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Peloton X

HUMAN RACE: Andrea Smith

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Andrea Smith had been aware that there might be bumps in the road to becoming pro cycling’s only female mechanic, but this was ridiculous. She was over in Belgium in 2015—her first year on the job as head mechanic of the Team Colavita pro cycling squad—and a call came over the radio. There was a problem: A seat-post bolt on a racer’s Bianchi had banged loose on the cobbles and the saddle nose was pointed skyward. A minute later Smith was leaning out the car attempting a fix with the rider out of the saddle.

Words by Peter Flax | Images Courtesy Colavita|Bianchi p/b Vittoria Pro Cycling Team

“At that point I had never serviced a bike out of the window,” she says with a weary laugh. “But there I was—we were ripping down narrow cobbled streets, going around rotaries—and I’m hanging out of a car, trying to fix this saddle and aware that the back of the peloton is drifting away. But I did it. I even torqued it to spec.”

You can’t have bicycle races without mechanics. They build the bikes and fix the bikes and clean the bikes. They tinker and repack and lubricate and power-wash. They solve problems and minister to riders’ mechanical and emotional needs.

These are all things Smith, now 39, does well. She has come to love a job that she never thought she would have, certainly not when she was growing up in a little coalmining town in eastern Montana. “It was real small, but there was a lot of open space and things to do,” recalls Smith, who always excelled at sports. “I was always that girl on the boys’ teams. I remember being the only girl at soccer practice.”

As a kid, she always had a bike but she threw herself at other sports, particularly running and basketball. Smith was good enough to earn a track scholarship at the University of Montana. She was red-shirted as a freshman and started cross-training on a mountain bike. “I would go out and hit all this great single track around Missoula,” Smith says. “And it really hit me—this is just so much more fun than running.”

Before long, Smith was doing a lot of riding and a little bit of racing. Then, after college, she moved to New England and there she did more than a little bit of racing. “First it was just mountain bike races and then it was road biking,” she says. “But it didn’t take long for me to start focusing on cyclocross. It seemed perfect for me with my background in running. The racing went pretty well.”

Smith is surrounded by top pros, so her modesty can be forgiven. Her results page on USA Cycling’s website indicates that she came in first or second in the first six licensed ’cross races she entered. Two times she finished third in age-group nationals and, in 2011, she won stars-and-stripes in the 30–34 category. The following year, she finished 11th in the elite race at ’cross nationals. As she said, the racing went pretty well.

Racing bikes was what she did on weekends—the rest of the time she was fixing bikes. It all began back in Missoula after she’d bought this sweet Gary Fisher full-suspension Joshua. “It seemed obvious that I should learn how to fix it,” she says. A local mechanic got her started. Then, after she moved East, she got her first bike-shop job. “It was at an REI in Massachusetts back in 2004,” she says. “I didn’t intend to make it a profession but I wound up working there for six years. One of the things I liked about it was how no one ever got in my way about being a woman—it was all about my competence and not my sex.”

She left the outdoor giant to work at Ride.Studio.Café, a coffee-shop-slash-bike-boutique in Lexington, Massachusetts, that was opened by Rob Vandermark, the founder of Seven Cycles. “I was the second employee there—Rob hired the coffee person and then me,” Smith says. “I ended up building a lot of custom Sevens and lacing a lot of wheels and talking to locals—there was way more conversation to the job than at REI.”

Eventually, Smith left Massachusetts and headed west to Arizona, where she continued racing and working at various bike shops. Then, in 2014, she got a call out of the blue from Mary Zider, an accomplished domestic pro she had raced against in New England events. “Mary asked me if I was still wrenching,” Smith recalls. “She had this job she wanted to tell me about—she called it a long shot.”

That long shot was whether she’d join the Colavita racing team. The program’s founder, John Profaci, had this simple but groundbreaking idea: to have a women’s team with an all-women’s staff. It was a simple idea that quickly got up to speed, with Zider as directeur sportif, Smith as head mechanic and Amanda Rose Shission as soigneur.

Smith recalls showing up at the team’s service course at Colavita’s headquarters in Edison, New Jersey. “It was weird and awesome and being there by myself,” she says, recalling the moment she stepped into a room overflowing with bike boxes. “I was like, this is my show. I am going to build all these bikes.”

Right before team camp each year, Smith gets to build a lot of bikes. Every rider gets a race bike and a TT bike and a so-called home bike (“so they don’t have to keep flying with bikes and I don’t have to clean their filthy bikes,” she laughs). And there are spare bikes, of course. “It’s a lot of bikes to build by myself,” she admits.

Because she had experience as a racer herself, Smith says the transition from shop mechanic to team mechanic was relatively smooth. Still, she says, the stress and adrenaline of the job do not go away. “Every time I hear a radio call for Colavita to do service on the right side of the road my heart rate spikes,” she says, itemizing a litany of jammed chains, broken derailleurs, dead batteries, punctured tires and other mishaps that guarantee her job security.

Once racing season is truly on, hectic becomes the new normal. “We’ll do a stage race, then a few crits and one-day road races,” she says. “Every day is different. It’s not like working in a bike shop, where you do the same thing most days.”

On a typical race day, she gets up at 5 a.m. to help with breakfast, get bikes prepped and help with all that needs helping. Then it’s the chaos of the race. And then it’s really time to get to work—cleaning and fixing and prepping for the next one. “A lot of nights I’m up at 11 p.m. or midnight in a hotel room or someone’s garage, gluing tubulars,” she says. “I glue a lot of tubulars.”

Smith is at once fully cognizant of the challenges women face in bike racing and appreciative about how relatively little resistance she’s faced as the only female mechanic at her level. She’s careful about how she discusses the issue, precise about how she frames the problems and the symbolism of her success. “It’s unique being on an all-woman staff,” she says. “I feel it especially when we’re in Europe where cycling remains such a male-dominated sport. But I’ve never felt like I was treated different, even when I’m the only woman in the pit at a crit. Still, we’ve got a long way to go—we see it with the hotels we stay at, the TV coverage we don’t get, the battle to get a minimum salary for women. We’re not there yet but it’s getting better.”

Also in the glass-half-full department, Smith says she’s meeting more female mechanics, more women interested in wrenching. “Many women have reached out to me—many of them admit there’s an intimidation factor; but there are more opportunities now,” she says, mentioning the rise of bike shops catering to women. “It’s like any profession—it takes a certain personality type.”

When asked to assess where she’s at and how she got there, Smith goes way back to eastern Montana, where her dad ran the town’s parks & rec department. It was back then that she discovered the joys of competing, of fixing things, of learning that her competence didn’t have to be defined or limited by her gender. “I knew pretty early on that I loved doing things with my hands,” she says. “And I still feel that way.”

Okay, so maybe she didn’t foresee how that would lead to her hanging out a window as a team car rumbled through Flanders at 25 mph with one hand gripping a door handle and the other palming a torque wrench. But who could see that coming? “I never thought I’d make a career out of this,” Smith says. “You get led down a different path than you expect. That’s how life works sometimes.”