Written by Sarah Lamb and translated en français by Jenny Kallista.
“Mechanic of the Week” has been my pet project at PBMA since its inception. One of the highlights of every week for me is getting to know our new MOTW, and seeing how happily surprised they are to be featured by us. I love our diverse and inclusive community, but it’s no secret that we’ve had very few women nominated for MOTW. So when someone introduced me to Denise Belzil of St-Denis de Brompton, Quebec earlier this month, I was compelled to get to know her better. And, oh my goodness… this woman is a rock star! I am in awe of her talent, courage, and generosity. On behalf of the PBMA, I’m proud to present my conversation with Denise as our first-ever bilingual interview.
Comment avez-vous été impliqué dans le vélo et/ou à vélo mécanicien?
How did you get involved in cycling or bicycle mechanics?
Comment j’ai été impliqué. Je suis née à Montréal j’ai toujours voyagé à vélo pour aller à l’école, travaillé et loisir sortir etc. Et j’aime encore voyager à vélo la liberté. Il faut donc l’entretenir. Jeune je me suis acheté un vélo avec une manette rotative Shimano 3 vitesses. J’ai un samedi démonté mon vélo j’avais 12 ou 13 ans. Par la suite j’ai développé un intérêt à réparer mes vélos.
J’ai travaillé dans des boutiques spécialisées à Montréal Cycle Coppi, Cycle Peel les 2 boutiques qui étaient les plus réputés en 1981 /82/83. Je me suis faite une réputation et par la suite quelqu’un de la fédération cycliste Québécoise m’a suggéré de faire application à l’Association Canadienne de Cycliste il cherchait un mécanicien pour l’équipe féminine Canadienne. J’ai appliqué et j’ai eu un emploi comme soigneur ( j’ai une formation en réadaptation physique). L’année suivante j’étais mécanicienne pour l’équipe Canadienne féminine pour Le Tour du Texas en 89 tour de France 89 et Championnat du Monde la même année à Chambéry. Par la suite j’ai toujours continué à travailler d’une entreprise à l’autre.(Revue Vélo MAG (chroniqueuse technique 2 ans) formation, j’ai monté une usine d’assemblage de vélo aux États Unis à Plattsburgh, NY pour la compagnie Nevada, etc. Et ainsi de suite. Après j’ai fondé Techno Cycle durant 23 ans. J’ai formé environ 300 à 500 personnes par année. De toute catégorie hommes, femmes, enfant. Professionnel boutiques et employé d’usine comme chez Devinci. (vélo Devinci et Bixie)
Il y a de la place pour nous, j’ai été patiente j’ai même travaillé avec Bill Woodel au Championnat du monde de Vélo de Montagne à Bromont. J’ai rencontré beaucoup de mécaniciens qui ont toujours respecté mon travail et on a collaboré et échangé nos trucs et expérience. Il faut travaillé en équipe échangé notre expérience c’est ainsi que l’on devient plus expérimenté.
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I was born in Montreal and have always ridden a bike to go to school, to go to work, to socialize, etc. I love the freedom of cycling. Therefore, it is important to maintain it. When I was young, I bought a bike with a Shimano 3-speed hub. One Saturday when I was about 12 or 13, I took my whole bike apart. After that, I developed an interest in repairing my bicycles. I worked at some reputable bike shops in Montreal in the early 80's, including Cycle Coppi and Cycle Peel. I made myself a reputation and from that it was suggested to me (by someone from the Quebec Cycling Federation) to apply at the Canadian Cycling Association…. there was a women's team that was looking for a mechanic. I applied and became the soigneur (I'm trained in physical therapy). The following year I was the mechanic for a Canadian women's team during the Tour of Texas in '89, Tour de France '89, and and the World Championships that year as well in Chambery. After that I was always traveling to one event or another. I was the technical writer for the magazine Velo Mag 2 years, I set up the bicycle factory for the brand Nevada in the US (Plattsburgh, NY). After that I started Techno Cycle (23 years ago, a technical school) and have trained between 300-500 people per year, men women, kids, as well as professional technicians at companies like DeVinci and Bixie.
There is a place for us [women], I was patient and even worked alongside Bill Woodul at the World Mountain Bike Championships in Bromont. I met lots of mechanics who were always very respectful of my work and we would collaborate with our work and share bits of information and experience. It's important to work with a team to share experiences, as that is how one gets better.
Qu’est ce qui me pousse à exceller en tant que l’une des rares femmes ….
What motivates you to excel as one of the few female mechanics in our industry?
J’aime toujours réparer les vélos et j’aime les outils. À chaque fois que je trouve de nouveaux outils j’en achète pour effectuer un travail plus rapidement et plus délicatement. Dernièrement j’ai utilisé l’outil UNIOR 1625/2 pour retirer les roulements scellés d’un boîtier de pédalier. Le tout sans effort et sans marteau. De solutionner un problème mécanique d’un client. Aussi avec tous les nouveaux outils qui existent sur le marché, ça nous facilitent le travail pour les femmes. On a moins besoin de forcer.
Mais je suis toujours surprise de voir que peut de mécaniciens ne soient pas à l’écoute des demandes de la clientèle cycliste surtout féminine.
Lorsque j’ai eu Techno Cycle 23 ans, j’ai adoré enseigné aux consommateurs, aux mécaniciens et de partagé mes trucs et connaissances avec les participants. Et de voir 15 ans plus tard que certain sont venu suivre des cours et à présent ils sont mécaniciens ou travaille dans le milieu.
Qu’est ce qui me pousse encore voici la réponse ultime.
J’ai signé un contrat 2016 avec Unior Tools pour la réédition de mes 2 livres de mécaniques avec les outils Uniors qui seront traduit en plusieurs langues. (Français, Anglais, Espagnol, Chinois etc). Ça je suis fière, quand je pense qu’une compagnie Européenne a reconnue mon travail pour le propagé à travers le monde.
Voici les 3 titres de la première version :
Mécanique Vélo : Ajustement des systèmes de vitesses et de freins
Mécanique Vélo : les roulements : moyeux, jeux de pédalier et jeux de direction
Bicycle Mechanics: Hubs, Bottom Bracket Sets and Headsets
Il y aura cette année de nouvelle version avec Unior Tools.
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I have always loved tools. Every time I find new tools I buy them to help make my work more efficient and precise. Recently I used the Unior tool 1652/2 to remove cartridge bearings from a bottom bracket, and it took no effort and no hammer. No need to use force… it solved the problem for the customer. Lots of new tools exist now that make work so much easier since less force is needed.
It still surprises, me, though, to see that women cyclists are not very well listened to by mechanics.
Since I began teaching at Techno Cycle 23 years ago to consumers and mechanics, sharing my knowledge with those participants, I would see 15 years later some of those same people employed in shops.
What pushes me still… here is the ultimate answer. I signed a contract last year with Unior Tools to reissue my 2 books of bicycle mechanics. They will be translated into several languages (French, English, Spanish, Chinese etc). I am proud, when I think that a European company has recognized my work and it will be spread throughout the world.
Here are the 3 titles of the first version:
Bicycle Mechanics: Adjustment of Gear and Brake Systems
ISBN 978-2- 9803036-3- 03
Bicycle Mechanics: Bearings: Hubs, Cranksets and Headsets
ISBN 978-2- 9803036-1- 6
Bicycle Mechanics: Hubs, Bottom Brackets and Headsets
ISBN 978-2- 9803036-2- 3
There will be new versions this year with Unior Tools.
Qu’est ce que a été mon moment le plus mémorable ou expérience en tant que mécanicienne?
