People sometimes ask me about the how, what and whys of World Cup wrenching. While not being a veteran of the circuit - there are some mechanics who've literally spent decades in the pits - I've had a taste of it over the last couple of years, and I would say I've established some of the good, and some of the bad.
People also occasionally ask me how to get into it. Sadly I don't really have an answer for them. I got into it by being in the right place at the right time. That said, while you can't always control timing, you can choose where you wish to live to maximise your chances of meeting the right people. Places like Whistler, Morzine or Queenstown have great mechanics to not only learn from but also to help you make connections you might rely on if you wish to embark on a globe-trotting, cardboard box-taping life.
Let's start with the bad. Here are the five worst things about being a World Cup mechanic.The Hours
While I'm not averse to working long hours, especially while doing a job that I genuinely enjoy, for mechanics the hours can be very, very long.
When a mechanic is working with just one rider things aren't so bad. Similarly, if the bike is reliable and the setup consistent, then it can be possible to get things wrapped up in a timely manner. However, if you have two or even three riders, the spread of A and B practice, plus timed training, then it can mean regular 16 or maybe 17-hour stints on your feet in the pits on consecutive days. Other factors could be something like riders wanting to try a mixed-wheeled setup at the last minute or wishing to explore every single tire combination imaginable. These things can eat up the hours, and that's not factoring in crash damage and regular maintenance. It's so important to make a rider feel comfortable on the bike, but those jobs do add up when you've got multiple bikes to keep in check.
All of that is operating on the assumption that the venue is close to the accommodation (think Fort William), that there won't be an hour long wait to wash off the bike with a lower power hose (Snowshoe) and that the pits are on the same mountain of the race (à la Vallnord). These little things that would never occur to you from the outside can play a large role in how much meaningful sleep you get after a long day.The Travel
Travel may sound like a blessing but, at least in my experience, you tend to just see the inside of different airports and the same tents. Maybe I don't appreciate it as I should, but personally, it's always been a massive con for me. If we could do these races an hour down the road from one another I would much prefer that. That said, it is of course a World Cup, even if that transpires to mean Europe
, with a quick detour around North America on the side. Maybe it should be called the North Western cup until we venture to the Eastern or Southern Hemispheres - now that would be something.
The other issue is that some towns that host World Cups don't have appropriate accommodations for all the teams and spectators. There's a lot of sleeping on sofas and in kitchens. Eventually, you'll consider the solitude of a large mattress-sized cupboard to be the height of luxury. Of course, there's nothing wrong with sharing a room, and even big-time footballers and road cycling teams do it - but sometimes the availability of large houses is so thin that you're packing in like sardines or driving from far out of town. For me, I much prefer sleeping on the race truck at the venue if the possibility is there, but not all teams have them.
It sounds silly, but I do like the different foods of different places, and if you can manage to sneak out for a ride then that's pretty great, but largely the novelty wears off. Fast.The Lack of Riding
Again, this often does hinge on how many riders you have. However, even with one, your job is to be there to support them and not to be whisked around the world on an eight-stop riding holiday. Sometimes you might get a ride in, often you won't.
So if you find the time, which you'll find difficult, it's also operating on the assumption that there is space to carry your bike - which there won't be. Most vans are packed full and verge on being overweight. The penalty for driving an overweight vehicle is high, so it's often just not worth the risk.
The time factor is one of the main reasons why so many mechanics prefer working on EWS teams. The travel is more varied, the structure less rigid and you also normally get to sample the good stuff yourself.
It also depends on where you're living, too. When I was in New Zealand, knowing I had a summer of riding to look forward to balanced out not riding much in the European summer. Northern Hemisphere winters can suck, though, when you can't ride much during the summer.The Pay
The best deal to be in is to be salaried and have time for other projects in the off-season. This acts as a retainer and means you have some degree of financial security. That said, you are often times considered "on call" and can be expected to be available for the team's needs.
