Geoff Brown in the heart of the Cannondale Drapac magic

Geoff BrownCannondale Drapac mechanic Service Course

A World Tour team’s base – its Service Course – is as close as a bike geek gets to a real Aladdin’s cave. We went to Cannondale’s, said ‘Open Sesame’ and walked in

It’s probably not what you expect. A concrete and breeze block warehouse in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Girona in Spain. But, among the car repair shops, aluminium window suppliers and lord knows what else, you’ll find the Cannondale Service Course. When you consider the riches contained within, teams cars, buses (!) the bikes, the wheels, the spares, the tubulars, the clothing – just the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ – it’s understandable that there isn’t a big sign (or any, in fact) announcing that this is no ordinary warehouse, but an Aladdin’s cave of cycling goodies.

And, once inside, you appreciate that this industrial unit is a big, high, wide and handsome ‘cave’ with a number of side rooms (as well as a wooden gazebo and a small marquee equipped with an industrial heater to keep mechanics at the correct temperature). Given the disturbing number of thefts of team bikes from hotels in Europe, the potential for some bad guys to rip off a massive haul of quality equipment doesn’t bear thinking about. All of which goes a long way to explaining the low, anonymous profile of the team’s European base camp.

We visited the location in late January which, as it turned out, was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Which is to say that from a curious journalist point of view, it was terrific, with all manner of bikes, wheels, parts and clothing arriving to be assembled and prepared. From a team staff point of view, it was the worst of times because the three mechanics on site were rather busy and didn’t really need any visitors asking a series of more or less dim questions.

The building – indeed the Cannondale operation – is overseen by general manager Louise Donald, who has been working for Slipstream since 2008, having earned her stripes with US Postal and Discovery under the auspices of Johan Bruyneel. Now she is a committed multi-tasking, hands-on manager making decisions every day and her dedication and belief in the team could never be in doubt. “I think I have the best job in the world. I really love it,” states Donald and only a fool would doubt her. In spite of the cavernous amounts of ‘stuff’ and the trophies on the wall, it’s not the easy glamour that attracts her.

“We don’t have a lot of money and at a certain level I have to make decisions about what we do. Like yesterday, one of our buses was heading to Valencia to a race and it cut out, there was an electrical problem. What did I want to do, get a repair or go for a new part at 780 Euros? The repair might be OK or it might give up again 10km further down the road?”

As if to illustrate the daily and unpredictable nature of the game, chief mechanic Geoff Brown comes along and says he’s found a source for 10 group sets that the team was waiting on urgently.
“Same price as the original source?”
“Yes, same.”
“And it will contain all the parts we need?”
“Yes,” confirms Brown, “all we need.”

There’s a very brief pause before Donald says “OK, go ahead,” but its a little insight into the daily life for a modestly-funded World Tour team. Almost every transaction is scrutinised and considered, there’s not a lot of rubber-stamping of bills or requests being simply waved though. There seems to be plenty of financial oversight and diligence being carried out here and you don’t get the impression that money is no object.
In one of the side rooms there is a selection of riding kit that no longer ‘fits’ so to speak; (the sponsors have changed) so the boxes of clothing are redundant. Additionally, there’s more than just clothing in that big room. Everything has a price tag hanging on it, so if you want to buy some team issue kit, well, fill your panniers. It’s hard to imagine Team Sky or Movistar generating some cash in this manner, but needs must when the devil – or even team bus driver Andrea Bisogno – is driving that 14-meter long 460bhp customised MAN team bus flat-out everywhere (100kmph). That’s a thirsty bus and you can’t fill up on diesel by trying to barter a box of unused Garmin-Cannondale long sleeved jerseys with a small New Balance logo on them.

Geoff BrownCannondale Drapac mechanic Service Course

There’s a Cannondale with your name on it, so to speak.

The volume of paraphernalia and materials is eye-catching and from the outside it’s easy to imagine the small staff being overwhelmed by the logistics involved – checking deliveries, updating inventories and chasing up parts and bikes that were slow to arrive. Although Brown and his fellow mechanics started work on the 2016 season back in December, Canadian Brown had recently made a whirlwind trip to Cannondale Europe headquarters in Holland to pick up five frames. “I flew from Barcelona to Amsterdam, hired a car, drove 100 miles across to Cannondale’s European headquarters in Oldenzaal, picked up the five frames and packed them into a bike bag. I didn’t stay but drove back up to Schiphol, flew back to Barcelona, stayed in a hotel overnight, flew over to Palma in Mallorca early next morning and we built up the frames that were going to be raced on the next day.” Such is the lifestyle and work of a World Tour mechanic in the hectic month of January. “Yeah, it can get busy,” chuckles Brown, who has been twirling spanners for European pro teams since 1993…

For all the high tech finery that is dangling or stacked in boxes, there are still some jobs that are done now in the same way they’ve always been. Gluing on tubular tyres for one. The team’s tubulars are supplied by Mavic which, in turn, sources them from Veloflex and small French company FMB. “We start planning for the 2016 season before the last one is finished,” notes Brown, “so the order of what FMB tubulars we need is sent in September. They’re hand-made, it’s like a cottage industry in some ways, but we get two diameters of tubs, one at 26mm for the Belgian cobbles and then the fattest 28mm ones for Paris-Roubaix,” notes Brown, eyeing up a thick hedge of Mavic wheels that already had a couple of layers of rim cement on them. Behind them, lightly inflated on different rims, were those precious FMB tubulars, stretching and forming prior to the application of more glue. “We put two layers of cement of the rims and let it dry a little, two more on tubs and then a final one on the rim to secure it. Actually, we used to do six layers of tub cement, but with disc brakes the rim surface isn’t going to heat up because there are no brake pads working it. That’ll save us some rim cement – and that stuff is about 10 Euros a tin, it ain’t cheap!” laughed Brown.