What was your most memorable moment or experience while working as a mechanic?
Mécanicienne au Tour de France féminin en 1989 . Et la première fois que j’ai vue un vélo avec un système indexé en 1982 et la première manette rotative de SRAM en 1988 sur le bout du guidon de route.
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Being the mechanic for the Women's Tour de France in 1989. And also the first time I saw an indexed shift system in 1982, and seeing the first twist shifter from SRAM on the end of a road bar.
Mon conseil aux femmes mécaniciennes…
Do you have any advice for women or girls who aspire to become professional bicycle mechanics?
Toujours avoir en tête que le vélo sera en meilleure condition une fois que vous aurez terminé le travail même pour un vélo neuf. Un vélo neuf peut avoir des composantes incompatibles. De ne jamais abandonné et de lire les instructions pour l’utilisation des outils et pour les pièces. Les catalogues de SRAM, Campy et Shimamo, Surterland’s Handbook (toutes les versions) et tous les autres ont des infos techniques pour solutionner des incompatibilités. Se procuré des outils ils nous facilitent la tâche.
Si vous avez un client un peu inquiet à se faire servir par vous ou une femme, soit que vous l’ignorez ou vous lui dite qu’il manque une bonne occasion de se faire servir de façon professionnelle. Ou, soit que vous lui posez une question technique pour lui faire réaliser que vous avez connaissances et compétences. D’échangé et partagé avec les autres mécaniciennes /mécaniciens. Connaître sa base et les principes de mécanique de ne pas avoir peur de poser des questions.
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Always keep in mind the bike will always be in better condition when you finish with your work, even on new bikes. Don't forget to read instructions for how to use tools or install parts. Literature from SRAM, Campy, Shimano, Sutherland's Handbook (all versions), and all others have the information needed to solve incompatibility issues. Good tools make your work easier.
If you have a customer a little worried about being served by you or a woman, ignore him or tell him that he is missing a good opportunity to be served by a professional. Or ask him a technical question to make him realize that you have knowledge and skills. Share and share with other mechanics. Understand the basics and principles of mechanics and never be afraid to ask questions.
Et enfin quel est mon outil préféré?
And finally (because we always ask this), what is your favorite tool?
Ma clé hexagonale de 5 mm la plus utile j’en ai plusieurs. Une en L, une avec clé en Y (4/5/6) et plusieurs autres. Two year ago I bougth the Hammer from Abbey Tool the Team issue Titanium. I enjoy this hammer I used a lot. Un outil que j’ai eu 1989 c’est l’outil TL_RD11 pour redressir les pattes de dérailleur. J’ai solutionné beaucoup de problème au début des systèmes indéxés.
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The 5mm hex wrench because I use it the most. One L, a Y (4,5,6), and others. Two years ago I bought a Team Issue Abbey Ti hammer. I enjoy this hammer and use it a lot. I have a tool from 1989 the Shimano TL RD11 Derailleur Hanger alignment tool. This tool solved a lot of early indexed system problems.
Félicitations à Denise, et merci d'être une source d'inspiration pour moi et pour la mécanique féminine partout. Pour notres amis qui lisent chez eux, si vous souhaitez voir d'autres mécaniciens féminins forts présentés par PBMA et entré pour un voyage à Interbike cette année, prenez un moment pour les nommer aujourd'hui!
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Congratulations to Denise, and thank you for being a source of inspiration to me and to women mechanics everywhere. For our friends reading this at home, if you’d like to see other strong female mechanics featured by PBMA and entered to win a trip to Interbike with us this year, take a moment to nominate them today!
Who are you?
What is it you do?
My SRAM business card says ‘Technical Ambassador’, really, creating solutions when there are problems would be more accurate.
Tell us how did you get started in the cycling industry?
My beginnings in the cycling industry is directly attributable to my father. My father was an avid cyclist. My childhood was spent moving from one military/government installation to the next… think eight schools over the course of my twelve years of primary and secondary education. The one constant was cycling. My father ensured that every member of our family was properly kitted out with the best bicycle. He loved the gear, from having to ride the latest road bike available from Schwinn down to his Avocet cycling shoes. He had great tools and could repair any problem with the bike.
Can you tell us about your career pathway from where you started to what you are doing now?
My professional career began while attending the University of Cincinnati. Glenn Wolf, longtime owner of Campus Cycles in Cincinnati, Ohio, employed my roommate Kurt, and tolerated me hanging around the bike shop absorbing everything I could. My team mates on the varsity crew team had embraced mountain biking as a form cross training as well as the fact that it was just plain fun to shred around campus and the hiking trails near the university. I bought a 1991 Gary Fisher Super Caliber equipped with Suntour XC Pro, an 1 ¼” headset, and a cartridge bearing bottom bracket… that mountain bike changed my life.
Ultimately it fell into disrepair, I literally rode it until every component wore out; I didn’t know any better. When the fall quarter began in 1993, my roommate Kurt had just come back from a summer MTB road trip of the U.S. west coast. He scheduled in stops at Barnett’s and UBI for formal bicycle mechanic training. In awe at the training he had received I knew what I had to do. In 1995 I did a similar pilgrimage to hone my mechanical skills. I trained under the watchful eye of Calvin Jones at BBI (now Park Tool) where I had enrolled in the long program (nearly 40 days at that time). I had additional opportunities with the Answer/Manitou MTB team, Gary Fisher regional teams before landing at Cannondale Bicycles I 1998. I worked as a contract mechanic before switching to full time in 2006. As most industry folks are aware, after Cannondale was purchased by Dorrell Industries the majority the work force were laid off, including me in March of 2012. With a generous severance package in hand I proceeded to take the rest of the year off (except for a working a few races with NRS). After looking around for jobs in the industry, my good friend and former C-Dale colleague Doug Dalton as well as Mike Risenlieter (then at SRAM) said that I should work at SRAM. I started at SRAM in December of 2012.
SRAM is a big company… a global company. How does your role in education fit into the global outlook on providing education to mechanics?
Oddly enough, as I respond to this question SRAM has just hired a Global Training Manager to ensure alignment across all education efforts globally. This will be a difficult role, but we have high hopes. For me, my team oversees and provides education in North and South America, Australia, and South Africa.
If you had to list 3 things (skills or traits or qualities) a mechanic should have what would they be?
1) Attention to detail
2) Pride in one’s work
What is your favorite tool and is this tool essential to mechanics or to Troy Laffey?
I must say, I have a real affinity for Knipex 10” smooth jaw pliers. Every mechanic should have a set, maybe two. Ultimately what matters is this: a professional mechanic has good tools and knows how to use them.
That being said, I am a compulsive tool hoarder and I have enough tools to accommodate us all for the apocalypse.
What do you think is going to be important within the cycling industry in 5 years?
Bicycles are available from more channels than ever now. Bike shops, big box stores, mobile repair trucks, online retailers, direct to consumer options, eBay, Amazon, Craigslist, and more. Getting mad about this doesn’t help, and the internet isn’t going away either (be honest, you’d be pissed if it did). So what can an IBD do differently? Service. We all know the “go to” shop for service in our respective zones. Those savvy in all aspects of service will be the survivors. That is the hard truth. Don’t take my word for it, take a good look at the number of service only shops opening up, the number of mobile repair franchises hitting the road, and the number of third party suspension service centers opening, nearly one monthly.
Service is the future. Get trained, get certified, do whatever it takes to be the very best at what you do. Be a mechanic, not an assembler.
Why did you join the PBMA?
I believe in the power of bicycles.
I believe in being a professional.
