Mechanics are the fuss-free, foot-soldiers of cycling, working long hours in the background to grease the wheels of the world’s biggest cycling teams.
During racing, they have to be permanently alert in the team car for any on-the-fly action, then act with speed and calmness when called upon. In the mornings and evenings around the competition, they spend hours fine-tuning and fettling everything with precise detail.
Nobody comes to them looking for interviews or autographs; if they’re lucky, there’ll be time for a quick beer before bedtime and another 15-hour day. The jobbing, juggling spannerman must feel more like Superman at times.
The job doesn’t get much more demanding than when working Team Sky, who put an onus on quality in every facet.
Alan Willams has been a full-time mechanic with the squad for the last five seasons, an indication of his quality in the field.
We caught up with the Mancunian (below) to discuss the whole gamut of the job, from a day in the life on a WorldTour stage race to hostile fans, bike thieves and what elements of bike racing might be changed by the disc brake revolution.
Rouleur: What’s your take on disc brakes?
Alan Williams: For them to come into the peloton, I think the bike needs disc covers. Also, we need to look at having a bolt-thru system instead of the standard quick release. I think you need to beef up the whole front end.
On a mountain bike you have that Maxle-system, it’s a lot quicker. I used to do cross country [mechanic work] as well, if you have to change a wheel when you had that system you could undo the quick release quickly because it’s a really coarse thread.
I think that’s the way it would go. I was talking to Chris Boardman about it and he was saying the same. I think some of his bikes may even be going that way in 2016.
It’s going to be a big change for riders. I think the thing they are not really thinking about is that they’re always going to have good braking in any conditions. With carbon rims, when it’s chucking it down with rain, the brakes are ok, but you have more modulation with the disc brake, so you’d be able to control it more.
It is going to take time to learn how to ride those brakes. If it goes disc brakes, our guys will all have training bikes, because obviously you need it, but not every team could do something like that. It’s the cost of it all.
Also, within a race, you have to have neutral service [equipped for it], that’s another big thing. It’s a massive expense, but it’s got to change because the industry’s pushing for it. They want to sell bikes at the end of the day.
With disc brakes, would it take the same amount of time to change a wheel compared to the normal setup?
It comes to the point of asking whether it’ll be a wheel change or would it be a bike change if you had a flat?
If the rider has already taken his wheel out but pulled his brake lever without knowing, then the brake pads are already pushed together. That’s a big problem because then the mechanic will be running out with a screwdriver and having to open the pads up. It could potentially take a little bit longer.
But if you have this bolt-thru system, I think it will be quick, on the front wheel especially.
One issue could be that no disc is ever always straight, so you could potentially get riders going “oh, my disc is rubbing”. Then there’s nothing you can do unless you stop at the side of the road and readjust the brake. That’s why I’d just change the bike [rather than change the wheel].
[There could be an issue] when they heat up, too: if they’re going down off the Alps at 70-80kph and a wheel change is needed, we’d have to have gloves on, because they do get very hot.
Is there a fear that in a mass pile-up, riders could get injured if discs are red hot?
That’s why I think they definitely need brake covers on them, similar to motocross bikes which have them. They banned Spinergy wheels back in the day because of danger too, I think.
In races like Paris-Roubaix, when you’ve got 220 guys all trying to get to the front - like this year, it was absolute carnage, crashes galore - that is when you’re going to potentially have problems, people getting burned and all sorts.
Talk us through a normal day for you on a WorldTour stage race with Team Sky.
We’re usually up for two and a half hours before we leave the hotel to give ourselves plenty of time, as we check all the race bikes again in the morning. We get everything set up, gas all the wheels, all the spare bikes. If you’ve got two race cars in a Grand Tour, you’ve got 27 bikes to do.
How many wheels is that too?
On the roof of the car, we have three pairs on both race cars, and on a Grand Tour, we’ll generally have three pairs in the car as well. So it’s quite a lot to do. We also make sure they’re all gassed and have spacers, but we generally all have spare dropouts in the car too.
Check all the bikes, make sure they’re oiled, get the Stages [power meter] current, make sure they’re linked to the Garmins.
Then at the start, we do a final pre-check of the race bikes, we ensure all the brakes are aligned and check the tyre pressures, because if it’s a wet day, you drop the pressure. But that’s a personal preference for the rider so we always give the ownership of that decision to them or the coaches.
