38 wheel sets, 21 bikes, 15-hour days, and dreams of a puncture-free Tour of Flanders

'Holy Week' is crunch time for mechanics: 'A perfect Flanders is race without problems, and the win.'

Photo: Keir Plaice/Special to VeloNews

The Tour of Flanders might only last six hours or so, but the work that goes into the race can be counted in days, weeks, and even months.

Sunday’s peloton will count more than 300 riders across the men’s and women’s races, and behind each bike is a small army of mechanics, technical specialists, and other team staffers dedicated exclusively to building out the Flanders-ready rides.

On Saturday afternoon, mechanics across the peloton were busy putting the final touches on wheels, brakes, group sets, and tire pressure before lights out. It’s an early wakeup call Sunday with everything on the line.

The dream Flanders scenario for any mechanic?

“To win,” EF Education-EasyPost mechanic Jacobus Johannes Steyn told VeloNews. “We have a group that’s capable of putting one or two guys up there in the final, then it’s up to them.”

Yet from any mechanic’s perspective, there’s the victory and there’s the bike.

One cannot happen without the other.

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Steyn and two of his colleagues at EF Education-EasyPost know it’s up to them to make sure Mikkel Honoré and Neilson Powless can have the confidence knowing their bike will respond when they hit the Oude Kwaremont.

“Everything can happen during the classics,” Steyn said. “Everything can be 100 percent perfect with the bikes, but you never know what is going to happen.”

Long hours, nerve-wracking race days

Mechanical support during a race can prove decisive, as well as require acrobatic skills. (Gruber Images/VeloNews)

Their hours are long, and their work often makes headlines only when something goes wrong. Yet every top pro knows that a good mechanic is a critical link in being first across the line.

On a good day, one of their riders wins, and on a bad, well, no one likes to remember the bad ones. The worst-case scenario is a mechanical malfunction causing a rider to lose a race.

Their job is to make sure a mechanical failure doesn’t cost the team a chance at victory or a top result.

“If something happens to a bike, we can try to fix it, and change the bike again,” he said matter of factly. “You have to know what you need to do, where to go, what to do.”

Being ready for mishap is just part of the job. For Steyn, the worst-case scenario is one he hopes he never sees.

“It’s a rider in a select group, with no car and we cannot get to them, all the key riders are there, and they have a problem,” Steyn said. “That is a worse, worse scenario for us, because you normally can’t get there with the car. Or the rider will drop back to the peloton and they will have missed the move.”

And the dream scenario? Steyn doesn’t miss a beat.

“A race with no problems, and a victory. That is the best,” he said. “Even without a victory, just a trouble-free day. Does that ever happen in the classics? Ummmm … no.”

A busy, busy period

Locked and loaded, everything is ready for race day. (Keir Plaice/Special to VeloNews)

The team truck is brimming with equipment. For Flanders, EF Education-EasyPost packs 38 sets of wheels, and a few extras for Paris-Roubaix.

With three bikes per rider, the mechanics burn the midnight oil.

“We already have bikes one and two built and through the checklist,” Steyn told VeloNews on a phone call Friday afternoon.

“The guys will do one last recon and we’ll make the final checklist for Sunday.”

Bikes are built up and torn down depending on the race. Jacobus and his crew arrived at De Panne and will stay through Roubaix.

The demands, the toil, and the commitment play out in the mechanic trucks across Belgian during the busy northern classics period.

Teams will have at least three mechanics, and sometimes even more.

EF Education-EasyPost brings three mechanics to the northern classics, and four to the Tour de France.

Road bikes will see a few key tweaks for the one-days, but races like Flanders and Paris-Roubaix will see complete makeovers.

New wheels, tires, handlebars, derailleurs, and frames are built out especially for the northern classics.

This is the Formula 1 of bike racing. Or, perhaps more akin to the Paris-Dakar rally. Wheels and tires must withstand the punishment of cobblestones of Flanders and the even more ghastly pavé of northern France.

“It’s pretty much the same as Roubaix. For Roubaix we swap out the wheels but with different tires. The bike is 100 percent the same as Flanders for Roubaix,” Steyn said. “There will still be some surprises and a few things coming up across the peloton. The frame we are using now is an all-rounder frame.”

