Swapping to new computer this morning and found an interview with Benny Devcich, who was lead mechanic at Mark Cavendish’s Colombia team in 2008. I wonder is he still “on the tools”?
Swiftly and silently slip down to the 17. Lift it again and a glance over the left shoulder, a gap. Valverde, the last one to give way under my final devastating attack. The crowds roar my name. Round the last hairpin and change effortlessly back up to the big ring for the procession through D’uez village. The bike sparkles in the warm July sun. Victory. In my stage winning fantasies, the bike always immaculate, the 11 speed Campagnolo transmission is cream smooth and the fresh bar tape is expertly rolled.
Thankfully, in my dreams there are few hairy mechanics. In reality the spotless, efficient bikes don’t happen by magic. To be the mechanic for a pro team in the past involved being a wheel builder, handy with tub tape and a tape measure. …And that was about it. He was usually an ex-pro, agony aunt and bag carrier. Small, used and forgotten when glory arrived. I became aware of the professional team mechanic at the 1989 Nissan Tour of Ireland. The Panasonic team had just won the stage with the lightening legs and flowing locks of Eric Vanderaerden. The crowds shuffled hard for a look, I peered the other way at his pro team kit. It was no more than a small box van, but the collection of what was six team bikes, three spare with a couple of wheels for each rider, was transfixing. I was gob-smacked at the polished steel row of machines, and the organised forest of wheels. In front was our man. He was busy, dirty and sported the look of Tour rider gone bad: – still the chiselled cheekbones but jeans, belly, cigar and a whiff of resentment.
Those days are long gone; each rider now given multiple bikes for mountains, time trailing, classics and flat stage work. More work for our tired mechanic. His wheel smith techniques are only needed now for the Arenburg forest. Modern race hoops come boxed and ready. His skill greasing bearings will soon be replaced by a degree in electronics with both Campagnolo and Shimano evolving electronic shifting. Old style team mechanics fondly referred to, as Grease monkeys would sit uneasily with this modern technology and organisation. Within current high budget teams the aproned, spotless mechanics are now tradesmen. They still work away from the glory and spotlight, making sure all the equipment performs flawlessly. I was curious if there was an unlimited stock of carbon wheels and shiny components, waiting to be replaced after only weeks of use. Did these men work round the clock fitting new cables every day? I know it takes me over an hour to get my bike clean after a wet spin; Do the pro team mechanic do this with every bike- at gunpoint? I shadowed Benny Devcich, a Kiwi residing in Germany, on a recent 2.1 stage race: to see if the thankless life of a professional cyclist mechanic is a life worth living.
Benny is on the Team Columbia’s payroll by natural selection having worked for the Telecom women’s outfit previously. “Its not a job you can advertise for, the riders and mangers get to like you, trust your work and you get asked back” Benny is like all good mechanics, passionate. From bike shop -to local team- to national NZ squad, finally graduating as a paid pro team wrench man, it took Devcich a few years to get there. Watching him straighten Michael Barry’s rear mech hanger in seconds, you can see why a good mechanic is highly valued. Round the back of a nondescript hotel, were 7 Giant bikes drying in the evening sun. Benny was in front with the team Columbia truck. 25 feet long with a washing machine and dryer in the front of the van providing a soundtrack for the interview. This is the fourth team van for smaller races. Converted in 1992 for the Telecom team and with 679,000 km on the clock, it was their number one truck for the 1992 Tour de France. My watch said 6.30, three hours after the stage ended; Benny was starting the bike check after another mechanic had cleaned them. Benny Devcich has been ‘messing’ with bikes from 5 years old. He started racing at 12 and toped out racing semi professionally (BATUSI racing) in his twenties. His Brother owns the biggest bike shop in New Zealand Auckland (where he tuned his trade) and is credited with inventing dual drive (chain on each side).
How many mechanics work with Team Columbia?