I believe in being the absolute best mechanic I can be.
I believe I can always learn more.
The PBMA aligns with all of my beliefs. Be it through training, networking, mentoring, humanitarian efforts, or as a resource, the PBMA is an avenue to ensure that new/existing mechanics have the opportunity to be the best mechanic they can be.
My advice to other mechanics, new and tenured… Set the ego aside and challenge yourself to learn new things. Don’t ever be the mechanic that says, “I’ve been doing this for ‘XX’ number of years, I don’t need any training.”
Scott Schmitt, arguably the most accomplished extreme skier ever, once said to me when I was up in Montana, “There are no experts, if you’re an expert, you’re probably dead.” That’s good advice, you can always be better at what you do.
You recently (in the scope of relative time) put your feet on the ground after how many years of living out of a hotel or on the road? What was that like?
I spent the better part of a decade and a half without a permanent address. It just didn’t make sense. I rented an aircraft-hanger for my trucks and personal effects, but never really had a residence. When I initially started at SRAM I was on the road full time. Since then I have reeled it in to just 200+ days a year on the road. I even bought a house in Colorado near the RockShox R&D center to call home (although truth be told, I currently haven’t been there in 6 weeks).
It’s an adjustment. Now in my 40’s, I’m enjoying all the things that most people do in their twenties… I love doing yardwork! Mowing the lawn, landscaping, pruning trees, you name it. I remodeled the house and built a deck too. I also have time to work on my trucks now! I can report that the UNIMOG has some exciting upgrades happening now.
For those curios how that much travel translates in to numbers, it looks like this:
Nights in Marriott chain hotels: 3,600+
Nights in Hilton chain hotels: 1,200+
Flights on Delta Airlines: 700+
Plus to many to name other brand hotels, airlines, motel, couches, floors, and nights in the back of the team rig.
Countries visited: Nearly 50!
Those are pretty depressing numbers as I reflect back on it. The bright side, however, is that during that period in 2012 when I was unemployed, I took my family, and my girlfriend’s family, to Costa Rica entirely on point/miles. Turns out trading in 3 million hotel points and a few hundred thousand airline miles will send you and your family down south for a real good time!
We know that creature comforts are important to keeping a level head. What are you creature comforts while you travel?
2) Access to WiFi / LTE
3) A Wholefoods nearby
4) Jerry Garcia in my ears
You can follow Troy - Twitter: @Bikesdestroy, Instagram: @troy.laffey, Facebook: Nope
Some more about PBMA President - Elect Jeff Rowe, he's quite humble, but when you're wrong he isn't afraid to say so. If you're headed to the NAHBS in SLC next week, look for Jeff at the PBMA booth.
In his own words:
I oversee logistics for Focus Bicycles, including planning, import, brokerage, warehousing, distribution, warranty and tech support. I have overseen Marketing as well off-and-on since 2009.
With some challenges to working as an American in London in 1987, Bicycle Messenger was by far the most attractive available job. It didn't kill me - it made me stronger. Learning how to ride all day led to learning to ride fixed and racing track and later road. This is how it all got started for me
I've been around the industry in North America for 16 years. I have always thought that Professional Mechanics were undervalued, and listening to Brett Flemming speaking at QBP set me on a path to generally raise standards in the shops that I worked and to show that added value to our customers. It starts with careful service writing and billing and leads to better pay for Professional Mechanics.
I'm watching the same dynamics that everyone is, but I don't believe that the quality service of a Professional Bicycle Mechanic will fall from fashion or die with some moribund distribution and sales models.
This is an exciting time in our industry.
Our ongoing series of interviews continues this month with Matt Bracken.
So I am sure that a lot of folks who will read this interview have heard your name. You’ve been around a while. How was it that Matty B arrived into the cycling world?
I fell in love with Cycling when I was young. I am the youngest of 12 children (10 survivors) and cycling was a way to get around and enjoy the freedoms that came with it. I can’t think of a time I wasn’t riding my bike in the woods or with my dog Cindy back in the 70’s. I fell in love with traditional lugged Italian road racing frames about the time the movie Breaking Away came out. I was on my b.m.x. Hanging at the pizza parlor playing pinball (yes, the Who’s Tommy had an effect on everyone at that time and pinball was king) and a few dudes rode up on these shiny 10 speeds with Italian parts that were all shiny (Campagnolo) and that was that. I saved and saved my money to buy my first road bike…
You went to the OTC way back in '88? You took a class about being a race mechanic. Would you say this was a pivotal moment in your working career as a bicycle mechanic?
I was a student back in 1988. I remember it was super cold and snowy at the OTC that year. This is long before the OTC many of the students who have attended in the past 15 years know of. It was not sexy and the facilities were not what we all have enjoyed now. The work area for cycling was small and dark. I came because I dreamed of a life on the road traveling Europe, speaking French and working on bikes.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences shortly after your trip to the OTC, where did you end up?
Come summer of 1988 I was called upon by Shimano USA to help at a criterium in front off the ellipse of the White House in Washington, DC. Can you imagine that? A national Calendar criterium right out in front of the White House… I volunteered and found myself on back of the motorcycle to do wheel changes if necessary off the moto. Greg Lemond and many others were racing that day. I never had the pleasure of working for the US National Team.
You also were part of a neutral support program… Mavic right?
Yes, I was part of the Mavic Neutral program from 1990-1993. It was an amazing experience that brought me around the country and world that I am grateful to this day. The French ran a great program and drilled into me that my job was to look after the safety of the riders first and everything else second. They also were sticklers in being prepared for anything and everything. They also taught the importance of family and friendship while out on the road. A big smile and can do attitude opened a lot of doors. During my time at Mavic I stayed in hotels a fraction of the time and spent a good deal of my time staying with friends or in host housing. We did not have cell phones, we carried quarters, phone cards and a little black book. It was an amazing experience.
Indy Fab… Can you tell us how your skills as a bicycle mechanic transferred to building and developing frames?
Being a good mechanic and understanding the importance of math and how it relates to the mechanical process of diagnosing then developing a plan of action to improve or fix came in daily during my time at Merlin Metalworks (1993-1999) and Indy Fab (1999-2008). Understanding materials and fit were indispensable in helping cyclists of all walks of life find happiness on a bikes I designed.
Looking back at Merlin and I.F. I can confidently say I have designed over 5,000 unique bikes. Did I screw up a few, yes, BIG TIME. But those big mistakes only fueled me to learn more and be better. It was an honor to work with so many great people within IF, it’s dealer base, magazines and others to make that brand take off during that era.
Lets jump forward to now and Pedros. The road and path to recover a brand couldn’t of been easy. Can you recall a time or two where something you learned as a mechanic really applied to real life business struggles or development?
Mechanics like to fix and make things run smoothly so with little maintenance and attention those machines run smooth and are quiet. Business is no different. Back in 2011 I lost my job with Pedro’s along with my two business partners Jay Seiter (our engineer/product manager) and Jim Hale (head of Sales). We heard all the rumors. We heard people cheering our demise and others hoping we could make it work. None of that bothered us, it only made us work for success.
Few people know of or understand the complexity of running an operation that sells to over 120 countries around the world and truly understanding good chemistry when it comes to bike care products like lubes, polish, grease, bike wash. After 8.5 years I think we’ve all earned a Master’s degree or two in business.
The # 1 secret is understanding when you work for yourself when mistakes happen you own your own problems. There is nowhere to hide and no one to blame. I own my own problems and for that matter my own successes. My motivation is to do a good job and not find myself without a job and way to support my family and the family of mechanics around the country and world who support our brand and what Pedro’s means to them individually. What have I learned? First, you have to be a great listener to succeed in business and life. Less talking and more listening….. Secondly, it is important to thank and support all the people who helped you along the way.
