The First Bike Mechanics

Goggles & Dust

There was a time when adjusting a bike needed a lot of tools — even setting up a pair of brakes required hours of patience.


Goggles & Dust
Maurice De Waele changes his own flat during the 1929 Tour de France. Photo from Goggles & Dust, courtesy VeloPress


In the days before lucrative sponsorship deals and huge annual budgets, bike teams had to seek mechanics out as contractors. Race team mechanics were freelancers. They were often hired hands from the bike stores and workshops of a team’s native country, sometimes ex-racers or framebuilders or bicycle factory workers who got an annual summer sabbatical to follow their dreams and their heroes. They had to use their own tools and drive their own cars, which were stuffed with workstands, compressors, solvents, buckets, and brushes. These hired hands followed the teams around from hotel to hotel and set themselves up. The process was hard work in itself and pretty inefficient, but that was the way until the teams started employing mechanics directly.

These days team mechanics have a lot less to lug around to fix the bikes, but there seems to be a lot more material available, too. Team trucks are better resourced, and less has to be fixed on the bike; as much as it might send a thrifty bike fan into despair, the safety of the team riders is paramount, so replacing components is much preferred to keeping things going longer than their service life.

Good team mechanics can make a massive difference in the outcome of a race. Today, pros expect a perfectly prepared bike and a host of high-tech solutions to make it comfortable and efficient. But the art of fixing bikes was once a much more mysterious talent. For example, prior to the 1955 Giro d’Italia, Fiorenzo Magni was frustrated and struggling with knee problems. Somewhat ambitiously, a young Ernesto Colnago persuaded Magni to let him take the bike in for repair. Colnago had noticed that Magni’s cranks were misaligned and running unevenly. He knew immediately that the cotter pins holding the crankset to the axle had to be accurately re-filed for the crank arms to line up perfectly, and he worked hard to perfect the crooked drivetrain. His attention to detail was admirable. Magni’s knees recovered; Colnago was established.


Bike Mechanic by Rohan Dubash and Guy Andrews
A Rabobank team mechanic adjusts cable routing before the individual time trial


This type of repair was not unusual in the 1950s. Racing bikes of the era required a lot of fine-tuning, and good mechanics like Colnago were highly regarded. Wheels needed constant truing, brakes had to be set up on a daily basis, and gears were constantly on the point of breaking down. Ask any current team mechanics about the tools of their trade, and they will say that they only need a handful of simple ones to keep a modern racing bike on the road. In fact, most days, the bikes just need a wash and some fresh bar tape — serious problems are rare. In Colnago’s day, you needed a watchmaker’s attention to detail and an engineer’s workshop to carry out even the most basic repair, so very few mechanics could cut it on the demanding professional circuit. Colnago’s repairs quickly built him a formidable reputation both in the workshop and at the races. His apprenticeship as a welder at Italian racing bike giant Gloria meant he could build frames, too. Soon many top stars were calling on his services, even those with other bike sponsors. He always worked hard, often staying up all night in his tiny workshop — once to build more than 10 pairs of wheels for a local team the night before a stage race. But Ernesto was more than just a laborer. He had a sickness, an addiction. His creativity and engineering talent meant that his “Wizard” nickname was soon established and his pride in his work rewarded.

Bike Mechanic by Rohan Dubash and Guy AndrewsBike Mechanic is an all-access pass to cycling’s back stage: the team truck, the service course, and the workshop. Through gritty photographs and striking interviews, Bike Mechanic explores the daily lives of the bicycle technicians who keep the pro peloton rolling, no matter the weather, no matter the hour. Bike Mechanic gets you inside the action that most never see, while providing bike tuning tips and time-tested procedures that will make you a better wrench. Buy Bike Mechanic from your local bike shop or bookstore or online from the publisher VeloPress.

VeloPress is the leading publisher of books on cycling and bike maintenance and repair.