Well we run three separate race programs, and sometimes there are three mechanics with each program, so around eight full time and four or five-part time. With us this week we have three, one drives the truck, does baggage and one for each car in the cavalcade.If the frames are full carbon, how do you tailor a bike for a rider?Well there are 3 frames to choose from. A Production bike available to the general public even number sizes 52-54-56.etc and the Team Race frame, slightly longer with more aggressive geometry even numbers 51-53-…and there’s last years bike painted up in this year’s colour, which is longer again. So although the frames are moulded monocoque and no one rider gets a frameset moulded for them, there are 17 options for riders to get a good bike fit. Most of the team are on the race frame, but five of the Columbia riders are on the production frame as it fits better.
Which bike is Cav. riding?
Cav is actually riding the 2009 prototype bigger bottom bracket and a bit lighter. It has the new Dura Ace bottom bracket that is pressed into the frame, similar to the old headsets. No threads and seems to be a good job, the bigger bearing look like it will spread the load and last longer! What do you think of electronic shifting?OK for a time trial bike where weight is not such an issue and the extra shifting possibilities are fantastic. The team have done some positive wind-tunnel testing and I can see us using it next season. But for normal riding it really isn’t for daily use by pro teams yet. It might just be a confidence thing but I imagine that is still a few years away.
So are pro mechanics the best in the world?
50% are masterful. The other 50%? You would get better in a good shop! It’s just the shop guys have more time to work on a bike and are getting paid more for that single job. There is also the liability factor the mechanic has in fixing a bike for a customer, so they might be more meticulous.Do you keep up to date with the evolution in equipment?Yea, I’m the guy who reads the instructions that comes with components! More than that I like to meet the designers. I speak Japanese, so I met the guy who designed the new Dura Ace cranks and quizzed him to get all the info. One guy spent the guts of two years on the new Dura Ace shifter’s inside; to meet that guy is a chance to understand and repair the component if need be.
How often do you change bar tape?
Scrubbing brush every day and change about once a week. On letour- rest day is tape day. The women’s team have black tape with is great as it only needs changed once a month. Are there many guys riding clinchers and are they all on tubs?All-tubular, as far as I know it’s a faster rolling tyre. I do think it is stupid to use a clincher. If you puncture at 50km per hour down a hill, at least you’ve got some rubber; with a clincher you’ve got an aluminium rim. It’s a safety issue. I’m very wary of the new tubeless clinchers, getting the same weight tubs but in a race with the speeds that we move at, a puncture on those is dangerous.
How often does a block and chain need replacing?
On a big tour, we change the chain every week. We don’t change blocks more than once a year, and have some stuff two and three years old. Very rarely do we throw a cassette out. A normal person should get 4-6 chains per cassette. But people ride worn and stretched chains and that will wear a cassette in a week. (Change at 75% wear)
So do you interact much with the riders?
The riders don’t hang out too much in car parks, they are busy resting. Some guys we love, other riders we detest. It’s hard to say who is who; sometimes the biggest champion in the worlds is the nicest guy. But you have to do the same job for all of them, no matter what you think of the guy. George Hincapie was a hero of mine. When I finally got to work for him after a few days it is like working for your best mate.
What do you think of the power cranks?
(As he refits a new sensor cable) I think they are a pain in the ass.Essential for training but half the guys don’t even know what to do with the readouts. The team has a system with a designated coach to send the information through so it does serve a purpose… I’m told.
So what’s it like working with Cavendish?
Most top sprinters are manic-depressives with the pressure that is on them to perform But, not our fella! He is a young, hugely talented guy. Put your self in his situation; its not just the press, not just the public but also the whole team; the guys he lives and breathes with every day. They lead him out and expect him to win. I’m glad he has had a good season. It has helped the team and gave him huge confidence. I have seen him getting mentally stronger, which will stand by his ability.
So are you a tradesman?
No I’m a plain old mechanic. I love building wheels and seeing a pair that I built ten years ago still true, is rewarding. There are guys out there calling themselves mechanics who are ‘technicians’. If your shop mechanic can’t build a wheel or glue a tub- go to a professional! And they should find an old experienced guy and learn their trade.