Brown has been gluing on tubs since he started as a mechanic with the Canadian national team, but he’s not building wheels anymore, which is something of a blessing, given the number of pairs he and his fellow mechanics would have been required to build from scratch. Having said that, you note that building wheels was a matter of pride in the trade, a prized skill. Being a well-regarded wheel builder within the pro peloton was a cherished badge that had to be earned. “Yeah, I suppose,” muses the ever-modest Brown, “I still think it was cool that Lance (Armstrong) won two Tours on wheels I built. Now, all the wheels are pre-built and we don’t have to lace and true them anymore, though we still might give them a tweak, but that’s all.”

Cannondale team mechanics building bikes

Early season months are hectic for Brown and his fellow Cannondale spanner twirlers.

These days, a Service Course like this one functions as a repository for a different kind of knowledge – or several layers of knowledge that keep a team running smoothly. When staff return from a race, they report back on all the issues they encountered, from customs to hotels, to training roads to anything that might be useful the next time around. “A team is only as strong as its staff, the ones on the road, and we’ve built up a lot of notes and information that we can access,” notes Donald.

Given the wealth of experience and feedback from the team’s staff, what advice would she offer us? “Don’t get a connection through Heathrow. You’ll never see your bags at the other end, so make sure you have essentials in your hand luggage!” Solid gold advice right there.

With that, we leave Donald, Brown and the rest of the staff to unpack 15 boxes of new kit from Castelli, sort out Tom-Jelte Slagter’s travel back from Valencia, build up that disc-brake Cannondale prototype, glue on some more tubulars, check the water pump on the team bus, rebuild the VIP and guest bikes, build more spare bikes and training bikes and…
It’s endless.

Disc brake debate

It’s fair to say that the arrival of disc brakes in to the pro road peloton has been a big story for mechanics and riders – as well as general managers and bike companies – though each group has its own take and concerns. Needless to say, professional that he is, Brown was circumspect in his observations. “I think its safe to say that the industry was more enthusiastic than riders and mechanics. We’re wondering about whether or not a bike change will be a better option than a wheel change. If a rider takes his wheel out and the lever gets squeezed, the pads close, you need to prise them apart with a screwdriver – which should be covered in a rag so as not to score the pads or damage the seals. Plus there’s the heat that builds up in a brake rotor….let’s just say it’ll be interesting,” concluded Brown, who, you suspected, was keeping many of his thoughts to himself.

Already riders on some teams have been getting in touch with mechanics worried that they don’t appear to have any brakes at all when they ride a new set up. Nobody appears to have taken much time to explain to the riders that new brake pads and rotors need bedding in, that pads can get glazed and lose efficiency. There’s a protocol to bed pads in that, frankly, we doubt many riders will be aware of. Bleeding brake lines of air bubbles? Ruptured or leaking brake lines? It’s a safe bet that the arrival of disc brakes will not be without incident.

If teams do decide to go down the ‘bike change’ route, that means they’ll need bike racks for all the team cars that can cope with that (disc mounted) load. A pro-spec custom-made bike rack might cost up to 3,000 Euros and multiply that figure by the number of team cars needing to be fitted out and you get a chunk of change. Who pays? The UCI? Bike manufacturers? It looks like an awful lot of money for not a great deal of benefit.

Guess which is busiest month?

Perhaps surprisingly, given the amount of excitement generated by races in April and July, it turns out that, from a World Tour team point of view, August is the cruellest month. “There are three race programmes running all that month, in all corners of Europe, so there’s a lot of work and people are kind of ‘checking out.’ If they weren’t on the Tour, they want to be on holiday – and they’re not – and if they were on the Tour, then they are on holiday! There is actually more World Tour racing in August than in any other month and other races too: you’ve got San Sebastian, Vattenfalls, Plouay, Utah, Colorado – we had Poland but it’s been moved – then going to Alberta and those races, also the Vuelta starts in the middle of the month too and the Eneco Tour too. It’s…hectic, full gas,” explains Donald, blowing out of the water the notion that racing ends when the Tour de France crosses the line in Paris. “It’s very satisfying to get everything and everyone in place for a race like, say, San Luis, in Argentina, but just driving up the road to the Tour du Haut Var is a lot easier,” laughs Donald.

Words Kenny Pryde @kenny_pryde
Photos Graeme Brown @geebeeimages

May 2017 (first published May 2016)