Race Mechanic vs. Bike Shop Mechanic

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For some reason, I’ve been replacing a lot of rear derailleur cables recently before or after the club rides. I’m not sure with Sram or Campy shifters, but Shimano shifters have always had a tendency to eat up rear derailleur cables up inside the shifter body itself. My brother is notorious for having the cables break, in races and training.

Anyway, there is a new guy from Florida that is riding with us now and his shifting sucked yesterday. We stopped after 1/2 an hour and I messed with it. I realized pretty quickly that the cable was suspect. It wasn’t shifting good up or down. So when we got home, I told him I’d look at it for him.

Just like I suspected, his cable end was frayed. Pretty badly really. He only had a couple more rides left on it. Anyway, I had heard that he had taken his bike into a local shop to get worked on last weekend. He said that his derailleur hanger was cracked and that he got a new one. Plus he said he had paid for a tune up. It surprised me that he could have gotten his bike back after a tune up and it shifted like that.

But, there is a huge difference between a race mechanic and a local bike shop mechanic. A race mechanic fixes a bicycle like he would if he was going to be racing the very bike when he was done. He fixes it and then will usually take it out for a short ride to make sure it acts the same off the stand as it did on the stand. The same with everything else he does. A race mechanic realizes even a very small problem with a bicycle can be the difference between winning and losing. Or winning and finishing sometimes.

Most race mechanic I know have raced bicycles sometime in their lives. I don’t think it is mandatory that is the case, but it usually is. I think this gives them an appreciation of how perfect a race bike has to be at all times.

I think the average person would be surprised how many times a bike get washed. From a riders point of view, I think that the team race mechanics wash the bikes way too much. Especially since the addition of power sprayers all the teams are hauling around. Power sprayers can do a number on the bearings of a bicycle. I do understand if you have to wash 18 bikes or more a night, a power sprayer makes the job quicker, but it makes the longevity of some of the parts on bicycles much shorter. But, the team mechanics usually have a fairly unlimited supply of parts, so that is of little concern for them.

The teams I’ve ridden on have always had good mechanics. That is something I miss riding on a local team. The relationship between a rider and a mechanic is a special thing. It takes a long while for the relationship to form. But after it does, it is a true bond. The mechanic knowing exactly how the rider wants his bike to be in every instance. There are very few people I would allow to work on my bike ever. I’ve been fortunate having some of the best guys in the business as team mechanics. And most are good friends still.

When one thinks of a bike race mechanic here in the US, Bill Woodul's name is on the forefront. Bill was around when I first started racing. I did many European and South American trips with him. He might be the most colorful person I've ever known.

This is Calvin Jones. He was with me on the Levi's Team. He now works for Park Tools and teaches at the Bill Woodul mechanic's clinics.

I go through a box of these cable ever other year. It is amazing how fast they disappear.


I found this photo at a website that tells you how to properly wash your bike. It is overkill, but okay.

It's probably not the best idea carrying diesel around in this. I use a little diesel on the chain, some use kerosene, and then just use Dawn dish soap in water. Pretty simple.

27 thoughts on “Race Mechanic vs. Bike Shop Mechanic

  1. Calvin Jones

    Steve,
    Nice 2448 × 3264 pixel plug for your sponsor’s cables. On the diesel thing, no comment.

  2. Joey D'Antoni

    Steve–why the kerosene after the diesel–just to get rid of it? I love using diesel to clean a drivetrain–it looks like you could eat of it afterwards.

  3. Blake Barrilleaux

    Diesel and water. Very old school Europe for bike cleaning. See the first 5 minutes of A Sunday in Hell . Classic photo of Mr. Woodul.

  4. Calvin Jones

    I know I will regret this.
    Diesel certainly has a history in cycling as a solvent. I feel this can be traced to Europe, where it is easily available to race mechanics and cheap. “If those guys use it, it must be good”, correct? While it works, so does gasoline, so does carbon tetrachloride, so does toluene. Why not use these? Diesel stinks, your bike will stink, and you will stink. If I had used this on the road, the riders and other staff in team vans would have complained and thrown me out…without stopping.

