Before Le Tour de France this year, Dutch broadcaster NOS ran a piece on the contractors whose job it is to handle the phallic graffiti painted on the route before each stage. Given the time constraints, it’s quicker for the contractors to modify the graffiti with more paint than it is clean the road.
This means that the hapless team members have to drive until they find a problem and then quickly assess what they can convert the art into. Given the shape of the anatomy, the two wheels of a bicycle mean that one half is easily converted. The other half? Maybe an owl. Or a butterfly…
You learn a lot watching mechanics clean, tape handlebars, and then speak to the riders – before they make almost imperceptible adjustments to wheels, brakes, and saddles. But the reality for race mechanics is often long periods of anxious tedium interspersed with stressful situations like this.
Race directors manage this cycle of stress by keeping the team mechanics busy. Now, I don’t mind glueing tubular wheels every few years but 15 pairs for a stage? That’s pretty gruesome – especially if followed by a tedious 8-hour drive to the next stage start. And almost every day, for 3 weeks.
If the bike is the chassis, a pro cyclist is the engine. That makes the team staff the engine-mechanics of a pro-cycling team. They refuel the engine, ensuring peak performance in time for each stage. Problem is, cyclists are engines with minds of their own and here we see Dave Brailsford explain that a staffer must listen closely to what an engine tells them.
That’s not to mean that the engine is particularly intelligent. I was witness to a team staff member berating a naked pro cyclist, locked out of his hotel room the day before a grand depart. Staffing a pro-cyclist team is often a bizarre and unpredictable role.
Consumer cars are geared to burn fuel economically at speeds of up to 70mph. So, for tour cars to drive considerably slower than normal, for prolonged periods up extremely steep mountains, the gears must be specially tuned prior to a grand tour. That gives you some idea of the demands made on the vehicle.
Now, imagine driving at an unnaturally low speed while cyclists race around you. It requires immense concentration and focus, especially given the potential consequences. Driving cars or motorbikes alongside the peloton is a privilege but I’d rather be in the passenger seat with my full focus on the action.