It’s 6.35pm when flatbed lorries loaded with the bikes of the Tour of Qatar peloton roll into the compound of the hotel in which all the teams are stationed, and already dark.
The tent that serves as a substitute for the team trucks parked thousands of miles away in European service courses is - and in this instance it is impossible to improve upon the cliché - a hive of activity. Something about the white awning and the steady stream of workers passing in and out suggests, irresistibly, a bee colony.
The stage ended some two hours ago with an unexpected victory for Jose Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) at the end of a flat and windy 136km run from Dukhan to Sealine Beach. Crashes were a feature and repairs as well as more general preparation occupy the mechanics.
For BMC Racing’s Kevin Grove and Aaron Fairley, two Americans working at the heart of a still largely European peloton, the working day started more than 10 hours ago and it will be at least another two hours before they follow the riders into the hotel to dinner. The pair flew in from Europe the previous day, arriving in the early hours of the morning. Some of their riders, however, have joined from Dubai.
Grove washes the bikes in an area behind the tent in which twenty or more mechanics wield hoses and scrub wheels, while inside Fairley begins to repair Alessandro De Marchi’s damaged BMC Team Machine SLR01.
The Italian, a new signing for BMC Racing, has crashed on the opening stage and his left-hand shifter and handlebar are damaged. No matter. The inevitable slimming down of operations necessitated by a race 6,500km from the team’s service course near Ghent has not precluded its mechanics from bringing spare stems and bars. Oh, and eighteen bikes: a race bike and spare bike for each of the riders competing in Qatar, and two more for riders joining the team in Oman.
Travelling so far from mainland Europe has concentrated the mechanics' efforts on streamlining their operations. Fairley explains that at a European race, the truck would serve as their base, and a fleet of support vehicles, perhaps even including a Sprinter van at the Grand Tours, would provide additional capacity.
In Qatar, where the teams fly in with the bikes and essentials, and where only team cars and pick-up trucks are provided by the race organisers, the focus is on bringing the bare necessities. Fairley identifies 4mm, 5mm, and 6mm Allen keys among the ‘must have’ items from a wider tool kit; a tape measure and screw drivers, too. In other cases – hacksaws, mallets, and what he describes as “bike building tools” - it is a question of share and share alike with his colleague.
He joined BMC Racing three years ago after working with USA Cycling’s under-23 development programme in Europe, joining the ProTeam at the Valkenberg worlds in 2012, won by Philippe Gilbert, racing in Belgian colours aboard a BMC Team Machine.
He is not unaware of the greater magnitude of the WorldTour races, but does not succumb to pressure. “We all know what our job is and what we need to do. Sure there are stressful situations, but if you know that you do your job well, and I think we all know that we do, there’s no reason to stress.
“In the heat of the moment in the race, there are always situations – a flat tyre, a crash, who knows what – where, of course, everyone’s going to be stressed: the rider, the mechanic for sure, the directeur, but the best thing you can do is stay calm, cool and collected.” His assessment is delivered in a slow drawl that suggests it would take much to agitate him. Fairley looks like a rider and in his demeanour is text book Californian cool.
Grove has longer experience of working as a mechanic, having begun to learn his trade as a 16-year-old, accompanying his father to mountain bike races and taking on neutral support duties with Shimano. Employment with the Japanese giant’s support teams followed and later immersion into the professional road scene, after work with Mavic and later with a German team at the 1996 Tour DuPont. A year later, after graduating from college with a degree in exercise physiology, he became a full-time mechanic.
Grove is perhaps the only mechanic in the peloton to have made an academic study of rider psychology. “Group cohesion in cycling” was his subject for a masters degree in sports psychology during a short-lived “retirement” from his work in the paddock. He is ideally placed to comment on the challenges of managing the rider-mechanic relationship. He describes the personalities within the team as “the full variety”.
“You get the super-mellow guys, and you get the super strict, who know exactly what they want, [and are] super stressed out,” says Grove, who might serve as a dictionary definition of calm. “We try to put their stresses aside.” He rejects the phrase ‘manage’ as a description of the process of meeting their requirements, but adds: "There are times when you have to push them in the direction that you want to go in, when they don’t need to worry about things that are happening with their bikes.”
Grove now lives in Girona, a hangover from his previous, four-year engagement with Garmin-Sharp. “I decided to leave those guys and take a year off, but then BMC called and said they needed a guy to drive the truck, and I was the only one with a tachograph card that was American, living in Europe.” He has worked with the team in black and red since 2009.
His wife and three children are inured to the demands of his job: work commitments that keep him on the road for up to 200 days a year. “They’ve kind of grown up with it,” he says. “When I moved to Europe in 2006, my son was eight months old, and I only had one. Two of my kids were born in Spain. Everybody knows, it’s part of the job. They understand that the reason we live in Spain is based on the job and so they put up with the travel during the year.”
Fairley’s day will end with an email to each rider, asking if he requires any set-up changes for the next day’s racing. They are not obliged to reply, but those who do will provide the mechanics’ first tasks of the following morning.
He is not expecting significant changes for the next stage: a 187.5km run from Al Wakra to the Al Khor Corniche. The team is running 53-39 chainsets with 11-28 cassettes, lubricated with Finish Line’s wet lube, the American brand’s recommended compound for “dry climates” – an apt choice for Qatar.
Wheel depths may change with conditions, either to a C35 front and C50 rear when it is exceptionally windy and control is a priority, on to C50 front and C75 rear in calmer conditions, when the focus will switch to speed.
The team is phasing out Continental’s Competition Pro Ltd tyre (a semi-slick cover) in the early part of the season in favour of the Competition Pro Limited LX, with full, diamond patterned profile for greater traction. It’s a change driven by the need to streamline operations. “If you have three of four different wheel profiles, and tyre selections on top that, it can become quite complicated,” Fairley explains. Nine bar pressures, front and rear, are standard, although riders will have their own preferences.
As I head to the restaurant, Fairley and Grove, and a host of mechanics from across the peloton, continue their work beneath spotlights, now the night has closed in. The illuminated Doha skyline and palm trees in silhouette provide a slightly surreal air to proceedings, but there is no sense of the exotic for the mechanics, just hard graft today, and more tomorrow.