Editor’s Note: VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. His column appears here every Thursday — this is a special edition because of Lance Armstrong’s retirement announcement. You can submit questions to Nick at email@example.com, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.
As a former RadioShack mechanic, I’m constantly asked for the inside scoop on working with Lance Armstrong. With today’s announcement of his (second) retirement from professional racing, the timing is right to answer that question.
At the end of the 2009 season I myself had “retired” from working with professional cycling teams as a mechanic. In spring of 2010 I was back in Boulder figuring out my next step when I received a phone call. I saw a Belgian number come up on my ringing phone’s screen and scratched my head. When a voice said, “Hello this is Johan Bruyneel” I started shaking my head in disbelief.
For years when I told people what I did (pro race mechanic), they instantly asked if I worked for Lance Armstrong. After that phone call from Johan, I was finally able to answer yes to that question.
A few days later I was in California working with Craig Geater (Lance’s go-to mechanic for the last two seasons) and Glenn Fant (a personal friend of Levi and great wrench). Instantly I had entered a different world. It was bizarre to be on the inside of Lance-mania. The fans were rabid and not always polite. But for every hater, there was a powerful, uplifting cancer survivor story. My family, like most, has been affected by cancer, both as a killer and a scare. As a mechanic, I was for the first time part of something much larger than bike racing.
Team RadioShack is staffed by legends in the sport. I spent time with Julien Devriese, Eddy Merckx’s and Greg LeMond’s mechanic. I rode in the second caravan car with Viatcheslav Ekimov. I had dinner conversations with Johan Bruyneel. It was at times very surreal. But with the fun of meeting and working with these people came added responsibility too.
First and foremost was security. Lance never leaves home without it. OK maybe that’s an overstatement, but the security guys were part of the team. They ate dinner with us, laughed with us and recruited us to help. No matter where we were, no matter what we were doing, the entire staff was watching the bikes, cars and trucks like a hawk. Everyone wants a souvenir and some are more than willing to steal to get one.
In California, Lance’s bike was washed each day by Glenn or myself and then handed to Craig for its daily maintenance. Often mechanics view bike washing as lowly work, but I was washing the most photographed bicycle in the world. My work showed everyday on countless media outlets. I took the job seriously.
After California, Johan asked me to stay on with the team for the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France. I was being invited to work for the world’s most famous cyclist at the world’s biggest cycling events. I accepted.
On the tech side of things, it was amazing what was at our disposal when Lance was racing. Ben Coates from Trek and Alex Wassmann from SRAM were always on hand to help out or remedy any situation. If Lance needed something, it simply had to happen.
Lance is very technically oriented, with three things in particular. The first is his beloved San Marco Concor saddle. He won’t ride anything else, but he hates them when they are new. There’s a story that his personal mechanic in Austin would hand out new Concors to local riders to break them in for Lance.
Second are Lance’s race tires. Julien Devriese ages them. The tubulars Hutchinson provided to the team all came with a manufacturing date stamp on the base tape. A few dozen are held back every year for Lance. They are stored in a cool, dark place (his wine cellar) for years before being brought out and glued to wheels. The “youngest” tire I glued on for Lance was five years old and in perfect condition (better than new actually thanks to the aging).
Lastly, Lance didn’t like changing frames. From before the Tour of California through the end of the Tour de France Lance rode the same frame and fork in both racing and training. Even the most meticulous of mechanics cannot exactly reproduce a position from one bike to the next, especially when it comes to broken-in saddles. Most pros have a training bike that stays at home and a race bike in the team truck. Lance flew everywhere with the same bike. (Of course, the risk of damaging the bike was greatly reduced because he flew Mellow Johnny’s Aviation).
Lance is a brand, a phenomenon, a savior and a pariah. He is also a person. Each time we met at a new race, he shook my hand, said hello and asked “what’s up?” There were jovial times when he would share a bottle of wine with the mechanics and mood killers like after his puncture on the cobbled stage and crashes on the stage to Morzine in the Tour. With Lance no longer in the hunt for the general classification, the pressure was off. Lance seemed to relax and with him so too did the entire team. It wasn’t easy after that, with two weeks of racing left, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Working with Lance was career defining for me, in the best possible way. My experiences with Lance and Team RadioShack showed me what cycling at the very highest level can be: professional yet personal, insane, intense, exhausting, memorable, but most of all, rewarding. Thanks Lance.
