Race Mechanic vs. Shop Mechanic

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We’ve moved the evening rides up 15 minutes this month to account for the sun setting earlier. Man, the days really seem to get shorter way fast now. A couple days ago, when I first got back from Colorado, I guess I was running a little late. By a little, I came out 1 minute after ride time. My brother, Kris, had went and pumped my tires up. He was trying to do me a favor, but I didn’t take it that way at all. I told him that I don’t pump up my tires for training.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to pump up my tires, it was that I didn’t want him to touch or change anything on my bike. I am the only person that does anything to my bikes now, mechanically, and I don’t want any surprises by others changing anything.

You wouldn’t think that just pumping up tires changes much, but it really does. I know the last time I pumped up my tires and know, within a few psi, how much air my tires have in them at all times. It changes the ride and cornering characteristics of a bike, thus is pretty important.

I haven’t had a team mechanic in quite a while. Even with team mechanics, it takes months of observation and trust before you hand over your bike, or take a bike first thing race day morning, without a worry about how it functions.

I’ve had some pretty great mechanics over the years work on my bicycles. Way back when I was on the National Team, Bill Woodall was the first guy that I traveled with to Europe. He lived the live of a race mechanic and pretty much set the standard for that. I honestly don’t know exactly how great of a mechanic Bill was. I was way too green to have the ability to make that judgement, but he was a very well seasoned traveler and looked after us young riders like a father, no better.

Back in the Levi’s days, it was Paul Vine and Calvin Jones working on our bikes. Paul came from a bike shop back ground, as did Calvin. Both are meticulous and thorough. Then on the Wheaties/Schwinn team, it was first George Noyes and then Neil Lacey. Two of the best in the business. George came from North of Chicago and eventually ended up full time in Europe, working for 7-11, Motorola, then moving to Belgium teams and still living there. Neil is from San Diego and still does the bigger races with the Jelly Belly Professional Team.

MTB racing is different. You have a mechanic, but do work on your own bicycle some. I was fortunate to run into Scott Daubert very early into my MTB career. Scott rode for Schwinn, but was really the guy that took care of all our bikes. He sets the standard for knowledge about all mechanical things on a bike. He is the most thorough guy I know in that regard. He now is a honch at Trek, after working as the Olympic Team mechanic, etc.

Then for a bit I worked on my own bike until I rode for Specialized. For Specialized, it was first Dave Meyers. Dave was young when he started, but soon became an excellent mechanic. Later on there was Steve Mosher. Mosher came from a sort of strange background, a submarine guy, but is very, smart and knows a bicycle inside out. They both worked their tails off.

There is a huge difference between a bike shop mechanic and a bike race mechanic. I would never take my bike to a shop to have a bike shop mechanic work on it. The main reason is that I just wouldn’t trust them. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of mechanics at bike shops that are fantastic, but I would have to know them personally and have had spent time with them to know their abilities.

Race mechanics make the bikes perfect. You get on it and don’t have to worry about anything. Cable stretch, tires glued correctly, tire pressure exact, etc They pay attention to every detail, no matter how small. The riders put their lives into these guy’s hands and that isn’t something to be overlooked.

Anyway, like I said above, I’ve been super fortunate to have had the best in the business work on my bikes over the years. Most of these guys are still good friends and I try to catch up with them whenever possible. Those types of bonds are never broken.

Here is Calvin Jones, of Park Tools, teaching at the BIll Woodall Cycling Clinic for USA Cycling.

Here is Calvin Jones, of Park Tools, teaching at the BIll Woodall Cycling Clinic for USA Cycling.

A much better picture of Bill courtesy of Kirt Fitzpatrick.  This is exactly what I think of when I think of Bill.

A much better picture of Bill courtesy of Kirt Fitzpatrick. This is exactly what I think of when I think of Bill.

And a really old photo of Bill Woodall, looking through the drawers of a Campy parts cabinet.

And a really old photo of Bill Woodall, looking through the drawers of a Campy parts cabinet.

24 thoughts on “Race Mechanic vs. Shop Mechanic

  1. webhed38

    I know what you mean. I worked at several shops to fund my limited race schedule, but would always take my rig to Olympia Cycles in North Omaha. The wrench there (I’m kicking myself I can’t come up with his name) would have everything tuned perfectly. The bike felt like it was under tension and needed to go!!!! Fast!!! My other wrenches would get insulted when I didn’t let them touch my gear….

