would shift to my smallest cog intending on a good push-off to get into the correct gear to ride while making it easy to replace the wheel. Brake Q/R open for certain. I like the wheel out and leaning against your leg (not in the nearby trees) as you hold up the bike. Wheel is installed in seconds and I get a quick look for any crash damage and away we go.

  7. leo_d

    easy way to remember which hand to raise:
    You shift the rear with the right hand, and shift the front with the left hand.

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