“It’s a way of life,” says Lotto-Belisol mechanic Frederik Moons as he shows me around the team’s truck at their pre-season training camp in Benicassim, Spain, and describes how he will spend up to 200 days on the road this year.
Riders come and go but the truck is a constant feature in the hotel’s car park over the course of the ten-day training camp which I am visiting. It is, however, one of the few times of year when the truck’s huge wheels are not turning and remain in one place for more than a few days at a time.
Like the team’s riders, who include sprint star Andre Greipel and general classification contender Jurgen Van den Broeck, the team’s six mechanics already know most of their race calendar for the year and, after a short period at home in Belgium, Moons will head out on the road for a long season which will see him wrench for Lotto-Belisol at races including the cobbled Classics, Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour of Romandie, Criterium du Dauphine, Tour de France, Tour of Belgium and Eneco Tour.
You would think, then, that Moons would savour the opportunity to setup shop in Benicassim, a Spanish seaside resort an hour’s drive north of Valencia, but he prefers the ever-changing landscape of the racing season to the humdrum of a training camp.
“For working it’s easier, but the time doesn’t pass that fast,” says Moons. “If you’re sitting in the team car, following a training ride for five hours, then the only thing that can happen is a puncture. It’s nothing special to see.”
The atmosphere around the team is relaxed throughout my visit. The riders are dictated by routine: eat, sleep and ride – sometimes logging more than 35 hours a week on the bike – and the three mechanics on duty on Spain have only to ensure the 19 riders present have their bikes ready for the next day’s training. The warm sun and varied terrain offers a welcome escape from the Belgian winter and, sprint training aside, a rare moment of relative calm before the season starts in Australia.
A WorldTour mechanic will work countless hours over the course of a year, often from 7am to 10pm or later during the height of the racing season, fettling bikes, washing wheels, switching cassettes, gluing tubs and ensuring each rider’s machine is in perfect condition.
But if the landscape is ever changing throughout the season, the day-to-day work of a mechanic rarely changes from race to race, and the truck is carefully organised – every bike, wheel, tyre and tool has its place – to ensure Moons and his colleagues can work as efficiently as possible in order to meet the demands of the team’s 28 riders.
“I try and work the same way at every race,” says Moons, whose brother, also a mechanic, helped him get his first job on the Silence-Lotto team. “We have 28 riders on the team and I can’t remember everything so it’s important to be organised.
“Each rider has his own intricacies so communication is key. If the riders hand the bike back to us and say nothing, then there’s nothing wrong with it. We just check everything over to make sure it’s ok to race the next day and wash the bike.
“But sometimes they want to change the wheels, switch the cassette, move the saddle or make other changes. We always ask the riders to tell us about any changes straight after the race, as on the morning of the next stage we will only pump the tyres and wash the team cars.
“We have three different bikes [the super-light Helium SL, aero Noah FAST and Classics-specific Fenix], so they might want to change bike, but some riders like Jurgen Van den Broeck only have one bike, while others, like Jelle Vanendert are easy. If he has his bike with Campagnolo Bora wheels and it weighs 6.8kg without the SRM computer then he’s happy.”
Van den Broeck finished fourth in the 2012 Tour de France and will base his 2013 season around cycling’s biggest race. Belgium has not had a Tour de France winner since Lucien Van Impe in 1976 and Van den Broeck carries the inflated hopes of a nation where cycling rules, bringing with it pressures of its own for Lotto-Belisol’s mechanics.
“The Tour de France is more stressful for the riders and you feel that they’re more nervous,” says Moons. “Small problems with the bike become a big problem in their head. When they’re nervous they get more picky about stupid things that are nobody’s fault. It might just be the weather conditions.
“They are on the highest level of performance. If something happens during the race, like they get a puncture at a bad time and they’re pissed off, then sometimes they might shout during the race but as long as it’s in the race then I don’t mind.
“They’re going full gas and are full of adrenaline, and maybe there’s a breakaway going away and it’s really f**ked up if you have a puncture or mechanical, but after the race they will always come to you and apologise. It’s a mechanical sport and sh*t happens. You’re on the road so much that if you start to become an arsehole then you won’t last very long.”
The Tour de France may be cycling’s hottest pressure cooker, but it is the Classics that pose the biggest challenge to professional mechanics, with the cold, wet weather and vicious cobblestones of northern Europe a far cry from the sun-baked roads of France in mid-July.
“We use Campagnolo Hyperon wheels or handbuilt aluminium wheels and use 25mm or 27mm tyres,” says Moons. “We have to change the cables more because of the rain and dirt from the cobble. That’s why everything is a little bit wider on the new Fenix, with more clearance around the brakes so the mud doesn’t stick as much.
“Last year for Paris-Roubaix we didn’t have the Fenix so used the Helium, and we had to put on a different fork which was higher and with more clearance. Some of the guys also want double tape or gel padding. It’s different but everything has to be spot on every day, regardless of the race.”
Moons has been a professional mechanic for five years, starting with Silence-Lotto, before spending a year each with Team Sky and Spidertech respectively, and then moving back to Lotto ahead of the 2012 season.
He shows me the team’s aluminium Campagnolo Shamal wheels, sometimes used as spare wheels for races when there are not enough carbon fibre wheels to cover spares for all riders.
The team’s leaders will always have a free pick of wheels – “you can’t give Jurgen Van den Broeck alloy wheels on a big mountain stage” – but I ask Moons whether Lotto-Belisol’s equipment is limited by its budget.
“Years ago, before the [financial] crisis, it was possible to have more wheels,” says Moons. “I think the sponsors have less money than years ago. In my first year with Lotto, when we rode with Mavic wheels, we had sh*tloads of wheels.”
“You can’t compare us with Team Sky. I worked for Sky for a year and they have enough money to buy anything. I don’t think they actually have a budget. Money is the key.”
Lotto has a long history of sponsoring Belgian cycling teams dating back to 1984 and that has instilled a sense of relative security in an age where financial fragility has seen a number of high-profile sponsors withdraw from the sport.
“If Sky or BMC pull out [as sponsors] then there’s nothing any more,” says Moons. “I think it’s easier to find a sponsor for two million euros than 20 million euros. Those super teams only last as long as the guy who is willing to put the money in. If the big boss at Sky or BMC pulls the plug then it’s done.
“It was the same with HTC. They wanted to have one major sponsor, so, while they could find sponsors for two, four or maybe five million euros, they wanted one big sponsor for 15 or 20 million and there was no-one.”
It’s not all been plain sailing for the Belgian team and Lotto-Belisol’s own future was called into question at the end of 2012 when there were concerns that their WorldTour licence would not be renewed. The team received the seal of approval from the UCI, however, and riders and support staff alike let out a collective sign of relief.
Now the 2013 season looms large and, with the hundreds of thousands of miles on the road ahead of him, I ask Moons whether a mechanic, who endures long hours and an endless succession of non-descript hotel car parks, has the toughest job in cycling.
“I think that’s the biggest discussion you can start,” says Moons. “If you take a soigneur, mechanic, sports director and bus driver, and throw that in at the dinner table then the discussion will start but it will never stop.
“If you feel that your head is more at home then on the road then it’s time to stop. If I have that feeling – and I can’t speak for my colleagues – and I don’t care anymore then it’s time to stop and do something else.
“Everyone needs to be a team player. I’m only a small part of the puzzle but if you’re not a team then nothing will go well. If the riders see that we are working hard to do everything right for them, and so they have the best bikes, then we’re doing our job.”