For me, this was never an issue or factor in why I did it. I did it because I loved it. That said, apart from owning a hamster called Pepe, I've never had more than one mouth to feed. And, even when I did he didn't burn out the finances too much, save for a few blueberries and nuts. Often, your wage may also be subsidized with staff bikes or parts. This is great, and something I've enjoyed enormously, however, it's not the same as money in your pocket.The Disappointments
To work for a World Cup team is to learn to be efficient with your disappointments. A huge field of ultra-competitive athletes means that most of the time most of the people leave after the race disappointed. There are few lower feelings than packing down the pits early on finals day when nobody qualifies.
It's important of course not to sap the motivation of the riders and to try to contribute towards a positive team culture. Accept it, support them and move on to the next one.
Yes, riders may well be happy with a top twenty, and so they should be, but by their very nature, the thing they seek isn't easy to come by. However, being the competitive souls that they are it's remarkable to see how quickly they often dust themselves off.
So, you've flown so many economy miles that you're shaped like a pretzel, you haven't slept properly for weeks and you have no money... Why would anyone ever do it? Well, it's simple really. Here are the main reasons why I love working for race teams.New Bikes & Testing
It's hard to imagine doing the job if you weren't interested in or passionate about bikes. Getting the latest not-yet-released tech is exciting, and even more, so is being part of the conversations of how it should
be. It's also great to hear things straight from the horse's mouth and talk to brands about why things have to be a certain way, or how they could be improved.
Talking about bikes, for me, it's near enough as good as riding the things, and hearing the ideas or setup choices around bikes to make them as fast as possible is infinitely fascinating to me. It also means that you will never be wanting for a tire or bike kit again, even if they may well be hand-me-downs.Knowing What Really Happened
We all enjoy the rumour mill or reading the comments section to glean the truth behind the season's most salacious story. What's better is being there and finding it out firsthand and in real time. How they really hated that bike and snapped two frames in one weekend, or the reason why one of the sport's stars wanted to change their team. I know it might sound trivial, but being a fan of downhill is a big lure of the job and being where the action is was always a big part of it. I love downhill racing, and at times it can feel like you are just a fan but with VIP access.
I think if you're somebody that loves to follow racing as a full-time hobby, rather than sitting down to just watch the highlights, then this is something to savor.Friends
I've made some great friends along the way. I know it sounds cheesy but it's true. When the first riders head up to practice or when you can snatch five minutes during a rebuild on track walk day, it's great to just see familiar faces. One or two of my best friends work on the circuit and shooting the shit with them is genuinely one of the highlights of the weekend. It's also compounded by the fact that we all live in different corners of the world and wouldn't get much chance to see each other at all if it wasn't for racing.The Test
Truthfully, I'm not a particularly good mechanic. I'm okay and I get the job done, but I don't think I'm anything special or better than any others on the circuit. To be a World Cup mechanic, yes you need experience working on bikes, but it's more about knowing how that bike and set of products work than having some universal and all-encompassing knowledge about everything that ever was. You need to know one particular brand of bike very, very well, and to be honest most people could do that.
However, I do love the test and challenge of being up against it and pulling it off. Whether it's a last-minute turnaround of a broken bike for their last practice run before qualifying or the nerves as the rider puts that crank through the start beam in their final run, the chain not snapping and you then knowing that you can go home with a clear conscience.
There are also areas where you can help the rider, and that is massively rewarding too. Even if it's just to guide them to their own answer and be a sounding board, I have always found that very to be an important part of the job.When Things Go Well
People put themselves through the rigmarole of racing World Cups because it's very important to them. Not important like riding is to you or me, but elevated way beyond that to the point where it almost defines them. Helping anyone achieve anything so heartfelt is an absorbing prospect, it's almost irresistible.
In life, so many of our actions are kind of hollow - it sounds a bit bleak but it is true. Not that that is a bad thing - I don't expect you to butter your toast as if your life depends on it, or let tears of relief flow after you get your email inbox down to zero (Brian Park is a possible exception). I think when people want to be the best at something, and you can tell when they really
want it, that has a way to cut through the white noise and has always struck a chord with me - and I don't imagine I'm alone in that.
Helping somebody achieve something they'll remember forever is something to savor and probably the best part of all.