Give back often when possible…
When is the world going to be able to purchase a Bracken? You surely haven’t lost the passion to build frames.
You are correct. I miss the hell out of designing and making bikes. I’d love to have a Bracken signature series with some other young builder or eventually hang my own shingle and do it once my two daughters are 14 and 16. They love bikes and it is my responsibility as their papa to teach them the importance of math and design so they can be successful in life. We are surrounded by math and taking the time to understand numbers and their significance only underline the passion it brings to cycling and other experiences. I want them to continue to be outdoor people. Not stuck in some Social media black hole/time suck.
You must have a piece of advice or two for aspiring mechanics, frame builders and the industries future talent. Please share some thoughts
Volunteer if necessary and ask for nothing in return…Listen…Learn
Don’t talk SHIT about anything you work on or other peoples choices in bikes, equipment, friends, etc. Show you are professional and don’t waste time by spending it on social media waxing on about your mechanical talents.
If you are that good they will find you or hear of you without social media. Take a frame class at any of the US schools who offer that classes. Work for an established builder for years, not months and learn the skills to become a great builder. Companies don’t hire for skill, they hire for attitude. Bring a good attitude to everything you do and the skill will come with time.
Time… Take your time, be patient. I personally am inching up 30 years within the cycling industry. I am finally feeling like I am getting somewhere. Not sure where that it, but I can tell you it’s been a great time along the journey. Lastly, f**k SELFIES. Turn the camera around and take pics of the place and people you have spent your time with improving you life.
You will find out spending your time taking care others will end up being the greatest reward you will ever be granted!
Calvin, I am going to guess most who will read this interview have heard your name. You’ve been around the industry, mechanics, tools and education a long time. What happened that you fell in love with bicycles?
Growing up, my dad was a tool dealer, driving a Snap-On truck. To me and my brother it was a big toy box on wheels, full of shinny pretty steel things to play with. That started my appreciation of all things mechanical. But it was in high school that a friend turned me on to riding and racing. The entire cycling thing became an obsession. I remember in junior high, I got a Clubman from a hardware store. The down tube shifters kept slipping so we took it back to the shop. The mechanic look at me and said, "Kid, why don't you put a piece of pop can under that". I recall just looking at him and thinking, "...oh, I can do this job..." And that pretty much got me to where I am now.
What was your first bicycle job?
American Cyclery, on Broadway, Denver, Colorado. Hired by Service Manager Pat Sullivan. Early '70's, so a Schwinn shop, of course.
You worked for a while at Barnett Bicycle Institute back in the 90’s(?), how did you find the transition from a bicycle mechanic in a shop to becoming an instructor to other mechanics?
That was intimidating . John and I had a lot of good mechanics come through, and at first I didn't want to correct them. You had to explain things clearly. Getting challenged was part of the learning curve, and still is. You have to have the right attitude, watching what they do, and listening to what they say. Even if you know you are right and they are wrong, if you can find a way to explain it so they can understand, it makes you a better a mechanic.
After Barnett’s you worked for the United States Cycling Federation (predecessor to what is now USA Cycling), what was your official role there?
I was contract labor at USCF / USAC for a number of years, including working as mechanic for the US National Team at the 1984 Olympics, and on trips. I was the resident dorm coach for the cyclists such as Roy Knickman, and Rebecca Twigg. Later I worked wtih Chris Carmichael developing educational material for entry level coaches. I also managed the mechanics for the MTB Worlds for the US Team for several year. I taught at all the race mechanic clinics at the OTC, at least until recently.
You’ve been to a lot of world class races, how many Olympics and World Championships have you worked at in the service of this nations top athletes?
Total I guess 12 or more. They tend to blend together, and you remember the other mechanics and garages more than the races or racers. You don't really get to see that much of the racing.
Thinking about those Olympic and World Championship tech support teams, is there a moment or year that really stands out as a game changer in terms of how you did your job?
Plenty of eye-opening moments stand out. Having bikes stolen under my watch gives you quite the wake up call. Issues such as having a chain jam on a World DH run that never was an issue in practice was another eye opener. This chain guide was installed wrong by the rider, but no matter, it was in my stand and I should have caught it. More reinforcement that the technical-buck stops right there, with you. But mainly the stand out thing was seeing how all your early pre-race prep come together for good results during the race, which for me reinforces the importance of planning. As another mechanic said, this is about a lot of forethought, followed by a lot of afterthought.
Let’s jump forward - you work at Part Tool Company now. How has your previous shop, educational and event support knowledge helped you in your current role?
First and maybe foremost is being able to relate to the professional mechanic and to speak the mechanic's language. It is critical being able to listen to ideas and problems that are presented and then relate that to our engineers and staff here. That is true also for issues/idea/problems coming from riders/consumers of all sorts. This skill comes from my previous experience at the retail work bench, at events, and from teaching.
We understand that your new passion is NICA and you are the coach of a local high school cycling team. What motivates you to give back to today’s youth / why is being a part of this organization so important to you?
It is actually an old passion, helping people, this is just a new way to do that. My role is as Team Director of a local high school team. I rarely even get to ride with the students. My role is mainly administrative, keeping the ship going the right direction, and sometimes just keeping it afloat. I take on the headaches like dealing with our NGB, the school admin, parents, etc. My role is to free my coaches to just coach. We have grown from 26 riders to a team of 70, and even more next year. It turns out kids like to ride bikes, we are just providing the opportunity. Let me say also mechanics are well placed in the cycling world to make a big difference in this type of riding. We are at the center of things, and if you pay attention, you see and learn a lot about how things can be run. Get involved, and not just by lubing a chain.
If you could tell someone who just graduated high school and wants to make a career in the cycling industry on the technical side - what advice, wisdom or guru level words would you share with them?
Basics. Basics. Basics. Know your basics before trying to do professional work. Things like properties of materials, thread theory, strains, loads, failures; so much of that comes from playing, literally. Arts and crafts, models, smashing stuff with hammers, taking stuff apart, this stuff be ingrained in your flesh, not studies on a flat screen. Be hungry for knowledge, and as always, question authority....tempering that with knowing when to shut up and just work.
Is there anything else you’d like the readers to know about you?
I guess that i relate very much to the theory of "multiple intelligences". There different modes of intelligence, and being a bike mechanic can use several of them. As a young mechanic, I used to think you didn't need to know about the bike user, I'll fix the bike the way it should be. That is not the case, and having some inter-personal skills, that kind of intelligence, helps you get the bike just right. There is the type of intelligence an engineer may have that differs from that of a musician, or a naturalist that is good at categorizing things. There is intelligence of an athlete, which is something I do not posses. We all have some of each perhaps, but not in the same mix. Call it intuition if you like, but respect each type and each person. If I may be allowed to twist this quote, it also tells us that we should be conscientious individuals, having the courage, if necessary, to give up and go out and find ourselves other forms of activity by which to make a position in society.
I suppose we should start this interview with a note to the readers to help them understand why they might want to read about you. We crossed paths when you used to show up in my beyond secret R&D shop inside the depths of Specialized Bicycle Components in Morgan Hill. To many (maybe not the younger readers) you’re an iconic frame builder. But you must have started somewhere.
What got you started on your path with bicycles?