Into the race, we note all of the [tyre pressure] numbers. If we have a good day, we stay in the car.
In there, we always talk about the next day: if there is any special gear needed, any wheel changes. If it’s a climbing stage, the main GC guys will go with a low wheel like a [Shimano] C24.
I’m quite proactive, I look three days ahead to make sure that, if we’re running out of equipment, we always have what we need.
When the race is done, the boys warm down. Back at the hotel, on a Grand Tour, we’ll have four mechanics: two guys doing the washing, then generally two guys unloading the bikes. If it’s a dry day, then we just wipe the spare bikes down and make sure they all work well.
Then we check all the race bikes and oil what we need to. If anything needs changing, we do that. If any of the riders change anything before the start of the stage and are happy with it, we make the changes to their spare bikes that evening as well.
Then dinner, and that’s it. Time-wise, on a normal day we’re probably up at 7:30am and finish work at hopefully about nine o’clock in the evening if you’ve had no bike troubles. If there are crashes, you could finish at midnight. They can be long days and over three weeks, you’ve got to look after yourself and get your hours in bed.
What’s the latest finish you’ve had?
I’d say about 1:30am. Last year we had G [Geraint Thomas] crash in the Tour and we broke a couple of bikes; that was a bit of a late one. It’s just one of those things. We’re in the game, because we love it. I have this mentality: you don’t finish until the job is done.
You could work all night, and a lot of other teams do, but I don’t believe your concentration is as good if you’re still working at one in the morning.
Like at the Tour of Poland, we had Sergio [Henao] who broke his bike, so we did everything else the day before and we said, ‘we’ll build the bike in the morning.’ You want to get your measurements correct. You’ll look stupid if you do something wrong, so you work smart and make time for it.
For example, after the RideLondon Surrey Classic, I saw Chris Sutton having a fairly long chat with you post-race (above), and I’m sure he isn’t the only Team Sky rider that does that. What kind of issues are the guys addressing after races?
CJ was suffering with cramp, so he just wanted to know his bike position, to make sure it was the same as his training bike – and it was. He’d actually raced that bike at San Sebastian.
Some riders, you do a little more with. Geraint [Thomas], for instance, he’s just an absolute dream, he just gets on the bike and rides it. Froomey’s (below) the same as well.
Generally you do all the prep work at training camps in December and January: we don’t go there on holiday, we are there to get the business done. We do all the bike fits and everything in those two months. It’s hectic, but it sets you up for the rest of the season. Then there are never drastic changes through the season, only a millimetre here or there.
Are there ever any riders who are occasionally less than grateful with some of the work you do?
I’m not just saying this: the riders we have are a really good group. The Classics period is the hardest period of the year, where you’re pretty much on the road from January till Roubaix [in mid-April]. I did the Ardennes as well this year, but you’re pretty much full on and the riders are there with you, so they know how hard you’re working and how long you’re away. They totally respect it.
I know other teams have issues with riders, but those sort of guys just wouldn’t work with our team. Honestly, I couldn’t say we have one rider who is a pain in the arse.
When you reflect on your time with Team Sky, what have been the best and worst moments?
I’d have to say 2012 was probably the best year, with the Olympics. I’m a big fan of Brad [Wiggins] anyway, I’ve worked with him, and I think the guy’s a living legend. To be there and see him win that time-trial after doing the Tour was just an incredible experience.
I love the Olympics and in your own country, it doesn’t really get better than that. It’s just a shame we didn’t win with Cav as well. That was probably the biggest disappointment: we’d geared up for over a year before that, with all the special bikes we had.
There’s not been many low points: Froomey crashing out last year from the Tour, Brad crashing out in 2011 (above), but we’ve been very fortunate. I was having a look at what we’ve won as a team over the last six seasons, it’s pretty impressive. We’ve definitely changed cycling, there’s no doubt about it. It’s something to be proud of.
As a mechanic, you have to be good at shelving your emotion. For example, if there’s been a big crash you’ve just got to get out there and deal with whatever you see and compute it later.
I think the biggest thing, which you learn with experience, is that you’ve just got to be calm. If you run out and there’s half a peloton down, like there was at the Tour of Poland one day this year, there’s only so much you can do. You’ve got to be as quick as you can.
