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It’s 5:30 Sunday morning in the sleepy town of Genk, on the Dutch border of Belgium. It’s not exactly a sought-after destination, but for a small band of bike mechanics, well, they could not imagine being anywhere else.
Words & Images by James Startt
Rob van den Brand, Christophe Desimpelaere and Kevin Suarez Martinez form an impressive trio of mechanics on the Qhubeka ASSOS team, as they put the final touches on the team’s classics campaign this past weekend with Liège-Bastogne-Liège. And for the mechanics, as well as the entire staff, Liège marked the culmination of one of the most intensive months of the year during the northern classics campaign.
But even though this would be the final day when much of the staff would see each other after living together as a virtual family in the team bubble imposed by Covid, there was no time for nostalgia as the sun rose over the hotel parking lot. Only hours away was the start of one of the sport’s most-cherished monuments.
“The Ardennes are special first because of the names of these races,” says the team’s chief mechanic Kevin Suarez Martinez. “But also the big classics are special because, unlike in the big stage races, you don’t have 20 stages to get a result. You just have one chance. And what is the same for the riders is the same for us the mechanics. We always give 100 percent at all of the races. But at the big classics we maybe give just 1 percent more. There is definitely more stress. But it is healthy stress. I like it!”
Suarez Martinez is the team’s chief mechanic this year and he is responsible for maintaining the equipment inventory as well as being the point person whenever there are any mechanical issues. And judging from the smile on his face throughout the weekend, he couldn’t be happier in his new role. “It is crucial that we have a good atmosphere on the team. After all, we spend more time with our team than our families.”
Climbing up and down the staircase from the team truck, Rob van den Brand lines up all of the race bikes that the trio prepared the day before while his colleague Christophe Desimpelaere attaches each bike to the roof of the team cars.
“I’ve been a pro mechanic for the past 10 years,” said the muscular van den Brand, who is always in search of the perfect wind surfing spot when not on the race circuit. “I was an amateur cyclist but always loved the tech side of the sport. I was always working in bike shops or wheel-building companies. So when I stopped racing I wanted to find a way to stay in cycling. I love working on bikes and here we work with the nicest material possible. The thing about working on the pro level is that everybody on the team really has the same common goal: to be the best you can and to help the riders reach their best.”
For van den Brand each race has its own personality and its own challenges. “The thing about the Ardennes classics like Liège-Bastogne-Liège is that, because the race is so hilly, weight is really an issue. So the riders are always looking for the lightest bikes. In the classics we have been riding tubeless clinchers, but here we switched back to tubular tires because they are just a little bit lighter. There is simply less carbon in the rims and that makes them lighter. The other issue is that there are some very tricky descents here in the Ardennes and if a clincher goes flat it is often very sudden—which can be really dangerous on the descents. But a tubular generally loses air more gradually.”
For any member of a cycling team, victory is the ultimate goal, and Suarez Martinez is the first to admit that any time champagne is uncorked after a race marks one of the real highlights of the season.
But really what makes these guys happiest is a race free of mechanical problems. “Those are really the best days, those days when you have not problems all day long,” Suarez Martinez says. “We had one of those days in the Strade Bianche this year. We didn’t have one technical problem all day. And at the finish we had three guys in the top 12. That was an amazing day for everybody. We didn’t win, but for everybody on the team it felt like total victory!”