Well, my tomboy next door girlfriend learned to ride a bike before me! This at 5 or so. I learned too and got a 26" Schwinn World from Goodwill for $1. The next phase was in high school. Young people may not understand how un-cool bicycle riding was in the early 1960's. The only, and I mean only guy to ride a bike to my 2,000 student high school was the absolute school nerd. I had a English 3 speed converted into a "racer". It had drop bars and a 3 speed derailleur lashed onto a Strumney Archer 3 speed hub. I of course did not ride it to school.
I worked starting at 15, became a motorcycle mechanic. Most of my motorcycle buddies did not go to my school. Senior year I met Lane, he was a Europe nut case. One of the things he was into was the Tour de France. So he had a very nice French bike, for the time and considering he was a high school kid with no money.
He talked me into buying a 10 speed,with some Campagnolo on it. When we got out of school in June 1964 we headed off on a ride across the USA, starting from Portland Oregon. Very little money, the plan was to find jobs as we went. Got to Denver, I could not find a job even though I had motorcycle skills. So I had to end the trip and ask my mother for the bus fare home. My bother ended up with the bike and became a bike racer. I went on to become a motorcycle hell raiser. I got so many tickets that they took my license away, many times. I had to get to work, this was when I was 21 or so. My brother said I should get a bike. So I did, and because I had to ride about 15 miles to work, and back each day I got fit.
In around 1969 I got into the bike scene in Portland. I met most of the players, it was very tight and small then. Met my future 1st wife, Virginia. She was really into bikes. At that time I was working in the dental industry. We saved up all the money and decided to ride around the world. Started in Aug. 1971 from Portland. Rode to Panama, then over to Portugal and down to Africa. Got robbed and burned out, so went home after 6 months. I went back to work in the dental job. After riding this big tour I was sure I could build better bikes that what I was seeing. So I just started making frames (1972 or 73).
How did you evolve on that path to starting and operating what I can only imagine was a successful frame building company known as Merz Bicycles?
At first I was just building bikes for myself. Soon other riders started asking me to build them bikes. At that time there was zero info, no tubing, no lugs. At first I made frames out of old broken frames, took the lugs off, saved the good tubes.
My wife was working for a good bike shop, so I got to hook up with suppliers. Finally figures out some of the tricks for getting stuff. Just slightly after I started building Andy Newlands started Strawberry Racing Cycles. He imported some tubing and lugs. Mark DiNucci was his first frame builder. We were friends, but competitive also.
Virginia did the painting and she was very good. Because I had a background in brazing and machining from the dental industry I had the skill and very importantly the contacts for doing bike frames. I did not drive a car for most of the 10 year I was building in Portland. We had very little money, but it was cheap to live in Portland back then. The successful part of all this was the friends I made, and the things I learned about bicycles. I was one of Mike Sinyard's first customers. He came to Portland on the train with his bike and stayed at my house, rode to the dealers selling his stuff.
In the 80’s you started working for Specialized Bicycles, specifically in the era of the now famous Allez steel lugged bicycles. What was the significance of that for you as a frame builder?
I could see the writing on the wall about continuing my life building bike frame for a living. I knew a lot about making a good bike. Custom bikes then had a very large range, track frames to full on touring bikes. My touring bikes that I made back then were state of the art.
Anyway, during these days I went to the bike show in New York every year. I got close to Shimano, Tange, Suntour, Reynolds. Campagnolo. So I knew quite a few of the serious players in the bike world ever before I worked for Specialized.
I would go to the Bay Area to visit Mike and other suppliers. Mike got one of the very first Ritchey MTB’s, I went down and he let me ride it. So I came back to Portland and made my version, without question the first MTB in the PNW! I knew Mike was going to make his version, what ended up being the Stumpjumper. I wanted him to hire me, so I could be the technical guy at Specialized.
He ended up hiring Tim Neenan, because he didn't want to pay my moving cost! After about a year Tim wanted to get out of San Jose, so Mike hired me. Sept. 1982. The first day on the job was flying from Portland to Japan! It was crazy; I designed everything, bikes, parts and even tires.
Where did all those lugs come from? You mentioned earlier how they virtually didn’t exist.
The lugs for all the bikes in the early days of my working at Specialized were from Japan. The MTB frames I designed had lugs; the first Stumpjuper was TIG welded. I don't remember who made them, but I designed them. Yoshi Kono made the top model Allez frames, and he designed the lugs for these frames.
I think I heard a rumor you lived in your VW bus for a while when you worked there. Is that true?
Well, there is a very long story about the changes after I was fired from Specialized in 1991. I could not work for year, after that I went to the company we used to made the M2 frames, Anodizing Inc. in Portland. While there I was the frame designer for their bike industry customers. This job lasted about 4 years, at the end Mark DiNucci started working for them.
I got too expensive for their taste and so I talked my buddies who had a bike company in Taiwan into starting a USA frame plant. Kinesis USA in Portland. I set this factory up, bought all the machines and did all the frame designs. Again this lasted about 4 years.
I then got a job for Browning, they had an automatic transmission for bicycles. Located on Bainbridge Island near Seattle I moved up there. I took the hand made prototype and made it into a fully tooled production product. I had to live in Taiwan for almost a year. Finally this Browning project was finished, and of course it failed or you would know about it.
So I was kicking around in Seattle with no job. Specialized needed someone to run the prototype shop. Kind of step down for me, but hey I need the job. This was about 2003, I was one of the first people in the bike industry to use 3D solid modeling CAD/CAM, starting at Specialized in 1985. I had my own system all through these jobs
No one had been there for some time, so the shop was a mess. The machines were all manual. So I got to build a dream shop, CNC mill and lathe, lot's of toys. I had no relationship during these times. After a few years I met my now wife Heidi Hopkins.
She moved into her childhood home in Big Sur right when we met. This is 2 hours one way to Specialized. Not good. I was ready to quit; they said why don't I work 4 days? Same pay! So I drove my Vangon camper and stayed 3 nights in the back of Specialized. It worked out great!
Let’s flash forward - when did you stop officially working at Specialized?
It's been about 7 year ago. As soon as I retired the big Basin fire burned our house up. We lost everything. (Just recently fire again threatened Jim and Heidi’s home – they luckily had no loss this time around)
What have you been doing since then?
Well, it took about 2 years of full time work to build a new house; this with others doing the work! I ride my bike. Spend time at our other home in Lee Vining. Backpacking and I took up serious photography again. I can still be found doing the odd project for Specialized, such as the revamped museum.
Tell us about your favorite tool. Maybe it’s a couple tools but it can’t be more than two.
Well, that's not so easy! One of the few tools that did not burn up was my TIG welder. Love it! I miss not having a CNC lathe!
What is your favorite bike? And why or what makes it special?
I have a lot of old bikes, mostly Merz vintage bikes. But my modern bike is the favorite. The current version of the Tarmac S-Works Disk brake with Di2 Dura-Ace is what I am enjoying nowadays. The best bike I have ever ridden! Perfect for the big mountains around Lee Vining. I am old and need all the help I can get!
I’ve seen you build wheels - what other great skills do you have? VW restoration perhaps?… that bus you have now is pretty sweet!
Yes, I still build wheels! Have a little shop and most of the bike tools I need. I don't like working on cars though. I take pretty good photos! I have built a lot of things around the house. Screen porches and doors. All made with steel tubing and TIG welding. I have progressed to the point were I can do a decent job welding steel!
What would you tell someone who’s looking to make a career out of this industry?
Well, it seems to me it is important to have a passion for bikes. It is not easy to make much money but if you can be happy around bike fanatics and get free or cheap bikes and parts then you can have a good life. These days it is pretty important to have an education. Once your foot is in the door regardless of what go you there… you still need to have passion.
