On The Road - Kona Les Gets Factory Team
It’s a freezing cold Monday morning in a car park in Willingen, Germany. I’ve got a mild hangover. Yesterday, this was a chaotic festival with security guards, fans, racers, mechanics and team pits everywhere. Commentators were babbling over the PA and racers pushed their bikes through the crowds. Now it’s just an empty car park with a few piles of rubbish. The World Cup is finished, some bloke from Sheffield surprised us all and the circus left town overnight. They must have dug a tunnel under the fence.
It’s a few weeks till the next World Cup in Canada and I’m heading for Austria, hitching a lift in the Kona truck to the Out of Bounds weekend in Leogang. It will be a good chance to find out about the million and one things that make up the schedule of Kona Les Gets race mechanic, Paul Walton. The trip starts with me watching Paul jigsaw an unfeasible amount of gear and bikes into the back of the truck. I try to help, but I think I just make things worse. Then it’s a seven hour drive to Austria, only stopping for the standard autobahn fare of Schnitzel, beer and frites. The truck is also consuming large quantities of engine coolant and Paul spends a fair bit of time under the hood trying to figure out where the leaks are. We make it though.
Where others have 10 people to cover every little thing, Kona Les Gets have one. Paul is a one man support crew. A sort of downhiller’s MacGyver, without the big hair.
MECHANIC, DRIVER, LOGISTICS, ACCOUNTANT, CHIEF COOK AND BOTTLE WASHER
How long have you been working with Kona?
I started in 2001. We did all the World Cups. Then in 2002, the sponsorship with Ford ended, so they didn’t have the budget. So for 2002 and 2003, I just worked on British races, maybe one or two World Cups with Tracy and Scott Beaumont. In 2003 we got Fabien on board and I became the fulltime mechanic. Russell (Carty) was team manager all along, He pretty much started the team off.
Before that I worked in a bike shop when I was at school, then I studied mechanical engineering. Lots of the projects I did were with bikes, so I learned a lot about the materials, welding and suspension, all that stuff.
Tell me what you do for the Kona team.
Mainly, I work on the bike at the races - adjusting components, helping the riders with their choice of tyres and that sort of thing. The second part is a lot of development work with the sponsors, the parts suppliers. Spending time with the riders going through what’s good or bad, if we can make changes ourselves and hopefully get those moved into the production parts. Obviously the main sponsor is Kona, we do a lot of development work with the frame. Over the last two years we’ve changed the frame a lot, from the 2005 model to the bike we’re riding now, there’s a lot of changes, we’ve changed the suspension linkage to make it work better, also the sizing of the frame, shortened the swing arm, changed the head angle and the bottom bracket height and generally made the frame a bit lighter.
So the changes that you make for Fabien, do Tracy and Kamil get those as well?
Yeah, it’s normally Fabien who drives it, pretty much because he’s got the most credibility, but also because he’s really technically minded, he knows exactly what makes a difference. If we think those changes will suit Tracy, she’ll be second in line to test it. Then Kamil rides the same size frame as Fabien, so we get him on it as well.
Then the other things I do are – driving the rig around to the events, setting it up, making sure that we’re always branded up correctly, we’ve got the right signage, make sure we don’t have the wrong sponsors parts in the truck! And also, normally I don’t have time, but I try to help other Kona riders if they need a derailleur hanger or something like that. If someone’s come to a race from Brazil or whatever and they don’t have the parts, I’ll try and help them out.
Then the horrible bit is that I’m quite involved with the budget, setting out a prediction for the following year, what we think we’re going to need, working with the athletes to work out a travel plan, booking all the accommodation and flights. Ideally we need the budget finished at the end of the preceding year, so it can be agreed with the sponsors, so we get the payments in early in the season. I can’t really book anything till I’ve got money in the account. That’s normally the hard part, getting paid! We try to get the parts in January, primarily the new frame, and over the winter we test with Fabien. The south of France it’s pretty good for that, it’s reasonably dry over the winter, still reasonably warm.
What is a typical race week like for you?
Take a World Cup for example - normally we need to be there by Tuesday evening so I can set up first thing in the morning. First thing is to wash the truck and get rid of all the bugs and dirt. Then unpack everything, build up the awning. If it was a muddy race the week before, I might have to wash all that stuff. It’s the best part of a day really, just setting everything up, cleaning and getting ready to go. Then there’s silly stuff like going to the supermarket to get water, energy bars and that sort of thing. We might need something from the hardware store or stuff like that. Normally on Weds afternoon, I try to walk the track with Fabien and Tracy. So when they’re talking about parts of the track that they’ve got a problem with, I can understand better to help them. Thursday will probably be training, so I’ll be up early to make sure the bikes are ready. Then all day testing, changing different settings. End of the day, washing all the bikes, checking for any problems and then packing everything up. With three riders, that normally takes me till 8 or 9 at night. So on average, it’s 12 or 13 hours a day. Then when I get back to the hotel I go through emails. When there’s a 4X, it can be a bit later. That’s it through to Sunday, when it’s normally a really early start to be ready for qualifying. When they’re out training, I get a turbo trainer ready and pack a bag with tools, an umbrella for the rain and stuff. I normally go up to the start with Tracy for her run and stay there till Fabien does his. Then come down and prepare the bikes again for the race run. Usually on Sunday evening, I pack everything up and head on to the next one! Normally I’ve got a days driving between events, sometimes two.