2010 Tour of Flanders practice, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong on a practice ride before the Tour of Flanders. AFP PHOTO BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS LAMBERT
2009 Tour de France, TTT. Astana, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong came within a second of the yellow jersey after Astana won the Tour's TTT. AFP PHOTO PASCAL PAVANI
2008 12 Hours of Snowmass, Lance Armstrong
Later in August, Armstrong and a partner won the 12 Hours of Snowmass. Photo: Jason Sumner
2010 Tour of the Gila, stage 1. Lance Armstrong
Armstrong and Team Mellow Johnny's returned to the Tour of the Gila in 2010. Photo: Casey B. Gibson
2009 Tour Down Under, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong surprised many with his good form at his first major race of his comeback, the 2009 Tour Down Under. Photo: Graham Watson
2010 Tour Down Under, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong in a breakaway on stage 4 of the 2010 Tour Down Under. Photo: Graham Watson
2011 Tour Down Under, Lance Armstrong training
Armstrong training before the Tour Down Under. Photo: AFP
2009 Tour de France final podium: Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong
The 2009 Tour de France final podium: Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong. Photo: Graham Watson
2009 Tour de France. Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong
Armstrong leads Alberto Contador at the 2009 Tour de France. Photo: Graham Watson
2008 CrossVegas, Lance Armstrong
Hours after the New York announcement, Armstrong was racing at the CrossVegas cyclocross race in Las Vegas. Photo: Brad Kaminski
2010 Quiznos Pro Challenge announcement, Lance Armstrong
In Denver in the fall, Armstrong announced the launch of the Quiznos Pro Challenge, a stage race planned for 2011 in Colorado. Photo: Brad Kaminski
2009 Nevada City Classic, Lance Armstrong
Looking for a win to boost morale ahead of the Tour, Armstrong raced the Nevada City Classic criterium, where he scored the first victory of his comeback with a solo attack. Photo: Wil Matthews
2010 Tour of California, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong left the 2010 Tour of California afte crashing on stage 5. Photo: Casey B. Gibson
2010 Tour of California, Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel
Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel answer questions about Floyd Landis' allegations, prior to the fifth stage of the 2010 Tour of California. Photo: Casey B. Gibson
Lance Armstrong and Robin Williams in Afghanistan
In December Armstrong went on a USO tour visiting U.S. troops in Afghanistan with Robin Williamns and other celebrities. Photo: AFP
2010 Tour de Suisse, stage 3. Lance Armstrong and Frank Schleck.
Armstrong showed he was a contended for the 2010 Tour de France by finishing second overall at the Tour de Suisse. Photo: Graham Watson
2010 Tour de France. Lance Armstrong and Chris Horner
After crashing early on stage 8, and then getting caught behind another crash, Armstrong lost all hope of a top GC placing in the 2010 Tour. Photo: Graham Watson
2009 Leadville 100: Lance Armstrong
Armstrong dominated the 2009 Leadville 100, riding alone for the last 60 miles and breaking the course record by a huge margin. Photo: Rob O'Dea
2009 SRAM Tour of the Gila, Lance Armstrong
When his broken collarbone nixed plans to race his first Giro, Armstrong, Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer raced the little known Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. Because of rules barring ProTour riders from lower-category events, the trio raced in Mellow Johnny's kit. Photo: Casey B. Gibson
2010 Tour de France. Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador
Armstrong and Contador at the Tour. Photo: AP
2008 Leadville 100, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong's second place at the 2008 Leadville got his competitive juices flowing again, and not long after he announced he would return to racing full time for 2009. Photo: Joseph Kreiss
2010 Tour de France. Lance Armstrong wardrobe change
Team RadioShack showed up for the final stage in special black kit to raise awareness for cancer. When officials objected, the team was forced to make a last minute wardrobe change. Photo: Graham Watson
2009 Tour of California time trial, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong in the 2009 Tour of California. Photo: Casey B. Gibson
2009 Tour of Ireland Twitter ride, Lance Armstrong
Since his comeback, Armstrong has held 'Twitter' meet-up rides in several cities. This is from a ride he did following the 2009 Tour of Ireland. Photo: Stephen McMahon
2008 Clinton Global Initiative, Lance Armstrong, Taylor Phinney, Don Catlin
Armstrong officially announced his comeback at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Standing with him were Don Catlin, who Armstrong said would run an independent anti-doping test program, and Taylor Phinney, who was leaving the Slipstream development program to join the new Trek-Livestrong team. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA
2009 Castilla y Leon, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong suffered his worse race injury ever when he broke his collarbone at the 2009 Vuelta Castilla y Leon. AFP PHOTO/ STRINGER
2011 Tour Down Under stage 5, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong's last major road race would be the 2011 Tour Down Under. AFP PHOTO/MARK GUNTER
2010 Tour de France, Paris parade, Lance Armstrong
Armstrong's fairwell tour of the Champs Elysees. AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS LENOIR