You can follow Jim and see some of his Merz bicycles on his Facebook page which has an impressive gallery of nostalgia.
First - who are you?
Stephen Richmond - Solvang CA - DR. J's Bike shop mechanic
What started you being interest in bicycles?
I always loved riding my bike when I was little. I would always ride my bike to school. Our friend Paul Smith started introducing me to mountain bike riding through our youth group and then with a program he started called trips for Kids. I will never forget my first time going to the dirt club in Los Olivos. I met Paul out there. He had some adult volunteers and other kids from Buellton Recreation. It was a great experience. that was in 2010. Ever since then I have loved to mountain bike. I have raced in a couple Jr. high and High school races. Sea otter Classic in Monterey CA was one of my biggest races and thats were I realized how amazing the mountain bike community is, and I knew that when I get older I wanted to do something with bikes. I was one of those kids who loved to take things apart and put them back together. Paul had given me my first mountain bike, I loved taking it apart and learning how everything works, and now I’m working at our local bike shop.
You were the youngest competitor in the Interbike Mechanics Challenge - how does that make you feel?
I was pretty nervous because there was no other kids but all the people there were very nice to me and were cheering me on. After every challenge it just kept getting more and more fun. When I finished I was so glad I did it and I felt accomplished. It was an experience that I will never forget.
Do you know how many people you beat?
I have no clue how many people I beat, but all I know is that it was really exciting and fun to compete in.
What would be an experience in cycling that you would love to do next year?
I would love to see what its like to be a team mechanic for mountain biking or have a chance to be trained by a professional mechanic.
What do you want to be when you grow up? - No not really, we know you’ll become one of the best mechanics. What is your favorite type of bike to work on?
My favorite type of bike to work on are mountain bikes, but as a mechanic working in a bike shop, you have to learn to work with any type of bike that comes your way
Tell us about Trips for Kids.
Trips for Kids is a state wide organization that cites can use to get kids active and teach them about riding and working on bikes. Paul chose to use this program for his after school club. For the rides, kids can bring there own bike or they can use the fleet of bikes that are donated from bike manufactures. Every Wednesday there was a ride, it was a great way to introduce kids to cycling and get them active. Now I am a leader when we go on the rides and I assist Paul.
What else should the readers know about you?
About 2 years ago I got a resume for the bike shop. But Cory said that he didn’t need any help. I started taking online mechanic classes and one day I went into the bike shop and Cory told me that I start working next week. I have learned a lot working there and have enjoyed it very much. Its hard being a mechanic my age because most people think that I won’t know much but now that I’ve been working there for almost 2 years most people who come in know me.
There has been a lot in the news lately. NBDA purchasing Barnett Bicycle Institute. This story isn't about that. This story is about a man who for more than 30 years has been providing bicycle education to people and building an endless book.
Tell us about your history in the bike industry...how did you get involved in the beginning, who taught you and what has your path looked like up to now?
In 1965 I was perusing a Sears catalog, looking for potential Christmas presents to request. Kids my age were just getting into riding Sting Rays and doing wheelies. In the catalog, I saw an Austrian 10-speed road bike. I had never seen or heard of such a bike, before. At the age of 13, I understood things like mechanical advantage enough to project that the different gear ratios would make this bike a wheelie monster. I didn't know enough physics to factor in the disadvantage of the much-more forward center of gravity. I ended up with the bike, and discovered something far more important than wheelies: independence and freedom.
Like any bike that arrives in a box from a retailer, it was not at all ready for riding. Not knowing anyone who had ever even seen such a machine, I just figured it out myself. Later (and before I'd ever worked in a shop) I'd stripped a bike down to a bare frame and put it back together successfully. Eight years later I was an adult between jobs, and I kept seeing an ad for, "experienced bicycle mechanics needed." After seeing it run for eight weeks I figured that I must be as qualified as anyone, so I asked for the job. They asked one question, "What can you do?" I cagily answered, "anything I've ever tried". By chance, I had walked in on the day the store had decided was the deadline to hire the next eight warm bodies that walked in the door. A month later, three of us were left. A month after that, they sent me to Schwinn School, where the only new thing they were able to teach me was Sturmey Archer 3-spd hub overhaul.
Thirsty for knowledge, I read all of the "fix your own bike" books in print at the time, and quickly realized I was already functioning well above the technical level of sophistication of the collective authors. As an aspiring writer, I immediately started imagining writing the definitive professional procedural manual for bicycle mechanics.
Personal adventure ultimately took me from Austin to Colorado Springs, where I had the good fortune to be hired by a small, but very sophisticated, pro shop called Criterium Bike Shop, owned by Chris Caunt. This was my fourth job as a mechanic, and it was the first bike-shop job where I learned that I still had much to learn.
Who was the most influential person to your career and why?
This is a tough one, because so many people qualify. I refuse to single out one. Frank Cook, founder of Austin's Freewheeling Bicycles (and his manager, named Jay) opened my eyes to the difference between basic bicycles and what were then simply called "pro bikes". Howard Sutherland, through his publication of the original Sutherland's Handbook For Bicycle Mechanics, helped me see bicycles through an engineer's eyes, where everything was quantifiable. The aforementioned Chris Caunt, because his shop is where I first got an insider's view of what was then called a "pro shop".
Looked at another way, Ms. Wilbanks, my high-school English teacher was responsible for two indispensable things; how to utilize the power of words, and just how to use my mind to it's full potential.
These people are like ingredients in a cake. Can you ask, what is the most important ingredient in a cake recipe? It's pretty much not a cake when you leave out an ingredient.
We all know you've been educating mechanics now for 30 years. Tell us what motivated you to become a full-time instructor?
I started working at Criterium at the same time as I became a first-time parent. The profession I loved could not support my family through the winter. At the end of that first winter, I overheard Chris bemoaning the fact that applicants for mechanic positions never could say they'd been to school for that purpose. It was one of those "Eureka" moments, when, without any deliberation, my idea of writing a book instantly transformed into the idea to teaching professional bike mechanics. It started as an off-season activity at the bike shop, but after a few years, it was Chris who saw that I needed a push to switch to full-time at teaching, which I started doing in 1986. I've actually been teaching since 1981, which makes this the 35th year.
What was the transition like going from being a shop mechanic to becoming an educator of mechanics?
Mind bending. There's nothing like seeing your inability to teach someone something about which you feel fully competent to help you realize the degree to which you don't fully understand it, yourself. When you asked who was most influential, I easily could have answered, "collectively, all of my students." I can comfortably say that absolutely no technique I currently teach was exactly how I did it when I was just a mechanic.
What do you feel is the largest road block for mechanics going to that next level of professionalism?
All of these quantification questions about things that are anything but quantifiable! There's a chicken-and-egg question here: Do low wages keep professionalism down, or does lack of professionalism keep wages low? Either way, there has to be expanded access to education, and shop owners need to expand how they value a well-educated mechanic.
I went through your school in 2000. What has changed since then on the technological side?
In respect to new technologies affecting curriculum, in that time, suspension went from a novelty to being mainstream. Disc brakes really started right about 2000. Electronic shifting is poised today to explode much like suspension did a decade and a half ago. Electronic shifting won't end up on every bike like indexed shifting did, but it will definitely outgrow being a niche.
...and on the school side itself?
There have been massive gains in the mechanical-experience level and teaching-skill level of BBI's instructors, and the Barnett's Manual that is the foundation of our curriculum has grown more than twelve fold in size since 2000. As part of that growth, instructions in the manual have become less generic and far more brand and model specific, The manual has changed from something that was 90% text and 10% images to just about the reverse ratio.