  2. Dan Hughes

    One critical difference between a race mechanic and shop mechanic is that a race mechanic typically spares no expense in making the machine perfect.

    Need new cables? Done. Need a new tubular? Done. Questionable handlebar? Replace it. Chain stretched? New chain coming up! After all, this machine is the vehicle that is going to carry the athlete to the greatness he or she has been training for for months. It has to be perfect. And racers want their machines to perfect.

    The shop mechanic has a different role. They may identify all the same problems as the race mechanic and have the same desire to make it perfect, but when faced with a $20 budget from the customer, cannot make the perfection happen. “This bike is not that important to me. I’m just using it for riding around and only need it to run a little better. I don’t want to spend a lot of money.” is a common refrain from folks who are not racers. Bike shop customers balance perfection against cost. Or at least they look at it from a different perspective than a racer does. Shop mechanics have to balance the fiscal constraints of the transaction (both in time and money) with the actual capabilities of the hardware.

    There are of course exceptions to both these scenarios: great tales of shop and race mechanics holding stuff together with just grit and bailing wire in pressure situations. But before you judge the shop mechanic too harshly, remember that he or she is dealing with a myriad of different bikes (unlike a team of sponsored racers that are all riding very similar equipment) and a plethora of different expectations (unlike a team of sponsored racers that are focused solely on winning).

    I’ve always felt that the mark of a good mechanic is not the one that can make Dura-Ace run like Dura-Ace, it’s the one that can make Tourney run like Dura-Ace. Those rare individuals are found in shops and at the races.

  3. 82medici

    I immediately dated that picture by the shoes Woodall is wearing. I’ve still got a pair just like them somewhere back in the closet. Lucky I didn’t break an ankle!

  4. Ken

    I love the Bill Woodul photo. Woodul was one of what in those days was called a “bike carny” (spoken with love) who went from town to town on the circuit of a sport trying to break through in the States. I especially like the guy looking out from the back seat. Compare him with Calvin Jones in the photo above. Hmmm…

  5. Ted Lewandowski

    Bill introduced me to Ducati motorcycles when no one even heard of them – he was way ahead of his time!!!

  6. Ted Lewandowski

    Bill Woodall passed away so you need to get a clue and respect the man that did more things for cycling in ONE WEEK than you did in your LIFE.

  7. Jared Morford

    I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt that what you meant is that you race set up is very personal.

    However, that’s not at all how this comes across. You owe every shop guy and gal in the industry an apology. One because they look up to you and you just insulted everyone of them. Two Any sponsorship you have is because they are selling the parts and product that allow your sponsors to give you product so you can race.

    Ive been told you are a classy guy and I hope what you meant got lost. I’ve seen you push 20 somethings across the finish at jingle cross and heard stories bout the days at Michael’s. However it’s gonna be a lot harder to cheer for you at the next race.

  8. Ken


    Every shop guy and gal? I wish I had such excellent results when I’ve gone to shops, but the fact is that results can vary depending on who’s working on your bike behind that curtain. There are plenty of sloppy people in the business, and plenty of arrogant ones, and plenty who are just going through the motions because they got sick of their job a long time ago. Like having a headset put in and having it unwind on the long ride that weekend; having a mechanic use brake housing on my shifters and then hold my bike another week to correct his mistake; having wheels built that have loose spokes and uneven tension. In the shop I now drive a greater distance to reach than the three or four shops closer to me, I trust the mechanics and I know they carefully bring along the younger ones with a watchful eye. There is, as far as I know, no way of knowing who’s good except by trial-and-error.

  9. Steve Tilford Post author

    Jared-I meant no disrespect for shop mechanics. I wrote that there are many “fantastic” shop mechanics. But, a professional racer is on the road most of the season and just picking a mechanic by, as Ken above says, trial and error, isn’t something that should be relied upon.

    Even when you have a great race mechanic, it take some time to get in sync with them. It is a learning process. The rider learns from the mechanic and the mechanic learns how the rider wants his bike. After that initial process is over, it is beautiful.

    Dan Hughes, above, does a great job explaining some major parameter differences between and race mechanic and shop mechanic. They do have much different agendas right from the start. So they have different mindsets somewhat.

    Anyway, all you mechanics, no disrespect intended. I’ve seen some shop mechanics put a completely destroyed derailleur back together with nothing other than a screw driver and hammer. Pretty amazing.