A long day for De Ronde

Tools of the trade. (Keir Plaice/Special to VeloNews)

For mechanics, working the classics is a badge of honor.

In the roving circus on wheels that is WorldTour racing, mechanics are usually the first to rise and the last to go to bed.

On Sunday, Steyn will wake up about 5:30 a.m., and he’ll join the other mechanics at the mechanic’s truck by about 5:45 a.m. for a final check.

“We have an Excel spreadsheet that’s being updated throughout the year,” he said. “If a rider changes something all the mechanics have access to it, and then we can use in the future to make sure it’s correct for the race.”

After that, it’s a quick breakfast, and the mechanics ride along in the team caravan to the start in Bruges that includes the team bus, sport director cars, and other support vehicles.

Mechanics will be busy at the start going through the final checklist, and making any final-hour adjustments from race-nervous riders.

Steyn will ride on the second team car, and another mechanic will be in the first.

Mechanics can make or break a race, and that’s the nightmare of any mechanic. A third will be waiting at a key sector with extra wheels, most likely at Oude Kwaremont.

“What you don’t want to do is have something happen that will prevent a rider from winning a race, or having a chance to win a race,” Steyn said. “Things will happen in the race. We just have to be ready to correct anything as quickly as possible.”

Race days are when everything matters, and the attention to detail pays off.

Jacobus and the other mechanics will be following the race radio carefully, and wait for riders calling up to the team car if they’re having any mechanical difficulties.

One common problem is riders’ derailleur being hit by another rider in a pileup or in the argy-bargy of the race.

“A few years ago at Roubaix, Sep Vanmarcke crashed on his bike after 100km, and his derailleur went into crash-mode,” he said. “We had to move pretty fast with the car to get to him. We had to get the OK from the commissaire to get through the barrage. The race was on the line.”

Mechanics have to be on the ready to jump out to make a quick tire swap, or, just like what happened to Wout van Aert at the E3 Saxo Classic, lean out of the car to make an adjustment to the bike on the move.

Mechanics can turn into heroes. In the 2009 Giro d’Italia, a Rabobank mechanic performed one of the greatest bike swaps of all time to help Denis Menchov overcome a puncture in the decisive final time trial to secure the pink jersey.

After the race, the mechanics make sure all the bikes and equipment are loaded onto the bus, and everyone trundles off to the hotel.

While riders are receiving rub-downs, the mechanics will check and wash each bike, making note of any major work that needs to be done. If they’re lucky, they’re finished in time for a late dinner.

And just how much of a beating do bikes take at a race like Paris-Roubaix?

“It depends on the rider. If it’s dry, everything’s dusty. If it’s a wet Roubaix, you replace everything,” Steyn said. “You find sometimes, like last year with one rider, that they had three flats that he picked up during the race. The wheel was 100 percent and we know the tire works, and he didn’t even notice he was pedaling on a punctured tire.”

A work of passion

Mechanical help can prove decisive in any race. Here, an EF mechanic works at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Mechanics come from all walks of life, but what links them all is the love for the bike.

Some are ex-pros and racers, like Jacobus, who raced a few years and realized he was never going to make it to the Tour de France.

“I used to ride myself, and I raced locally and internationally, but it just got too expensive, and I called it,” Steyn said. “I always wanted to be involved in this sport no matter what, so let’s do mechanic on the road side … I worked myself up in the ranks and I arrived here.”

Steyn — known by everyone inside the team bus as “JJ” — has been a top WorldTour pro mechanic for eight years, working first with Dimension Data before joining EF Education-EasyPost in 2018.

An expert mechanic can have a long and successful career. Many top pros will work exclusively with one mechanic across the arc of their racing career.

Faustino Muñoz, a Spanish mechanic, worked for such riders as Laurent Jalabert and Fernando Escartín, but was the right-hand man for Alberto Contador from when he turned pro in 2003 until he retired in 2017.

South African mechanic Gary Blem helped Chris Froome win four yellow jerseys, and followed him to Israel Premier Tech.

Steyn will be in the middle of the action Sunday, riding in the second team car, on the ready to swap a tire or fix a derailleur on the fly.

It’s all in a day’s work in the high-pressure stakes of the northern classics.

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