Winter series 2/4 – The head mechanic
Tour de Suisse: The year is almost over; what does the off season look like for you?
Glen Leven: My last race was the Tour of Guangxi in mid-October. November is my holiday season. The work for the new season then began with our service course on 3 December. We’re constructing the new racing bikes and replacements for the 2019 season. The riders already have their training bikes.
TdS: Do you change the set of bikes completely every season?
GL: The racing bikes and replacements are completely replaced and rebuilt using the latest innovations. Time trial bikes are usually ridden for two or three seasons, though time trial specialists and leaders will see more frequent updates and adjustments.
TdS: How many bikes did you bring to the Tour de Suisse?
GL: We bring a minimum of three road bikes and two time trial bikes per rider on the tour.
TdS: And you keep hold of these five bikes for the whole year?
GL: Yes, the bikes are linked to the team. We occasionally have a logistical bottleneck and might ask a rider to bring their training bike to use as the replacement for a one-day race. That usually works out well for the rider, because their training bike is then completely re-serviced by our mechanics.
TdS: So do all the bikes belong to the team?
GL: Yes, we just provide the riders with the bikes. At the end of the season or if there is a change in the team, the bikes are returned to us. The rider can buy the bike from us, of course, that’s not a problem. (grins)
TdS: During a stage race like the TdS, how much do you keep in contact with the riders?
GL: We have a WhatsApp group for the riders in the race. When I see there is a mountain stage tomorrow, I ask the riders if they all want their mountain bikes tomorrow, with these wheels and that gear ratio – otherwise they tell me what they want. Sometimes a leader or mountain specialist wants a particular gear ratio or wheels. We use the Emonda (lightweight) and the Madone (aero); the riders can swap between them, depending on the stage.
The riders also use the WhatsApp group to tell me if they have any problems with their bike, e.g. if a bottom bracket cracks or if the brakes are grinding.
TdS: What kind of special requests are you faced with?
GL: Above all, our job is about knowing the wishes of each rider. At the start of the season, a rider might well come to me and complain that their handlebar tape is too thick. Another might find that the same handlebar tape is too thin or not spread far enough across the handlebars.
And yes, sometimes right before a race, a rider will ask for an Allen key and start working on their saddle. That really unnerved me at first. I've since got to know the riders and know that some of them need these moments. (grins)
TdS: Have you ever found third-party products on the bikes? Do any of the riders want to use products from other manufacturers?
GL: People always want different things; the riders are particularly sensitive about saddles and shoes. However, Bontrager has hundreds of different models of saddles, so we can always find something to suit every rider.
We’ve also had some riders who have asked me to let them ride other bikes. In those cases I send them directly to the technical manager. (laughs)
TdS: At the TdS, I noticed that you exclusively used disc brakes.
GL: Yes – we were the first team to switch completely to disc brakes at the Tour de Suisse. Only the time trial bikes are still equipped more conventionally.
TdS: What did this change mean for you personally?
GL: Everything was new – I'd never worked with disc brakes before. But I learned quickly, and was able to get help and advice from my colleagues.
It’s definitely easier now than it was at the start of the season, when we were still working half/half. For every crash, we had to set off with two different wheels.
We’re now much more experienced in the mechanical team. We have a solution for every problem that might occur with disc brakes. That puts us ahead of the other teams.
TdS: Whenever you can be seen leaning out of a car, trying to repair something on a rider’s bike, I can hardly bear to look.
GL: Of course, there is always a risk. We usually try to do two or three checks after a crash, a kind of troubleshooting. We fix faults, but we don’t do any repairs from the car. If the fault can’t be fixed, we switch bikes. Then the rider is on the replacement bike, the second car goes on ahead and we spend a bit of time on the edge of the road. If we can fix the defect within three to four minutes, we swap the bike back. Otherwise, the rider has to stick with the replacement bike until the end of the stage.
TdS: Do you mechanics have a calmer working day when it’s a time trial stage?
GL: On the contrary: you have different bike set-ups to usual, you have to have all your bikes checked by the UCI, you have the riders on the bicycle trainer and then viewing the route. Then just before the race starts, a rider might suddenly want a different gear ratio.
TdS: To finish, you also love to cycle – what kind of bike do you use?
GL: I use the Trek Emonda, not because I’m a mountain specialist, but simply because I prefer the classic geometry.
And I ride with disc brakes to gain a bit of experience and so I know what a rider is talking about when they come to me and say the brake is grinding or something. So that I have a feel for it and some experience.
TdS: Thank you, Glen, and happy holidays!