  10. Larry T.

    I think the best guys are combinations of both. Race mechanics who are innovative, work quickly and make sure everything is perfect combined with shop mechanic experience who can take the time to “get it right” BEFORE having to work under race mechanic pressures. One of the best guys I ever knew was Ed Bauman…”eccentric” would be a kind way to describe him…surprised you didn’t mention him.

  11. RadRenner

    Dan, as a wrench and racer, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Steve, you’ve got all kinds of fans (and I’m still one of ’em), so thanks for the clarication on how you truly feel about shop mechanics. Most of the shop mechanics that I’ve known take great pride in their ability to fix anything that comes through the door, and believe me it ain’t all Dura Ace. They really are two different jobs with overlapping skill sets.

  12. Scott

    I am a shop mechanic at the trek store in Arnold, MO. I also have been racing for 18yrs and really dont trust anybody, but myself, to work on my wifes bikes or my own. In one 12.5hr day at the shop I fixed a kids walmart BMX bike that was totally wrecked and falling part, repaired a couple vintage road bikes and then stayed an extra 4hrs to install new Dura Ace 9000 on a customers brand new 7s project one frame. It was a super long day, but that customer was able to go on his group ride saturday morning on his brand new bike. To see his face after it was finished and him riding it around the store reminded me why I am a “shop” mechanic.

  13. bhalls

    20yrs. as a shop mechanic, full time, part time , shop manager, three different stores. A couple in Minn. and one in SW Missouri I can honestly say you never know it all. You just keep learning. Learning on the job ,from other mechanics, Barnetts, you just try to soak it all in. One of the last things I did was get my USA cycling mechanic license at the BILL Woodall Clinic in Colorado Springs. It was fantastic. You learn the racing side of being a mechanic. What you learn will help you back in the shop for sure. Ifyour a shop wrench go if you can. If the shop won’t pay up go anyway , then find another shop to work for. Knowledge is a great tool.

  14. Charles Dostale

    Nice picture of Calvin ” I don’t get paid to be nice to wankers ” Jones. Bill Woodul was THE MAN when I was learning to race and learning to work on race bicycles. Back when Campagnolo was the ONLY choice. Bill W. helped me cut down the spare fork steerer for Mark’s bike when he crashed into a photographer in Estes Park, so I got to work with someone I had looked up to for quite a while. I learned a lot from every one of the guys I worked with – Andy, Calvin, Paul, Pete, etc.

    Race mechanics have a very specific, very narrow set of equipment to learn and know about. A shop mechanic has to be able to diagnose a broken pawl spring in a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub as well as a squeak made by a loose rivet in a Campy pedal cage. Different mind set, different knowledge base. I’m not saying one is harder or easier than the other, just different.

    With a race mechanic, when you screw up you get a bike thrown at you, or worse. Not so much with shop mechanics. Plus as a race mechanic you need to be able to clean a bike well enough to pass the Mark Frise test.

    I’ve met a lot of bike mechanics and seen their work since getting out of the bike business, and yes good mechanics are not common. I’m glad I am able to be my own mechanic. No offense to any mechanic in town, but I’d choose to drive the 100+ miles to go to a mechanic I trust and that I’ve worked with before if I needed to.

    Steve I understand your point of view – Just don’t touch my shit, thank you.

  15. Greg

    I feel the same as Steve: I would never let a shop mechanic work on my bike either. I don’t even let anyone else put wheels into my frame and close the QRs. Again, it’s not that there aren’t good mechanics out there. It’s only because I know a shop mechanic can’t work on my own bikes the way a race mechanic does, and I can. I say this as a shop mechanic with over twenty years’ experience. The skills are indeed the same, but the mindset is of necessity quite different.
    I would characterize that difference as one of breadth vs. depth. Shop mechanics focus mainly on bicycles, and rarely work closely with their riders. As others have noted, they require a breadth of knowledge that a race mechanic simply does not need. Even when they do work with riders, they have to be able to do so with literally anyone who is willing to pay them.
    A race mechanic’s focus, on the other hand, is narrow, but deep. It’s maybe two or three types of bikes and a handful of riders. This gives them the freedom to focus on the details that make the bikes perfect. But as Steve pointed out from the start, the race mechanic is working not just on bikes, but closely with their riders. To be successful, they must cultivate a depth to the focus and a level of trust with those riders that shop mechanics simply do not have time to do.


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