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  • Journal
    Bicycles
    11.12.14

    Mechanical matters

    Life in the pit area with British Cycling's Adam Bonser

    Words
    Timothy John
    Photographs
    Timothy John

There is a brains trust gathered around the riders who carry the colours of Great Britain at the London round of the Track World Cup. Sutton, Boardman, Hoy, Mitchell, Dyer, Manning – men whose reputations stretch beyond the closed confines of track centre. It is an impressive cast.

Adam Bonser is not a household name, but his service to Trott and to Kenny, to Rowsell and to Hindes, is critical. Given the time and resource invested in the athletes, never mind the bikes, it’s difficult to imagine British Cycling countenancing something as basic as mechanical failure, but even the machines designed by the Boardman-led ‘secret squirrel club’ for the English Institute of Sport do not assemble and maintain themselves.

Bonser is one of six mechanics working under the direction of Ernie Feargrieve, and the latter’s sole accomplice in London. Between them, the pair must maintain a fleet of some 40 machines brought to the capital: around 25 track bikes (‘upright’ and ‘lo-pro’), with the remainder comprised of road machines on which the riders will warm up and down, and on which they will stretch their legs on the roads immediately beyond the velodrome.

Pit area of velodrome, bike rack with several track bikes on, mechanic looking at bikesBritish Cycling brought 40 bikes to the Track World Cup in London. Two mechanics - Ernie Feargrieve and Adam Bonser - were detailed to look after them

A former rider who raced on the road in an early incarnation of John Herety’s Rapha-backed UCI Continental squad, Bonser hung up his wheels aged just 20. Still only 26, he seems at ease in the Olympic Velodrome, despite the certain knowledge that his work is being scrutinised, albeit indirectly, by an international press corps deployed to cover this second round of the Track World Cup. If he does his job well, no one will notice; a single mistake on his part and disaster could befall some of the best-known riders in the sport.

Trott’s low profile steed is readily to hand, though there is no sign of its pilot. It is the EIS bike she has ridden to victory in the individual pursuit round of the women’s omnium minutes earlier, its tyres still gleaming beneath the roof lights. The rubber is checked as soon as the bike is retrieved from the rider and cleaned with a vinegar-soaked rag. “We check the tyres regularly and clean them as soon as they come off the track,” Bonser explains. “We’re quite meticulous about that.”

Double disc wheels are permissible in pursuit events, he continues, though disallowed from all sprint races (with the exception of the 250m time trial), where the risks of riding wheel-to-wheel with a competitor rather than alone or with a team-mate place a greater premium on stability and necessitate the use of a spoked wheel up front (many of the riders warming up on rollers, including Jason Kenny, do so on conventional aluminium rims, Bonser points out).

Track bike being weighed, Jeremy White weight, middle of velodromCommissaire Jeremy White weighs Kenny's keirin bike. Track bikes must adhere to same the minimum 68.kg weight limit as bikes used in UCI road competition

Trott’s saddle is a snub-nosed perch that looks, frankly, as if it has seen better days. It’s boxy appearance and blunt tip are not the counter-intuitive result of extensive wind tunnel testing, but concessions to comfort. “It’s just personal preference,” Bonser shrugs, gesturing at the machine on which Trott will later contest the elimination race. “Actually, she’s got a different saddle on her upright bike. With an upright bike, you tend to ride differently; a pursuit bike, you tend to ride further on the nose. It’s an entirely different position, so they tend to require a different saddle.”

The most interesting aspect of Trott’s machine, for this correspondent at least, is the drivetrain. It is a fixed wheel set-up, of course, but what ratio did Trott use over the preceding 3km? And how was it achieved? Was chain length a factor? And while on the topic of the chain, Trott’s appears sufficiently robust to moor an oil tanker. Who makes it, and do their chains ever break?

Bonser answers patiently. Trott used a 50-14 ratio for the individual pursuit. Coach and rider begin the work of selecting a ratio days in advance of competition. Numerous factors effect selection, including temperature and altitude. Chain length is rarely a factor: dropouts are of sufficient length to accommodate even the longest. Stockport firm, Renolds, are supplier to British Cycling, and, no, he has never seen one snap.

Professional track bicycle, Laura TrottLaura Trott's 'lo pro' bike is one of a handful made for British Cycling by the Chris Boardman-led 'secret squirrel' club.

He gestures at a large metal box occupying most of a table in the British Cycling pit area, laden with so many chainrings it looks like the gearbox of some fantastically complicated vehicle. As with so many of British Cycling’s innovations, it is a solution now used by rival nations, Bonser adds, not without a hint of pride.

It is approaching 4pm and the opening heats of the men’s keirin. Jason Kenny has completed a final warm up on the rollers and walked towards the rider waiting area, immediately adjacent to the track. Following Kenny’s unspoken cue, Bonser shoulders the sprinter’s machine, picks up two Mavic wheel bags and follows. Where Kenny continues on a straight path to a short row of seats on which he will wait with his competitors, Bonser turns right and makes his way to commissaire, Jeremy White.

White weighs Kenny’s bike (the same 6.8kg minimum to which bikes must adhere for UCI-sanctioned road competition applies to track machines) and measures it on a jig. Satisfied that all is compliant, he hands back the bike to Bonser, who wheels it to where Kenny is sat and hands it to sprint coach, Iain Dyer, who makes a last minute inspection of his own, before following Kenny to the edge of the track. There is nothing more for Bonser now to do except wait.

Mechanic Adam Bonser working on Track bike in velodrome pit areaAdam Bonser is one of seven full-time mechanics working at British Cycling. The satisfaction of victory is shared among the entire organisation, he says

The tension mounts as Kenny and his rivals roll to their positions on the start line. Does Bonser get caught up in the excitement? Is the thrill of victory shared by rider and support staff alike? “Oh yeah,” he replies, nodding emphatically, “because it’s such a team effort. You all put so much into it, so it’s great to see when the riders deliver, especially with a home crowd like this. I wish I [had been] at the Olympics. I can’t imagine how good that must have been. Ernie was here for the Olympics and he said it was electric.”

Bonser sampled a similar atmosphere for himself the previous evening when both of Great Britain’s team pursuit squads rode to victory. “It wasn’t even a full house,” he recalls, still marvelling at the noise produced. “As soon as they hear Great Britain, the crowd goes absolutely mad.”

The crowd is voluble during Kenny’s qualification attempt, but must be content with polite applause after the double Olympic champion finishes in a modest fourth place. For Bonser, the second of three long days of competition is only just over halfway through. He began work at the velodrome at 8am and will not finish until 11pm. It was the same yesterday. Tomorrow’s shorter race programme will allow an earlier finish. Not that he is complaining.

“I rode for Rapha for a couple of years. It wasn’t really working out and I enjoyed mechanic-ing, so I thought I’d do that,” he explains. Working as a member of the world’s best-funded cycling team, in an environment in which excellence is the default setting, must take some beating. There are team members with higher profiles but few with greater responsibility. The bicycle is fundamental to cycle sport. Those who build and maintain them are similarly important.

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