Preparations started with a meeting the night before. I got to meet my fellow mechanics, and our drivers. (yes, we didn't have to drive. Given the hours we wound up working, that was a good thing.) We headed over to where the vans were stored, and met our parts. They were in a big pile that we had to divide up. It looked like a bike shop had exploded. I got home around 11 pm, and loaded my tools. (about 250 lb. worth).
Muster for the tech crew was 5 am, at the "World Trade Center" in South Boston. Luckily I was able to take the van home with me, so I could load my tools directly, and solved the problem of getting to the start before the T started running. While I was at it, I tossed in the Roulandt to have something to ride around camp. I got my assignment, and headed out. With that many riders, unless we were assigned sag (follow the last rider), we had to leave before the riders did, or wind up stuck in camp for 30 minutes.
The sponsoring shop was International, and several of their mechanics were working the ride. We had a few independent mechanics (other shops and a bike mechanic that makes house calls), of the rest, several of us push bits for a living (including the groups leader), one was a clinical psychologist, another was a police officer (that happened to train police MTB squads), a few were students. Other industry connected people included someone from a frame companies marketing department, and a couple that ran bike tours.
There were 12 of us. 10 "masters" and two "apprentice". We could have used 3 times that number, with possibly some "journeymen" in the mix. Blatant appeal for help: Fix your own bike? Guru? Sign up... It would be great if you work neutral support at the TDF every year, and own every tool that park and campy sell, but if you do your own routine maintenance, and have a few basic tools, there is a place for you. Most of our problems are obvious and routine stuff: tires, shifter and brake adjustments, etc... They do break things, usually cables, spokes and chains (and a lot worse at times, I used some frame aligning tools last year, and will have mine with me next year).
I will get back to recruiting later, now some more stories... I got off a little easy the first day. I was seeded pretty far out, so I actually had a short break before I had bikes to fix. So I started working on the roulandt's back wheel. That took care of it, I got the second spoke in place, and people showed up. Things started simple, a couple of adjustments, then a fun one, a mystery noise. Participants got a "dog tag" as a memento, and his was hitting the top tube. The next couple of hours are a blur. Once the faster riders (who tend to have better maintained bikes) got past, the pack arrived. They dragged the bike out of the garage the day before the start, and we pumped up the tires at one of the early water stops. By the time they got to me, they had climbed the first of the hills, that are everyone's memory of Conn., and had a chance to break something.
There were broken spokes, and some cables. One guy had managed to destroy the bearings in his bottom bracket. I straightened a derailer hanger. on another. There was a lot more, but memory fails me. After the stop closed, I started sweeping the course, and fixing lots of flats.
I pulled into camp near dusk. We were at the University of Ct, Storrs. Thousands of tents. I found the bike tech tent, and we parked the van. I headed off for dinner and a shower. (it was HOT). A pleasant surprise, no long lines for a shower, they had big trucks equipped with banks of showers. Food was institutional, but after a hard day, I filled my plates, and inhaled. I pitched my tent, (a long walk from tech) set up my tools, and got ready to fix bikes. Wait a second, lights? power? (I brought a floodlight with me). Bike repair by braille eh? A generator was found, (to the dismay of the folks that wanted to sleep around the "shop") and some light happened.
I started dragging bikes out of the pen, and fixing them. I quickly developed a "specialty", the bikes of my "formative" years, machines from the 70's bike boom complete with plastic derailers, and otherwise eccentric machines. (what do you expect, I ride recumbents). One of particular note, an older paramount frame, owned by a NY musician. A VERY fast rider, he was proud of the fact that everything on it was salvaged. He had killed his rear derailer, and I wound up fitting one with a separate hanger. His rear wheel was somewhat less than true. (and that's an understatement) -- I spent 15 minutes with it, and got it so the brakes would make contact at all parts of the rim. It still was going to give him a vibromassage as he rode along. He watched me work, and from that point on I was "his" mechanic -- he asked specifically for me, he made some comments about my clear love of the craft. Oh yea, before the ride, he had stripped all the paint off the frame, and polished it... Heard him play at one point, he was quite good. (tenor sax).
