A Mechanic’s Long Winter
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Literally translated, the Belgian name Van de Wiele means “of the wheel.” And for professional bike mechanic Kenneth Van de Wiele, the family moniker could not be more appropriate. Growing up in cycling, he always dreamed of being part of a professional team. And after getting his first chance with a small pro team more than a decade ago, Van de Wiele quickly moved his way up in the ranks and today he manages the service course of the powerful U.S.-registered team, Trek-Segafredo, in Deinze, Belgium. In this interview, the Belgian wrench discusses the challenges of running a service course for one of the world’s top teams.
Words and images by James Startt
Peloton: Kevin, you are head of the service course at Trek-Segafredo. How did you get into being a mechanic with a major professional team?
Kenneth Van de Wiele: Well, cycling has always been a big part of my life. My father Eric was a professional for 10 years and I raced until I was 23. I started out working in a bike shop here in Belgium. I worked in the shop of Walter Godefroot [the Belgian winner of the 1969 Paris–Roubaix] in Ghent. That’s where I started. That’s where I learned my skills. But after five years I wanted to do something different.
Working with a big professional team had always been a dream for me and in 2003 I learned that a small Belgian team, Chocolade Jacques, was looking for a mechanic. I applied and that’s how it all started. From there I went to CSC, Sky and now, for the past four years, with Trek.
Peloton: We are now in the early winter. A lot of the cyclists are on vacation. But you are still working at the service course every day. What are your main responsibilities at this point in the year?
Van de Wiele: Well, I work a lot with our technical director, Matt Shriver, making sure that all the parts are here on time, placing an order wherever we are short of things, and then Matt orders it through the factory. I’m also involved in planning the staff schedule for the next year: which mechanics will go to what races, et cetera. Most of the time there are three mechanics at every race—two at the race and one driving the truck. Three is pretty much the bare minimum. At a race like the Tour de France we will even have four.
Peloton: How many mechanics are there on staff at Trek-Segafredo?
Van de Wiele: We have nine full-time mechanics including myself, even though I will be doing less racing and focusing more on my job here, running service course this year.
Peloton: It seems like right now, much of your job is transitioning between the 2016 team and the 2017 team?
Van de Wiele: Yes. Right now I am changing over the bike room, removing the bikes and equipment of riders that are no longer on the team and making space for the riders joining the team. Then next week all of the mechanics will be on hand, building up the bikes for 2017 and getting ready for the first training camp on December 8. By the end of next week we should have one race bike and one TT bike for each rider.
Peloton: Do most of the mechanics live close to the service course?
Van De Wiele: No, we only have two Belgians; otherwise the staff is very international. We have a Spanish mechanic, two Portuguese mechanics, a Colombian mechanic, an Italian…it’s very international. So they all come here and sleep in a hotel. During the year, I am always here, and then the mechanics fly in to take the truck to the different races. After the race, they drive the truck back and then fly home.
Peloton: What is the hardest thing about your job?
Van de Wiele: Well, this is only my third year as service course manager so I am still pretty green. I still have a lot to learn. Things like people management, how to tell people in a friendly way, how I want them to do something…I get my orders from the top and I have to clarify that with the mechanics. A lot of the mechanics are a lot older than me and sometimes it is hard from me to get them to do what is told. [They are used to doing certain things their own way—Ed.] With the new guys, it is easy. They are still fresh in cycling.
And then the language barrier can be difficult. I speak Dutch, French and English. Here we speak English. It’s an American team so that is what we speak here. But I have been told that, when I speak English, sometimes I am too direct. If I am speaking Dutch for example, I can be more subtle, but in English I still need to work on that.
Peloton: What is the most satisfying aspect of your job?
Van de Wiele: The results. It’s always nice to win, especially here in this region during the classics. I used to race my bike here a lot. I know how it feels. And it is nice to sacrifice and be rewarded with a win. When we win, everybody on the team feels a part of the victory. That’s why I’m doing this! When there are crashes or guys are sick, you feel that too. But when guys are winning, everybody can make that extra effort. That said, the last thing we can do is show the riders that we are down when we’re not winning. We can’t do that. Everybody has to give a positive impression to the riders, even when the results are not there.
Peloton: How many bikes are you working on per year?
Van de Wiele: Oh, on average, the riders have six bikes—four road bikes and one or two TT bikes—or, for the classics riders, a more Roubaix-styled bike, the Domane. The riders keep one of the road bikes at home for training, so they always have three here at the service course. We will have 27 riders in 2017, that’s nearly 200 bikes. We also have about 60 sets of wheels in every truck, over 200 sets of wheels. Plus there are another 30 to 40 sets of wheels for Roubaix and Flanders. So it adds up quickly.
Peloton: There must be a lot of juggling going on as you constantly are shipping different bikes out to different riders throughout the season. Does anything ever go wrong? Do you ever send the wrong bike to a rider?
Van de Wiele: Ah, well, it can be stressful, as we often must work very quickly. There is always that moment of stress when you shut the door on a truck. But we always double and triple check everything. Everything that comes into service course is scanned, so we always know exactly what our inventory is. Everything has a barcode. That’s something we got from our stores actually. And it really makes our life easier. There is that human element. We can all make mistakes. But we have to keep that to a minimum.