The fighter outstretches his arm and waits for his hand to be wrapped. First the right – always the right. Many competitors have a pre-event ritual, and this fighter is no different. There have been thousands of hands wrapped by this coach, with care and an almost surgical precision, but now at a speed that gives off an air of ambivalence. Over the years, the coach has refined this craft. It is all in the detail. Not too tight, not too loose, back off a bit and reapply, round the thumb and then back to the wrist.
Now, flex the hand. No good – too tight? OK, let’s do it again. There are several approved methods; each will have their own preference. The gloves go on. The fighter is ready and called to the ring.
Not a million miles away in a leafy French boulevard, a line of team buses are parked in close proximity, their awnings extended to fend off the midday sun. The sounds of a warm breeze pushing past leaves in the trees and seasonal bird song compete with traffic noise and the sound of diesel engines left running to keep the onboard air-conditioning operational. Several small generators can also be heard along with the occasional hiss of a compressor. Team officials chatter and mechanics tinker as they while away the hours until their riders return.
At around 3.30pm the stage is finished and everything changes. Their work done, weary racers look for a refuge from the press, the fans and the summer heat. But for the team mechanics, the day is only just starting. Suddenly there are nine bikes present, covered in sweat and grime, bikes that need the attention of skilled hands before morning. Some are worse than others - a couple of crash victims will need more than a wipe over, for sure.
Seconds later, one bike already sits in the work stand, its wheels removed ready for post-race service and a good going-over. It is washed down first; all traces of the day’s adversity mixed with the mechanic’s preferred cleaning solution spill onto the hot tarmac and evaporate almost immediately.
Tyres need to be examined; any cuts will mean they must be changed. Wheels are checked for true, chains cleaned and lubricated, gears adjusted and indexing tweaked. Nearly done - but first all bar tape must be removed before a fresh wrap is applied. This team use white, so there is no escape. All bikes need to look like new on the start line tomorrow and there is little to rival the look of pristine white bar tape.
The mechanic stands in front of his charge. End plugs removed and brake lever hoods folded forward, bare bars now confront him with all relevant cables firmly strapped in place awaiting their new covering, a fresh point of contact for weary hands.
He takes a sealed packet and opens it. Inside he finds two tightly packed rolls of tape, a couple of short strips to cover the brake lever clips and, of course, a fresh pair of end plugs to finish things off. First he starts with the right-hand side of the handle bar – always the right. Many mechanics have a ritual order of doing things as it helps ensure nothing is overlooked.
He starts by peeling the protective tape off both lever clip finishing strips before sticking them temporarily to the top tube of the bike. The adhesive on these strips is often too weak to hold them in the intended place long enough, more often that not ending up on the floor (sticky side down, of course) by the time he has wound the fresh tape to the clip.
A roll of insulation tape is also prepared in advance and hung in an easily accessible place. The taping starts with an initial overlap at the end of the bar, always turning clockwise, keeping a firm tension and even spacing until the lever is reached.
Almost without hesitation one of the short strips is plucked from the top tube and pressed firmly in its final position with one hand while the other maintains tension on the tape before continuing to the centre of the bar and finishing in his preferred way. He has eight more bikes to do tonight, and it will all be off again by this time tomorrow, so his tape termination is often more workmanlike than artisan.
This is an extract from issue 7 of Rouleur Magazine, published in November 2007.