How has technology changed what you do?
What I mostly do is write the manual. Initially, it was a lot of typing, complemented by some technical drawing (utilizing software). Publishers did the editing and layout. With the advent of digital photography and the incredible software that exists to enhance images, I would say my number one activity is now shooting and processing images. The other big change is that the manual went from a print publication to a purely digital publication. As a result of this, I am now the editor, I do the layout, and I even program the publication to be self-installing on PCs.
By utilizing the potential of software to change how we can navigate large amounts of information, the publication went from being a two-dimensional linear event to being a four-dimensional spider web of data. Here's an example. When I recently added a Fox damper service to the manual, I made changes in more than a 100 locations spread out over about a dozen source files so that information could be accessed from whatever related topic at whatever point the user might have started, Then, following completion of the damper service, the user can continue to an equal number of other related topics that might logically follow completing the damper service. This change is reflected in the classroom. Where our students used to work from printed worksheets, they now work almost exclusively from a computer to guide them through a procedure. I like to say the first tool any bench should be equipped with is a computer.
How would you categorize hands on learning vs online learning in terms of value?
For the individual who gets the opportunity, hands-on learning is superior by many magnitudes, because getting feedback from an instructor is only possible in a hands-on environment. Online learning is fundamentally handicapped because this feedback loop can't exist, but on the other hand, online learning increases access by many magnitudes.
In your career what has been the most interesting / intriguing technological advance in your opinion?
In my cycling life, I have seen bikes go from being single speed to 3x11. I have seen bikes go from toys for juveniles to lifestyles for adults. I have seen bikes go from being prisoners of pavement to being the best way to get as deep into the wild as has ever existed. I have seen bikes go from unsuspended to suspended, I have seen the advent of indexed shifting, clip-in pedals, disc brakes, and electronic shifting. "Most"? I could not say.
Anything that reduces barriers to riding is uniquely revolutionary. Each of these things I've listed has reset the existing limitations of cycling. If you made me pick one, the acceptance of derailleur-equipped bikes as a norm for adult transportation and recreation (the bike boom of 1973) has single handedly expanded cycling more than any of the other items I just listed. It's not the most exciting answer, but without that single event, you wouldn't be here asking me any questions. If I could erase from history any other of my listed events you and I still end up here in this interview.
Interestingly, no one has a convincing answer why this single most important development ever occurred. In a way, the bike boom of 1973 is to cycling as the big bang is to the universe. We know it happened, we wouldn't be here without it, but we are completely clueless about why it happened. To further the analogy, despite both events critical nature, very few people put either event at the top of their "most important" list.
...how has that affected the way a mechanic must think and work?
Without the bike boom of 1973, little of the more exciting technical innovations I listed are likely to have occured. So when I began, before all of the technology innovations, it was a reasonable-sounding falsehood that good mechanics could have in their heads everything they needed to know. Today, if a mechanic doesn't recognize his or her absolute reliance on reference materials, I might consider them delusional. I look stuff up absolutely every day, including in my own book.
What would be the one thing you would want a graduate of your program to say to a potential employer?
"I've been trained in methods that enable me to perform at the highest technical standards that any shop might have, but you are the sole determiner as to what level of standards I must adhere."
What is your vision of the future for BBI?
My vision from the beginning was that the professionalism of mechanics would be increased, certification would become the norm, and that as a result, everyone who wanted to be a bike mechanic would not have to choose between a profession they love or a profession that would support a comfortable lifestyle. My aptitudes as a mechanic and an educator have always been up to that task, but my tendency to stay in my comfort zone as a business person has always kept me from taking the logical next step to expand BBI. I see the acquisition of BBI by the NBDA to be the logical solution to that limitation. With this partnership, I fully expect BBI to ultimately realize my original vision.
What is the one piece of advice that you would give to someone wanting to become a bike mechanic?
One? Comprehend that bike mechanics as a field requires a degree of sophistication, commitment, and a sense of responsibility on a par with many professions that require a degree and a license. Sure it's fun, but it's no joke.
Here's number two: Remember, your job will never be about optimizing the performance of bicycles, it will always be about optimizing the cycling experience of your customers.
Do you have a favorite tool?
Barnett Bicycle Institute's Fork Bushing Removal/Installation Tool (#FBT-3). Personal pride is at the root of this choice. None of the major fork manufacturers were ever able to come up with a viable design. My design is viable, works elegantly, pushed my creativity to its limits to conceive and engineer, and it removes and installs bushings on all the major brands. The ultimate validation? Fox made it their official tool and Fox has bought hundreds from BBI for resale as a Fox product, and for use at all official Fox Service Centers.
What's next for John Barnett, personally?
I remain committed for some time to remain actively involved with BBI after ceasing to be it's owner. I suspect the end of my relationship with BBI will be subtle and drawn out. Perhaps I will only know when its actually over some considerable time after it is actually over. Like a derailleur that outlives it's useful life, but you missed noticing when was that last day it was still truly useful.
Writing and visual arts were core interests of mine before I invented a career that required me to utilize writing and photography as a way to maximize taking advantage of my interest in bicycles. My career has left me somewhat stuck indoors and rooted in one place. Immersing myself in nature predates my interest in bicycles, writing, and photography, so my best prediction is that I will ultimately end up back in nature, and communicating my experience through the written word and photographs. Put another way, there's an artist in me waiting for a turn at being in the forefront.
Who are you - what is it that you do?
Zane Free, Mechanic for Rally Cycling
How did you get started?
Working on my bike with my dad. Started off fixing my bike because I could and because I couldn't afford someone else doing it. Later on people started paying me to do it. Bonus!
What was the catalyst to where you are now (work wise)?
Ha, well a bit dramatic but all for the better. Got fired from a good job and my fiancé left me in the same month. Always dreamed of being a race mechanic but the other two things held that back because of travel. After that happened I went for it. I definitely came out on top.
What is it you love about your job?
The travel! Within a two year span I have seen the 48 contiguous states, four provinces of Canada, and got overseas. Driving is my favorite, I like to take the small back roads (if time permits it) and see this country the way it should be seen.
What are the challenges one faces when making the transition from shop to race mechanic?
The speed, discomfort, and personal sacrifice. The speed goes from dead stop to full gas. It took some time to learn how to make good use of the down time so things stay smooth at full gas. The discomfort of not having your usual around you. Having to deal with a new place, new climate, new roads. The personal sacrifice. You don't get to ride as much as you want, you don't get to see your local friends and family much, you don't get your bed.
What is your favorite on the road snack?
Popcorn. It's annoying because it's messy as hell but for some reason I can't get enough while driving. It used to be gummy bears but once the package is opened I destroy the whole bag and get sick.
What makes for a good co-worker in your world?
Someone who is aware of their surroundings. The usual hard working, honest, etc but being aware of everything that's going on is a big help when things get wild.
What else do we need to know about zane?
I can wiggle my right ear
Who are you?
I go by Chris Clinton. When I am in trouble I am usually called Christopher. Mostly by my daughter. On the circuit, a few call me Bubba.
Where do you work?
I recently joined Hwa Fong Rubber dba Duro Tire, as in this week.
What is it you do?
Everything! Sort of… I’m the new Product Marketing Manager responsible for fostering the three businesses we offer: the Duro brand, our private label programs and contract work. I’ll be fine tuning the product line for Duro’s cycling category, improving brand cohesiveness across all our categories including passenger car, light truck, motorcycle, recreational vehicles and more, and providing tools for our sales staff to both improve their productivity and communication with clients. So it feel like everything. I just stepped into this role and am super stoked to get a few of these projects under way. Yes, I said stoked, must be my Southern California roots.