But if there riders are down and you can see someone is in a bad way then obviously you get on the radio to the race car right away: “riders down, we need to duck out here.”
When you do the Classics, that’s when you definitely learn. You’re in and out of the car like a fiddler’s elbow. It’s full on from the gun.
I’ve been asked before what the greatest quality is in a mechanic, and I think it is people skills. You’re working with many different nationalities and you’re not always going to get along. It’s how you interpret what they’re saying. Being English, we’re a bit more subdued, but when you’re speaking in Italian or Spanish, they’re more emotional.
Of course, the biggest quality in a mechanic is obviously being good at your job and having attention to detail alongside people skills.
Thinking of a worst nightmare scenario, it reminded me of the Tour du Haut Var [in 2014] where Team Sky woke up and all the bikes had been nicked. Were you there for that?
Yeah, that was a bad day. There was me and a guy called Igor there, and we were probably the best two mechanics in the team to have that happen to because we are both sort of chilled about it.
We woke up early that morning because it was quite an early start and one of the soigneurs was walking past me, and he said “oh that’s it, the race is off.”
I was like, “What you talking about?” and he says, “The bikes have gone.” I thought he was joking, but I walked out and Igor’s there, asking if I’d moved the bikes.
I looked in the back of the van and my face just went white. Then I actually looked down the road and you could see a trail [from the theft]. We could see a spares box in there and there were bikes in the side of the van too, so they didn’t take everything because they couldn’t carry everything. But yeah, that was insane.
We got everybody on a bike which is unbelievable. Other teams lent us bikes and we were lucky we were near Nice so we even had the coach’s bikes coming from there.
We had a bike lent from Bretagne Seché which we swapped between Sebastián [Henao] and CJ [Sutton] depending on climbing and sprint days.
What can you realistically do to safe guard against that in the future?
Increase security. I don’t think we’d go back to Haut Var in a hurry so I think the organisers of the races have got to look and go “hang on a minute”. It’s only a three-stage race, you don’t need to go with a big truck. We went with a van and had a car backed up behind it, but they still managed to get in there.
We had nearly €250,000 worth of equipment stolen. As a team, we could soak that up a little bit, but I don’t know how Cult got on [they also had their bicycles robbed at Haut Var in 2015], being a smaller team; it’s a lot of money to lose.
Even with what happened in the Tour with Froomey this year, it’s one of those things, security needs to come in. Up Alpe d’Huez, basically everybody is up there for five days getting drunk out of their heads.
What kind of hostility have you experienced from the Team Sky car?
I’ve been in when it’s pretty dicey. The year before they loved us because Froomey crashed out so we didn’t have any troubles. But when we’re winning, they don’t like us. Gary [Blem, mechanic] was in there up Alpe d’Huez in 2015, it’s quite an intimidating thing. God knows what it’s like to be a rider up there - I wouldn’t want to be one.
You’ve been on Team Sky for a lot of wins. After Wiggins’ and Froome’s Tour victories, was there any token of appreciation that they gave you?
The guys always come to the truck. And if they don’t, they always send a message saying, “Hey guys, thanks for all the work, sorry I couldn’t say bye”. Froomey’s amazing for that. He’s such a gentleman.
How do you see the next few years panning out?
I’m leaving Team Sky at the end of 2015. I’m going back to Team GB, looking at the Olympics and moving to a more technical side.
This is a job where we do at least 200 days a year on the road, it’s a massive chunk of time, and obviously after doing it for six years, I sort of want to get more into the equipment side.
I’m not going to be on the races as much but those I will do are the World Championships and the Olympics. My role will be more sort of mentoring the younger mechanics, building up the level and looking at the equipment. So I am leaving, but I’m not totally, because I will still be doing certain races [like national champs] for Sky.
In your very limited free time, what other interests do you have?
I’m into music, a bit of a (Stone) Roses fan to be honest. I run a lot. I’m into all sports. And obviously I do travel with work, but I like to get away and travel as well. It’s a massive passion of mine.
I do this job because I love different cultures, working with different people; it expands your mind. It’s amazing to be a part of and it was a massive decision to leave - the biggest decision of my life, to be honest.