    Not to play the warm-fuzzy card, but solvents pose one of the health and environmental challenges of our time. Damage to nervous system, reproductive damage, liver and kidney damage, respiratory impairment, cancer, and dermatitis are all part of the fun. Generally, our industry is (relatively) clean. Bicycle service area have very little of the big-five that the EPA worries about: lead, mercury, boron, cadmium, and volatile fluids. I have used charcoal lighter fluid to clean when I had to, but it is not something I am proud of, nor would I recommend it.

  5. Mike G.

    So, Calvin, what should we use?
    I take your word as law.
    Had the distinct pleasure of attending the USAC mechanics class with Calvin, Bill W and Andy S. In a word – wow.

  6. Nancy

    The post might be nice for your team mechanic but I will say that there is good bike mechanic in local bike shop.

    They are not all good but you know quickly the ones that are good and the one that will spend extra time on your bike. And also, just check out their customers. If it is a bunch of hippster with fixie, they might be trouble to adjust the rear derailleur…

  7. tifosi

    Some of the problems I have seen with Shimano shifters eating cables is that there are lots of 1.1mm cables out now – where a 1.2mm is the standard Shimano specs. Plus, I don’t know the strength difference between a zinc plated cable and a stainless cable and the different strand types, but I feel that shops and home mechanics using cheap “generic” cables are probably creating more failures. I personally have never had a cable fail at the shifter before I replace it during routine maintenance, but have seen lots of them fail. I don’t use Shimano cables, expect when they come with the shifters. I just keep an eye on my cables and change them out as needed. I tend to find the SIS shifter type cable housing starts to wear out/fail first, with the strands at the end caps extending past the plastic. This tends to cause shifting trouble long before the cables do – when I see the housing doing that I replace both the cable and the housing.

  8. Calvin Jones

    The best team mechanics, for my mind, come out of the shop. Having the good grounding as a shop mechanic pounds in the basics that you must be able to do in your sleep….as you often must.

    For solvents, it seems to me, the more “friendly to bunnies” it is, the more time it takes and more scrubbing it needs. The nastier it is, the easier it is to use and more it is self-cleaning. For the home-mechs, save your hydrocarbon solvents and let the dirt settle out, then reuse. Dispose eventually at hazardous waste sites for locals. For race mechanics, don’t work on golf greens or pool side, and remember to flush flush flush. One old-guy trick. When washing and cleaning with solvent, hose down the pavement/cement with water first. The pores are filled and the dirt sticks less to it, and then again, flush flush flush.

  9. tifosi

    Couldn’t agree with Calvin more. The best advice I ever received was to work in a bike shop for a while to learn why bikes are they way they are. This helped me immensely – old bikes and new bikes teach you a ton. Plus, as someone who was in the industry for a while doing design, and trying to come up with new ideas, I learned enough at bike ships that I wasn’t constantly trying to re-invent the wheel, literally. It is fun to see “new” ideas now that have been around for much longer than we have, or supposed cutting edge products that existed decades ago…

    There is an old book on bicycle parts and designs that is probably out of print. It is from the 50’s or 60’s and there are so many designs from even the 1800’s that are still being recycled as new now.

  10. Tim

    I’ve used rubbing alcohol as a solvent. It hardly has a scent, is reasonably active to not require alot of elbow grease and evaporates readily. It also doesn’t dissolve your skin and is easy to buy anywhere.

  11. Brent

    I was a race mechanic first then a shop mechanic every bike I touch is treated as it is going to be raced. There is no point to me in doing anything else.

    FYI the Shimano issue is because of the severe bend the cable under goes in the shifter. In today’s world there is more shifting unlike the friction days of old

  12. devin

    i keep my local race/shop mechanic well fed and with a stream of what ever parts and stuff I have left… He just built a sweet set of wheels for the kid,…If I can’t do it,,,it goes to Tostin,,, and if he can’t do it,,I drive 2 hours to Hollywood,,
    I have seen what happens when a local guy goes bad,,,

  13. Jim

    To piggyback on Calvin I use minerals spirits, plop the chain in a pickle jar, close lid shake around. Put it in a second jar with cleaner solution. Decant as necessary, store the much in a jar, dispose of properly. Takes forever to fill a jar.
    Lube with synthetic motor oil/mineral spirits. It attracts too much dirt so going to try Chain-L.

