UCI World Cup Season 2014 - a Mechanic's Point of View Part 1
Ben Arnott introduces us to life as a World Cup mechanic, including his diary from Pietermaritzburg.
Ben Arnott is one of the mechanics on the Trek World Racing team, working as personal mechanic for the UK's Greg Williamson at World Cup events. By all accounts the life of a mechanic in mountain biking can be a tough, travelling non-stop for six months of the year to fettle bikes and often working through the night to prepare for racing, with the pressure of any potential mechanical faults resting on your shoulders at all times. However, it can also be a good life, following the sport you love and all the time surrounded by a friendly community of bike riders. Ben will be bringing us reports from each and every World Cup in 2014 from a mechanic's point of view, giving an alternative insight into the goings on each event through the year.
Firstly let's catch up on his early season and World Cup #1 from South Africa:
Pietermaritzburg 2014 Season Opener - A Mechanic's Point of View
Words: Ben Arnott
Photos: Matt Delorme
Before I had this job, I used to wonder what it took to get a place as a mechanic on the World Cup circuit - where did these mysterious guys I’d seen in the pits at Fort William train? Did I have the skills necessary? Can I really pull off a flat peak baseball cap?
Having now found myself in this position (minus baseball cap) I’m going to try and remove some of the mystery and tell you some tales from my experience as a mechanic for Trek World Racing.
How to get a job as a World Cup mechanic
I’ll start with a bit of background. We mechanics are all different, and there are some impressive and surprising CVs standing behind those toolboxes in the pits, but my story goes like this: I started in bike shops after school, and worked in a busy one in Edinburgh throughout my degree in Mechanical Engineering at Uni. After graduating I did a season in Whistler and when the guilt/fear set in I came back to Scotland and got a job in an Aerospace Engineering company and stayed there for two years. Towards the end of the first year I started to realise that the office life perhaps wasn’t for me, and once I got the idea into my head it was hard to shake.
Step 1: Be a mechanic, a very good one.
After the third person said to me something along the lines of ‘Aye son I was like you, I planned to stay two years and move on, and here I am 14 years on’ I woke up early on a Monday, drafted my resignation letter and handed it in before I had a chance to think about what my parents were going to say. Fast forward a few months and Greg Williamson, a friend from home, got a ride on TWR and mentioned they were looking for a new mechanic. Phone interview and trial later, I was on my first flight to the USA for Team Camp and Sea Otter, still not really believing it was true.
2014 season start
My 2014 season started at Team Camp in Motril, Spain. Team camp is like coming back together after summer holidays at school. Everyone has been doing their own thing over the winter (or the summer for the lucky Kiwis) and it takes a while to adjust back to each other’s ways. Throw a new kid into the mix like this year and you have the recipe for some quiet dinner times. However, luckily it takes no time at all for us to get back to the swing of things and everyone is catching up and getting excited for what the new season is going to bring.
I guess you get to see some OK places.
Sander (TWR head mechanic) and I had built the bikes the previous week at TWR HQ up the road near Granada so the days at camp are filled with testing and media capture for the riders, and tweaking set ups for the mechanics. It also gives the mechanic and rider a chance to work together for a first time if they are new to each other, a chance for them to start building a relationship, which is hugely important. Working on the bikes is a smaller part than you may think of being a mechanic on the circuit. At some of the most crucial times in a race weekend you are the only person with the rider (for example at the top of the hill on race day) and knowing the right thing to say or not say can seriously affect their result.
After team camp it was off to Pietermaritzburg for WC number one.
PMB World Cup #1 diary
Going to South Africa for a World Cup is an amazing experience. First of all the place itself is a huge eye opener to just how different a place can be to your accepted social norms. The vast inequality of wealth is evident everywhere, each time you drive along a motorway with a slum on one side and a gated community on the other. Working as a mechanic there has its challenges too. There’s the makeshift marquee you have as a pit, the erratic uplift time (no Austrian precision gondola with a 14 minute journey here) and the dust. The dust that gets everywhere: in your toolbox, up your nose, and in the tent every time someone drives past a bit enthusiastically, prompting a ‘This ain’t no NASCAR race foo!’ from Monk.
These ‘exotic’ races outside of Europe/North America always propose a logistical challenge as not having the truck at an event means we have to bring everything that we will possibly need, so when all the of bikes, boxes and bags roll out on the luggage carousel it’s a beautiful sight for bleary eyes. With everything packed in to a rental van we’re off to the hotel and are building bikes in the garage a few hours after touching down. For the next few days we follow the race schedule, starting early to arrive at the venue before the riders and get the pit area set up, tuning the bikes after each run and sipping coffee. Most mechanics I’ve met have a bit of an addiction to the black stuff and the dealer at PMB is Coffee Berry, which is pretty high up there on the World Cup venue coffee rating index.
As far as our job here goes, the course is pretty gentle on bikes so we are mainly concentrating on getting the bikes to feel the way the riders want them to. Little things – like a touch of Velcro on the chain device to silence the chain rattle or making sure the bike can back pedal smoothly for sitting in the start hut - are the things that can make a difference come race day. After practice we stay behind, washing and preparing the bikes for the next day, and getting any spare or race wheels ready. For Pietermaritzburg this usually means cutting tyres as well – for me the worst part of this job, but any cramp in my hand is alleviated by the thought that if this is one of the worst parts of my job, things could probably be worse.
Before both qualification and race runs we mechanics head up to the top of the track and this involves another great skill of the WC mechanic – making it from the pits to the top with enough kit to stock a small bike shop. Once alighted at the top carrying water, towels, tools, spare wheels, umbrellas, a turbo trainer and a bike it’s time to find an area to set up the bike on the trainer and get Greg started on his warm up. It’s so hot in the direct sun up there that he needs shade, so my main job is keeping an umbrella over him and keeping an eye on the time. Once we’ve gone through his routine on the turbo it’s time to head over to the start hut. Goggles? Check. Water? Check. I picked up the transponder for his fork didn’t I? Check. On race day the few minutes next to the start hut before the beeps can be quite a tense time but we manage to keep it light hearted and before I know it he’s off.
It's rocky up top. (Photo by Laurence Crossman-Emms.)
Once Greg disappears I radio down to the bottom that he is on track and go and watch the first rock garden with the mechanics of other departed riders that are gathering. This is one of my favourite parts of Pietermaritzburg; for some reason we always have to wait a long time for the uplift vans to collect us so it’s a rare break, and it just happens to be watching the world’s top 20 downhill mountain bikers rattling through a rock garden in Africa. There’s a real feeling of community amongst the mechanics and which team you work for is irrelevant, we are instead united by the knowledge that we are all doing something we love, and I can’t speak for the others but I often have to pinch myself to ensure I’m actually there, which is humbling. When a van finally arrives to drive us back to the pits we roll down the hill chatting rubbish to each other while we wait for any news of results through the team radios or our mobiles. Finally a text with the top five comes through from Belgium of all places from Sander’s girlfriend. With high fives exchanged and results digested, it’s time to get packed up and ready to leave.
Until next time
I’m unsure whether we are going back PMB next year and I have mixed feelings about that. It’s a difficult weekend for us, but the people I’ve met there are some of the friendliest and they make an awesome World Cup out of a less than ideal hill. Time will tell. In the meantime, I’m now in Cairns for the second round, which I’m sure will deliver its own set of quirks which you’ll be able to read about here once the racing’s wrapped up in the rainforest.