There have been a couple of notable insights into our namesake, the service course, on the internet lately, both of which are enlightening in their own way.
The first is a nice little video on the Garmin-Slipstream site featuring Ryder Hesjedal giving a tour of the team’s service course in Girona, Spain. Even if you’re not a fan of the particular equipment the team rides, it would be hard to claim that Garmin’s facility is anything less than a racing cyclist’s candy store. In fact, it makes your garage’s lack of a custom 40 foot bus, dedicated staff, stock of carbon wheels, and an espresso machine seem downright criminal. Add to that the fact that some of the most prized training grounds in Europe lie just outside those giant rollup doors, and there’s some pretty good fodder for envy there. But please, look, admire, but don’t get caught up in some sort of wild-eyed equipment frenzy, wondering if you’ll really be able to get through this season with just the six wheelsets you have. It’s not good for you, and it annoys the crap out of your friends.
Other than providing one of the best looks I’ve seen inside the inner sanctum, how else is this post from Garmin enlightening? Well, if you’ve ever read the year-old “About” blurb over there on the left side of your screen, then Garmin’s word choice in defining what a service course is may look familiar. Of course, that makes me wonder if the guys have actually looked at this site, and, if they have, if Allen Lim will ever give me a ride again.
The second service course-related piece comes courtesy of the Belgium Knee Warmers site, which certainly doesn’t need any traffic help from me, but what the hell. At the Tour of California, BKW seized the opportunity to have a look inside BMC’s equipment truck and grab a few words from veteran team mechanic Vincent Gee. Granted, a truck is not a service course, but it’s close enough for now. The article doesn’t get into too many specifics about the truck (which is not a criticism – I mean, it’s a truck), but I found the interview revealing in an unexpected way. Specifically, this series of questions regarding stage race routine caught my eye:
-Do you change the [handlebar] tape daily?
-Do you replace chains on a scheduled interval?
-Any special equipment for AToC?
-Any special tires for the rain?
-Are you gluing tires on a schedule?
For a site that is centered on digging into the details of the pro experience, they’re perfectly reasonable questions to ask. But they made me wonder how much people's notions of team operations have been affected by the image projected by a few superteams – particularly the Postal/Discovery and Astana operations headed by Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong. That is, have those teams’ highly publicized methods and procedures – microscopic attention to detail; constant not-so-secret testing of double-secret new crap; stage-specific tires, bikes, gears, and wheels; decades-long tire gluing procedures – skewed our view of how most professional cycling teams really operate?
The quick answer, I’d argue, is yes. In the United States, the tightly focused media blitz that surrounds those Bruyneel/Armstrong collaborations has made it seem like the resource-intensive way they handle things for the Tour de France is just the way most cycling teams operate all the time. Which is ironic, because the teams put all of that information out there in the press in an attempt to look unique.
(It would be unfair to Bruyneel and co. to not mention that Garmin-Slipstream, with all of its much-discussed “protocols” and Blackberry-love has also emerged as a standard bearer for this image.)
But in reality, there are very few teams, maybe five or six in any given year, with the sort of budget, sponsors, and organization to support that lifestyle – teams like ONCE, Mapei, CSC, Quick.Step, and T-Mobile for instance – but beyond that top tier things get a leaner pretty quickly. Yes, changing chains and bar tape frequently, for example, doesn’t seem likely to break any team’s budget, but the fact is, you’re paying folks to do that work when they could be attending to more pressing things, and you’re chewing through a limited number of units the sponsor has provided. And that’s all money going out the door.
But all of the media attention on those superteam habits – on Versus, in magazines, on the web – has created a mindset in which it's perfectly normal to ask if a second division team is changing bar tape daily during a week-long February stage race, if they have rigid protocols for changing chains and gluing tires, and if they’re using special chainrings for pretty ordinary climbs.
That’s what made Gee’s answers so refreshing, and valuable to readers. At a time when a lot of people are fascinated with the more wasteful aspects of professional cycling – the one-race-and-replace-it, bigger-bus-is-a-better-team image – Gee revealed that no, they just don’t do all that stuff. Despite the years he spent as a wrench with Discovery, at BMC Gee changes the tape when it needs to be changed, replaces chains when they’re worn, and glues tires when the old ones are worn or flat.
That all seems too reasonable, though, and gluing up tires as needed just doesn’t create that same no-detail-too-small pro image that Julien Devries’ legendary 90-step tire gluing process does. And using bike shop-available equipment doesn’t lend that Formula 1, money sport image like talking casually about the ridculously expensive narrow BB time trail bike Armstrong decided he didn’t like. Most of all, though, the conservative approach just does't make for flashy copy or video. But, for the vast majority of teams – even good, well-funded ones like BMC – that’s the reality: conserving what you can, when you can, without unnecessarily risking a good result. In fact, I’d wager that a lot of fans who have watched every episode of Road to Paris and worn the ink off of four year’s worth of Procycling would be surprised at just how much use even the wealthiest teams get out of equipment before they toss it. Remember that Garmin video way back up at the top? Yeah, those cobbled classic bikes Hesjedal pointed out are stored in there for a reason – reuse.