I put the last bike to bed at a little after midnight (it was french, and in need of a rear derailer. I removed the original, and was delighted to find a standard hanger bolt under the strange french fastener), and crawled off to my tent. (remember a 5 am start).
Shaken awake a little before 5 am, I tossed on clothes, grabbed breakfast on my walk back to the tech tent, met my driver, and got our assignment. Trial by fire: "Go find a spot to pull over about halfway to the first water stop". Found a pleasant place after the first big hill. (could have been better shaded, but it was a good wide spot on a straight bit of quiet road, so having riders standing around would be fairly safe). WHAM. I was fixing bikes two at a time. Tools all over the place. Evolved my "triage" scheme - two short problems, one long. Taught my driver how to tell stirred from presta, handed her the pump, and said "have at it". Got a neat "long" problem. A rider had "a friend" adjust his derailer. On the first real hill, he reached for one gear lower than he actually had, and because of the adjustments, the derailer let him try. The cage caught the spokes, and there wasn't a significant amount of derailer left. On its way to fragments, it managed to seriously re-arrange the hanger - bent more than 90 degrees. The spoke didn't break. Instead it pulled the rim eyelet thru the double walls of the rim. It looked like the top of a volcano -- same ragged "cinder cone" edge... I bent the hanger back as straight as I dared, and fitted a new derailer. He wouldn't take a new wheel, so I clipped the loose spokes out, did what I could to the wheel, and he actually finished the day on it.
I remember some difficult tire changes, and lots of easy ones. a bunch of derailer adjustments. again, it was a bit of a blur.
We pull into camp after dark, and find the tech area. After the generator noise issue, we were away from the sleeping areas. But the generator wasn't an issue, it was nowhere to be found. We put the trucks into a circle, and turned on their headlights. I draped my flashlight around my neck, and got to work. I don't remember any specific problem, other than the lighting issues. Last bike to bed was just after 1 am. Instead of a hike over to the crew tent area, we pitched our tents in by the trucks. No long walk to a tent site, and easy crew awakening. (no searching needed).
Day 3: More hills. No worries about heat this time, a hurricane had died a couple of hundreds of miles south, but its rains had not given up so easily. Now we had to watch for hypothermia instead of heat exhaustion. Since this was the first rain in weeks, the road dust mixed with water, to form a fine abrasive paste, which got over everything. Again the start happened at a time I am more used to staying up till. I started to see the wisdom of assigning me a driver -- when we pulled in, she was done for the day, and could make the start after a real nights sleep. I also learned one of the advantages of working bike tech. You are every riders friend, and not allowed to wait in food lines, etc.
I spent a lot of time sweeping thru the rain. I found my first "Michelin wire" (a bit of steel tire belt shed by a car tire. they are usually very hard to find). "My rider" (the guy with the polished salvage) decided to stop and have me work on his bike, as he had broken 3 spokes, and decided that he should do something about it. I went thru a full can of chain lube.
Rain, and more rain. But if they can ride thru it, the least I can do is wrench in it. At one point I stopped to help some riders, noticed shivering, and put them in the truck to "bake" (front seat, heat on max). One of the people at that stop was a woman on a bike equipped with "suicide levers" the extensions that were popular about 15 years ago. Well on one of the hills, she had used the regular levers for the first time, and the zinc end on the cable had just broken. I had to scavenge a cable off the roulandt, as I had run out of long ones. While the bike was in the stand, I tried the other brake. Ping, that cable end parted company. I put on another.
As the day wore on, the clouds parted, and the camp site started to dry out. I don't remember when I got in that day, but that night was a memorable one. Shimano cantilevers had particularly soft compound pads that year. With the grinding paste from the roads, and the riders working to keep their speeds down on the wet hills, they used their brakes a lot. That bunch of bikes wasn't an extension of bike parking, it was the camp tech queue. 300 bikes needing brake work, and another 50 or 60 with the typical problems. We didn't have enough replacement pads, and wound up sorting pads into salvageable, etc. On many bikes, we could simply move the untouched pads from the front onto the back, and level out the back pads, and install on the front. This is "MASH" "Meatball mechaniching" -- get them safe, but not always at full function...
The rains had one last gasp - I had spread out my tools on a table at the edge of a tent, and the sky had one last drenching to administer. At least we had lights, I stopped at a hardware store along the route, and picked up some more floodlights and extension cords. I am not sure who "acquired" the generator, but we had one that night.