How did you get started in the cycling industry?
Growing up I used my bicycle, and skateboard, as a means of transportation. I used them to get to work and school, to visit friends and family and to explore. As one would expect I wore out a lot of tires and components and thus was spending more time at the local bicycle retailer. With the help of their staff and some friends I was constantly tinkering with my bikes. This eventually led to a position at the shop where I quickly learned the ins and outs of the bicycle.
This was a ‘seasoned’ shop who prided themselves on the ability to repair items. While there I learned a lot about wheels being able to repair most damaged steel and aluminum rims and could even build offset hub patterns for local clown bikes. I can explain that later for those who want to know more.
While there I attended the Schwinn school, a few tech clinics from various brands and spent a lot of time learning what was and was not compatible due to the number of ‘standards’ at the time. I also continued to ride, a lot, as I could not yet afford a car, let alone the corresponding insurance.
During this time I began racing and was pretty good. As I progressed my desire to go faster and build lighter bicycles led to even more tinkering and product testing. While racing I met Calvin Jones and Bill Woodul who both nurtured my inquisitive mind and led to more tinkering. The retailer where I worked was constantly receiving special orders for new aero equipment or lighter components as I continued to ‘improve’ my bicycles.
I was enrolled at Cal State Long Beach in the Engineering program with a focus on materials engineering. The carbon age was just kicking off and I really wanted to push that envelope. I took an internship with Aerosports (later Advanced Racing Research) who was one of the first companies using Kevlar and carbon to produce bicycle component like wheels, bars and posts. We even worked on a few carbon tubbed bike frames. It was the early days and techniques and materials were not as finely tuned as today. I still have some glass and carbon fragments in one of my legs if someone ever feels the need to compare stories from back in the day.
I was constantly reaching out to bicycle components companies to learn how their products worked, what they were compatible with and how they might improve my riding experience. I had also expanding my riding. At one point I was riding 45 miles each way to work while still putting in two evening crit races per week and putting in a century, brevet and maybe more racing over the weekend. Thus I was getting in over 700 miles per wheel and blowing thru lots of bike parts.
The excessive riding, constant tinkering and communication with people in the industry eventually led to a position with Sachs Bicycle Components. They were looking for someone with an analytical mind who could test products while helping them drive the brand State-side. It’s been a fun ride thru the industry ever since.
You have a tenured background in race support, what makes it different to turning wrenches in a shop?
For most, life in the shop is pretty simple. (waiting for the flying wrench after that statement). For instance, when a customer breaks a part, the mechanic goes back to the shelf, grabs a new part and installs it for the customer. And these days most parts are plug-n-play as long as you stay within a family. Plus the equipment is so clean and precise now. Brakes actually stop the rider, drive trains are so wide and shift so well, frames are stiff in the right places and they tend to be much stronger. However, just because a mechanic can program an electronic drivetrain, remove the squeal from a disc brake and properly service suspension does not mean they will be quality race mechanic.
In the service center, time is less of an issue. On the race circuit you don’t have time to look for a part and schedule the bike for later once you finish the units currently lined up. The rider has an issue and it needs to be rectified now if they are to continue on. Thus being a race mechanic is heavily geared toward those who can make quick decisions (cut the cable!). With that in mind, I find mechanics who work on the least maintained bikes, the low cost models that are being held together by paperclips, bunji cords and a prayer, are the ones who are best able to work in a pit, out of car or at the race site. Working with customers who can’t afford to replace parts, let alone much labor, and still get that rider out on a rolling bike while the customer waits, those are the mechanics who are best able to handle the stress of a race. One must be flexible, think quickly and handle stress.
Personalities play a big part, too, but I will leave that for another conversation.
Do you have any cartoon heroes?
So, this question threw me for a loop. I don’t remember considering any cartoon characters as heroes. When I was a kid, maybe more so the live action shows like Shazam and Ultraman. I so wanted to be able to turn into a super hero and save the day and then switch back to myself. Even the women could do that back then if you consider Wonder Woman and Isis. Alas, I never found any magical amulets and was never taken over by the spirits of good.
If I had to choose a cartoon character, maybe it would be Spritle from Speed Racer. That kid was constantly getting into trouble. However, his constant tinkering tended to get Speed out of trouble.
Other past favorites were Captain Caveman and Plasticman who were both ditzy and still saved able to perform what was needed of them.
Is wider faster?
Ugh, wider. This was one of my biggest concerns while working with my previous employer and I bet it will continue to be an issue until the industry learns to better play well with each other.
One can prove that wider is faster when the appropriate rim and tire are used and when the right shape is used. Also, wider can be more comfortable allowing you to ride faster and offer more traction while reducing rolling resistance. So, yes, the industry is doing a good job proving that wider is faster.
However, wider doesn’t guarantee compatibility or that you will finish your ride. Some of today’s wheel companies are putting out revised rim shapes without fulling vetting the effect on the tire. Most tires were designed with beads intended to be run on what had been the industry standard shape for rim beads and for rim widths. If you followed ETRTO standards, certain width rims should be run with certain width tires. Failure to use the right combination can be dangerous for the rider.
Some may argue that these standards are old and need to be updated, which is reasonable as long as new standards are created as a group, not by each manufacturer haphazardly. Luckily a group of tire companies joined together during last year’s Taichung Bike Week to discuss the myriad of standards and growing incompatibilities. That effort is now part of the current ISO project and hopefully will lead to improved standards and reduce the number of burped and cut tires we experience. Until that time, consider looking up ETRTO charts in your Southerland’s Manual and speaking with the various brands about compatibility. Heck, just Google “ETRTO chart”.
What else should our followers know about Chris Clinton?
Is this where I let out all my secrets, like that one time in Georgia when I met airport security, local police, FAA administrators and the FBI? (clean your tool boxes, folks)
I have been married for 26 years (to the same person), have two married children (not to each other), and two grandkids. I used to compete in high hurdles and actually like to run. Though I don’t spend as much time on the race circuit I still enjoy working a few events and spend time at local bike shops to keep my mechanical skills primed. On the side I also run service clinics and still build most of my own wheels. I am a trail steward with my local IMBA chapter working on a new trail system. I still like to ride and I don’t drink alcohol. (Gasp! How can a person last this long on the circuit without drinking?) So next time you overdo it at the Falconer, the Crown and Anchor, the hotel bar or some other activity, I might be there to pick you up off the floor and dust you off.
And, if you happen to see a drop of blood on the bottom of the Olympic Superbike at the Smithsonian, that’s mine. (Medic!)
A note from Chris:
For the mechanics reading this interview, please note that I didn’t have aspirations in my youth of being a professional athlete or traveling outside Southern California. I just wanted to ride and make bikes better. This initiative is what led me from a customer, to a shop mechanic and to various other positions and activities in the industry. This drive, the need to learn what makes things tick, led to two Olympic games, numerous Tour’s de France, time in cars and on motos at Paris Roubaix, hundreds of World Cups and National Championships, and thousands of road, mountain, track, bmx and other races while traveling the world. It also led to great relationships that I truly cherish.
If you are currently working as a mechanic at a retail store, don’t discount your time there. Use it as a backboard for learning. Make sure you meet your tech reps, attend clinics when available, attend trade schools if possible. Expand your experience and your mind and opportunities will fall into place. And don’t be afraid to volunteer some of your time once in a while. I’m not saying work for free, just remember that giving to the community can come back positively.
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