  14. Dave B

    Nothing beats Diesel. Most of the solvent based degreasers from the auto parts stores is plain old colored diesel in an aerosol can. You only need to use a tiny bit

  15. tilford97 Post author

    I try to be as ecologically friendly as possible in most things in life, but not much concerning a clean chain. The lubes I wash off the chain aren’t Earth friendly themselves, so matter what I use to dislodge them, it isn’t good in the end. It doesn’t take much diesel to clean the drive train of a bicycle. Hardly any at all.

    I’ve tried lots of different lubes. I’ve been using Tri-flow forever on the road. I don’t really have any complaints about it, so that is what goes on.

    A clean drive train is a must for a racing bicycle.

  16. Catherine

    You are a racer’s mechanic. That is clear because you race bikes. You understand what’s expected. Nothing less is acceptable.

  17. jt

    now that Andy Rooney is dead – you might be on to something. yesterday it was griping about car mechanics and today it was bike mechanics. find a good mechanic and treat him/her well, Darwin weeds out the rest. For the record, a jar of simple green (usually gets used several times), a good wipe and drip bottle tri flo after it dries. kmc chains are the easiest to take apart. diesel, to0 nasty and too much hassle to buy a pint. I won’t even pump gas from the same island as that stuff much less bring it home. Much rather have an in-law move in the basement

  18. Colan

    I am laughing. Shifting has been less than perfect this week. Guess what broke tonight? Rear shift cable.

  19. Jeff

    Lacquer thinner. Nothing cleans like lacquer thinner, it’s getting harder to find, expensive and sucks for the environment but you use it once and nothing else will do. Also, I rarely clean any of my bikes with water, a damp towel and some Pledge will do for almost any cleaning task, and bearings last a lot longer.

  20. Columbus

    I am both a race mechanic and I work in a shop. I am reading these threads and it seems the point has been missed. Tilford has pointed out how the shop mechanic lacks where the race mechanic over does it. It’s not just about cleaning. Sure, cleaning the bike is important. Clearing away the grime helps us inspect the machine for wear and damage. Your local shop usually does not offer a cleaning like racing equipment receives. Your bike is also not washed routinely like racing equipment.

    A shop mechanic, in my opinion, sees a lot of bikes that were never taken care of until a problem occurs. A race mechanic cares for the bike to prevent problems. In either case, problems still happen. After all, it is just a machine. The point is, if you are a mechanic, and are serious about doing a good job, treat every bike like you are riding it. Be thorough. In a shop, clean the areas that will be lubricated at the very least. Inspect those parts and replace them if there is any question of its integrity. I’ve never had a customer complain about a $4 cable and $3 worth the housing to correct what I thought was nearing a failure point.

    And.. Dumonde Tech citrus degreaser works better than anything else I’ve ever tried. It also removes tubular glue.

  21. JimW

    Most shop mechanics don’t tune bikes to race machine condition because:
    #1. Customers refuse to pay for that.
    #2. The shops intake person does a poor job assessing the bike. When the mechanic has to call the customer two days later because the bike needs this that and the other thing then see #1.

    There is making it work and making it sing.
    Unless you walk into a race shop no one is singing. More-so if the shop is seasonal and has to turn as many bikes as possible.
    Economic factors.
    Experience is expensive. The Calvins(and close to Calvins) of this world should not be expected to work for teenager wages which is what most shops can afford. They just burn through college kids and the experienced adult mechanic will only hang around so long.
    Unless you are lucky enough to live in a cycling hotbed or a town with a true Pro shop this is the reality.
    Sad.

  22. Ralph

    The real problem with the diesel in the picture is the glass bottle. Store it in a can something that won’t be damaged by the solvent and won’t readily break.
    Also the lacquer thinner has some really nasty inhalation hazards. Use only in a really well ventilated area with a respirator. That is why it is getting hard to find.

  23. Peter Persson

    Hi!
    The cable problem is a Shimano thing in my opinion. I have never changed the cables on my C40/Campy Record, I bought it and started riding it 2003… about 50.000 km. And about the chain cleaning; Yes Power Spray is the shit, perfect cleaning and environmental friendly, try it!
    Best regards,
    Peter
    Alriksson Go:Green Women Junior Team, Sweden

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