Last bike to bed was after 3 AM (I didn't want to know).
Day 4: the last one.
The usual get-out-ahead start. I think I drew first water stop, I wasn't awake enough to remember. (I did pig out on bagels...) . I then went to the last pit enroute. Stress city, everyone was trying to get out before the sag trucks caught them. I again had two workstands set up, and was having the riders do the lifting -- the "patient" was on the table as I walked in.
Even more meatball surgery. Broken derailer cables often got the "pick a gear" baling wire solution (luckily the course was pretty flat). I fixed a few things with zip ties, but I don't remember what. My driver said I was fixing things at the rate of one bike every 45 seconds.
The pit closed, and the race for the end of the route started. We went "IFR" (I Follow Riders) navigation. This let us run interference for the riders, as they were not able to effectively marshal on the streets of Manhattan. I was crouched in the back of the truck, putting the roulandt back together. At some point we pulled into "download", I packed up my stuff, and put it in one of the trucks heading back. I hopped onto the roulandt, and headed to the gathering point. Somewhere along the way, I ran into a rider whose bike I had worked on. Not sure why, but he was on foot. I handed him the roulandt so he had something to ride into closing ceremonies.
They closed off 8th Ave. for us. Crew gathered gathered on a side street. Mother nature had one more surprise. Torrents. Not long, but unimaginably hard. (apparently there were some tornado reports nearby). We laughed, "we have seen worse". (tho it did manage to drown my telephone).
James Earl Jones delivered the address. The riders streamed in on either side of us. Bikes were held over heads, water sprayed everywhere. Some champagne. We hugged, cried and cheered. If you haven't done it, I am not sure if I could explain. If you have, I don't need to. After that, the ride home was anticlimactic. We did find a good diner to stop at, but I am not sure where it was...
I slept Monday. All but 3 hours of it.
The big surprise: A week later, I wore my crew T shirt while out getting groceries. In the space of 20 minutes, 5 riders walked up "hey bike tech", and thanked me. That was completely unexpected...
Yea, I have signed up again.
Musings, and recruiting...
One thing that worked well this year, and we are consciously trying to arrange for next year is to pair each master with a driver that is also an apprentice or journeyman mechanic (instead of someone that can just drive). A person who could deal with the basic stuff, so there would be less of a line of bikes awaiting attention. (ex: making sure the riders aren't jamming their presta valves into the shredder air hose, able to find the right sized tire in the heap at the back of the truck, and comfortable opening up brakes so the wheel can be put back on, etc.)
If you do some amount of repair, but want to learn more, here is a chance to look over the shoulder of pros for 3 days, and try some things with someone handy for questions and bailout if you get in over your head. (your classic apprentice system, but of a bit compressed duration) For example, last year the bike tour operating couple only did tires for their clients before the ride, each went out with a shop pro, and on day one they were adjusting indexed derailers, on day two I saw them replacing drive side spokes. On day three everybody did cantilever brake pads (the rains came on the hilliest day, and we had 300 bikes with cooked pads waiting for us when we pulled into camp).
Yea, its work. If we don't get lots of mechanics, you may not get huge amounts of sleep. It can be hard on the hands, and you have to get up real early (difficult given my nocturnal nature). It could be hot, it could be raining (both happened this year. I figured if they can ride thru it, I can wrench in it). By day 3 the flush toilet at the McD's actually looks good. I worked hard enough that gatorade even started to taste palatable. (when well rested and hydrated, I cannot drink the stuff. Mid afternoon, and I finished off several camelback's full)
But I had a truly intense time last year, and have already signed up for next year. I am looking forward to it even. I did give some thought to riding it. I might manage to complete the ride (I haven't ridden a century in 25 years, and the metric I did last year was in a very flat place, but there are organized training rides, and the thought of the CT hills might actually be an effective prod), but the fundraising is daunting (riders have to raise a minimum of $1500), and I hate hitting up friends for sponsorship (even for such a good cause). Sometimes time and skill is as useful as money. This gives me a way to make a significant "in kind" contribution, and thus honor the memory of some friends that were claimed far too soon.