Riding with Maertens, Wrenching for Porte
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Jan 3, 2017 – Bicycle racing may celebrate its champions but it would not exist if it were not for the countless faces and names that exist behind the scenes, keeping the wheels of the sport turning. Belgian Jean-Marc Vandenberghe is one of those people.
Words & Images: James Startt
A one-time teammate of the legendary Freddy Maertens, Vandenberghe is now chief mechanic at the BMC Racing Team.
Peloton: You have been in the sport for a long time and are now chief mechanic for one of the world’s preeminent teams. What does your job entail?
Jean-Marc Vandenberghe: As head of the mechanics, a big part of my job is making sure that we always have all of the equipment we need and making sure it gets to the races. I am Belgian so I have a lot of experience in the classics. I know all of the races, but today I do maybe 110 days on the road. The rest of the time I am at service course, where I can supervise a bit more. We have a great team of mechanics. There are no part-time mechanics on our team and I think that is important, because then all of the riders really know who is working on their bikes.
Peloton: How many bikes do you have to maintain in a year?
Vandenberghe: Well, we have nearly 30 riders. Each rider has five bikes—three road bikes and two time trial bikes. One of the road bikes is their home bike, and the other two go to the races. And some guys have even more. Some guys have two bikes at home, some have special bikes for Paris–Roubaix for example. For a race like Roubaix, all the riders have three bikes just for the race. But we don’t really count them because after Roubaix they just go to the side, because their dimensions are different, et cetera.
Peloton: How did you become the head mechanic at a team like BMC?
Vandenberghe: Well, I raced professionally for about five years on small kermesse (a.k.a. criterium) teams here in Belgium, teams like Robland-Isoglass. And then I started as a mechanic in 1993 on a small pro team, Collstrop. From there I moved to Team Telekom. I was there for eight year before moving to U.S. Postal for two years and then I did eight years for Quick-Step. And now this is my fourth year with BMC.
Peloton: Team Robland-Isoglass, you would have been teammates with a certain cycling legend, Freddy Maertens, right?
Vandenberghe: Yes, that’s right. We were teammates for two years (1986–87)…and I have such good memories! Okay, Freddy was at the end of his career, but I still learned so much from him. He had all of his old training diaries and was really focused on his diet, something that was not a big issue at the time. And then in the races, he was just so smart. I was just a small pro, but I learned so much from him. And even if he was at the end of his career, he was still Freddy Maertens. He was still a world champion with a big name. And because of him, the team was always really well equipped.
Peloton: Well, equipment has changed a lot and bikes have come a long way since you began. What are the biggest changes you have witnessed from a mechanic’s perspective?
Vandenberghe: Hmm…the first big change was moving from steel, to aluminum, to carbon bikes. Within the evolution, we sometimes mixed the material—say aluminum and carbon—but today we are at a point where nearly everything, the frame, the wheels, are all carbon.
Also, we do so much more on the computer today. For example, right now we are setting up all of the bikes for the season. So we have every rider’s position computerized and it is very easy to set up each rider’s bike now. And that is something that evolves throughout the year. If Richie Porte changes his bike in any way at the Tour Down Under, for example, then that change is entered into the database, so at the next race, the next mechanic knows exactly what his position is. That’s really important, because I will only see some of the mechanics three or four times a year.
Peloton: Would you say that your job is harder or easier today as a result of the technology?
Vandenberghe: It’s easier! But today there is no break in the season. We used to start the season pretty much at the beginning of the New Year, but today with so many riders and so many bikes that is not possible. When I started, riders only had three bikes for a season. But that has all changed. We have a couple of weeks off after the Tour of Lombardy [in October], but then we are at it again. Things are very different. I remember when I started, there would be maybe six spare bikes on the team car and we would have to make adjustments in the race depending on what rider needed a bike change. Today, each rider has two bikes at the race at least.
Peloton: What do you enjoy the most today?
Vandenberghe: I’ve done 20 Tours de France and all of the classics every year, so being at the heart of the race is not what draws me the most. Today, it is just the satisfaction knowing that all of the mechanics have what they need and that the riders are happy.
Peloton: What is the hardest element of your job?
Vandenberghe: Well, when I started, I was so focused on my job and I was doing maybe 200 days a year on the road. Sometimes I would do all three grand tours. And then all of a sudden I realized that my kids had grown up! That’s hard! On the up side, I still just really love my job. I’ve been a bike mechanic for 23 years now and there hasn’t been one day where I feel like I am actually going to work.