So you don’t get a break at all?
No, it’s seven days a week, 13 hour days. You get pretty tired at the end of it.
It sounds like you do what some teams would have a few people to do?
I get some help from the office, booking flights and stuff. Sometimes I have someone to help at the races. For security there always needs to be someone at the truck, it can be tricky sometimes. You definitely need a second person, like for the team managers meetings and stuff. Russell was in that role, it worked really well. I did all the mechanics. But he’s not the team manager anymore, there’s a new team manager now, who coordinates all the athletes for Kona, Mark Peterson, he’s based in the U.S. So hopefully next season all the travel coordination should be taken care of, it should be a lot smoother. We’re gonna have two people at all the major races. If it was just working on the bikes, I could handle it, it’s all the other stuff in between. With three riders, I’m pretty much at my limit.
At a typical race, how much work do you do on the bikes?
It depends entirely on the track. Some tracks are rough on the bikes. Other tracks, if it’s dry and fast, it’s generally OK. Typically, we have a set of race wheels that are lighter, those we keep for the semi-final and the final. So hopefully those make it through the weekend without a problem. Then they’ve each got two sets of training wheels, which we work around on the tyres. So when they come down, they don’t have to wait while I’m changing tyres. There’s maybe three or four different combinations of tyres. I have a couple of spare wheels as well just in case. I’d say between three riders on the average week, we go through two sets of wheels. Tyres, I’d say they use a pair each per weekend. The race tyres become next weeks training tyres, and we put a new set on for the race. The other thing they break a lot of is cranks and pedals, hitting them on the ground. The bash guards take a beating if it’s rocky. In crashes, we can bend handlebars. Forks we don’t have too much trouble with, other than normal services.
Do you do the suspension work yourself?
It depends, normally I do it myself. But this year Marzocchi have been doing the World Cups, so if I’m busy, they’ll do it. Or if we’re testing something new, like today we’re testing the new air fork, they’ll do it, instead of me fiddling with the fine tuning. Anything new, Marzocchi do it. I’ll do the regular services. The rear shock is done entirely by Fox, it’s tricky, you could spend your whole day just doing that. Like Honda have a guy just doing suspension.
Do you think that makes a difference? What if you had a guy just doing suspension?
For sure. I’ve got a general knowledge of suspension. But someone who really understands everything about hydraulic flow and whatever would probably do a better job. The thing about World Cups is that you’re so limited on the training time, you usually only do for or five runs in a day. You need at least two or three runs to see if the changes on one setting are better or worse. You can’t really test stuff at a World Cup. So other events like this (in Leogang) are good, we can do a lot of work here. It’s also hard to change something mid-season. Like on race day, I’ll stick with the same exact brake pads, same wheels, measure the brake lever distance, that sort of thing. We document a lot of stuff. After every race I take notes on all the settings, suspension, tyre pressures, which is good for the next season when you come back to the same track. Or if you go to another track that is similar, you start with those settings. It’s quite interesting to see how much difference one click on the rebound makes. Like you’ve got a range of maybe 25 clicks on fork compression, they can feel the difference one click makes. Tyre pressures as well, 0.1 Bar they can feel, that’s less than 2psi.
TEAM MANAGER (EX)
Now you’re leaving the team manager job, how do you feel about that?
Yeah, it’s been a really hard decision. I’ll miss the racing for sure. I’ve known for the last year that I’d have to pass things on, not because it was a bad job, but just that Kona felt my expertise was needed in other areas. I’ll be concentrating on media relations, marketing and bike parks in Europe. I’ve realised that it’s the way forward in my career. I’ll still be heavily involved in marketing the team.
Were you and Paul the only people involved in running the DH team? No masseur, physio, coach?
No, just us. Perhaps we could have done better with more people, but with sports budgets are the hard thing. The team is run as a separate company, so that is a big part of the job…trying to match figures up, working out ways to save money here and there. Sometimes it’s frustrating when riders want to do certain things and we just have to say ‘we haven’t got the money’. But you get through. When you get a win at the end of the day, that makes it. Standing at the finish when Paul radios down that they’ve left the start. Then waiting for the split time, the hairs stand up on your arms. It’s an amazing feeling when they come across the line with a win.
Any highlights over the last few years?
I used to want to be a professional racer, I raced XC pretty well as a youth rider, then when I moved up to junior I was off the back and I realised I would never be able to be a pro. So I started a team in the bike shop I used to run. Just a local team. We had 10 people, some worked in the shop, some customers. We had a jersey and that was it. So to start from that and now having Fabien win two World Championships with Kona and now Tracy winning World Cup series, and Fort William last year, it’s great to see that progression. It’s a dream come true really.
It’s a freezing cold Monday morning in a car park in Willingen, Germany. I’ve got a mild hangover. Yesterday, this was a chaotic festival with security guards, fans, racers, mechanics and team pits everywhere. Commentators were babbling over the PA and racers pushed their bikes through the crowds.