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Service course: Aladdin's cave

Jordan Gibbons
21 Jul 2016

At the heart of every pro team is the service course – a warehouse stuffed with all the bikes, kit and components the team uses.

How many chains do you think a pro team goes through in a year? It’s about 1,000. Gels? About 15,000. And how many men does it take to change the pressure washer in a team bus? About eight (if you include me, standing around and making helpful suggestions).

Cyclist is at the Trek-Segafredo service course in Deinze, Belgium, and a large kerfuffle has erupted as the team bus has just arrived back from the Tour de Suisse. This doesn’t happen often, and the service course is usually a calming place – a warehouse stocked with order, tranquillity and all the bike parts you could ever dream of.

the service course is home to at least 150 fully kitted-out race bikes

The service course is a pro team’s base of operations, where everything is kept to run the team throughout the year. Service courses are the true départs and arrives of the Tour de France, and most are based within a few miles of each other.

‘Sky is on the other side of town, BMC and Quick-Step are over by Ghent and between us are Lotto,’ says Freddie Stouffer, Trek-Segafredo’s operations manager. ‘If you drew a circle around all the racing that happens in Europe, especially Belgium, the centre of it would pretty much be on Deinze. There are also big roads around here, so it’s easy to get things in and out. Plus it’s pretty secluded, so no one is going to find us and steal all our stuff.’

And just how much stuff are we talking? 

‘We have two big buses, two big trucks, 12 team cars, two sprinter vans and two mini-vans; they all have to live somewhere. And then there’s all the bikes.’

The here and now

When there’s no racing taking place, the service course is home to at least 150 fully kitted-out race bikes, hundreds of pairs of wheels plus helmets, jerseys, shorts, socks, shoes, gloves, casualwear… the list goes on.

‘Each rider has a hook and under that hook there are usually four bikes: a road race bike, a TT race bike, a spare road bike and a spare TT bike. For our leaders there would be a third race bike or TT bike. It’s also where we keep the rain bags and helmets, so they all travel together to avoid anything getting missed,’ says Stouffer. ‘We also keep various spare frames here so that we can rebuild bikes if there’s a bad accident. We can get stuff really quick from the Trek HQ in Waterloo, USA, but it’s still a couple of days. If someone crashes in a race today, I can get them a frame by tomorrow.’

Does that happen often?

‘In a worst-case scenario, if someone needs something fast, we can stick someone in a car to do a 14-hour drive and hand the thing over.’

Stouffer is clearly meticulous in his nature. There’s an awkward laugh at the idea of a ‘worst-case scenario’ that makes it clear that while there are obviously Plan Bs and Plan Cs, proper planning should mean they never have to go beyond Plan A.

‘We try to over-prepare for everything. At the Tour we take three or four sets of keys for every vehicle, spare phones, spare SIM cards… We over-think everything and take more than we could ever need but at the Tour when you need it, you need it immediately. It’s not a case of, “Oh I can get you those things in six hours,” as that wouldn’t cut it. We constantly work in a ‘right now’ timeframe.’

Just keeping track of 150 bikes is a mammoth task, never mind all the swapping and changing of components that’s needed for all the different races. Making sure the team kit is ready to go falls under the watchful eye of Matt Shriver, the team’s technical director, who describes his role as ‘handling anything the riders use to compete. Basically if the riders use it, I’m involved.’

Trek-Segafredo has vast spreadsheets on all the fit data of the riders, but sometimes those idiosyncrasies can’t be boiled down to numbers. Most of the riders have specific requirements and getting in tune with that can be tricky, especially when some riders like to change their saddle heights on an almost daily basis.

‘Some of the riders are fussy with the contact points – some prefer specific saddles. We actually have special foam ratings. Fabian [Cancellara] has special super-firm foam in his saddle, so that when he’s pushing on the pedals he’s getting everything,’ says Shriver.

'Fabian’s also very particular about his bar tape. Even on the rough cobbles he has a really thin bar tape, so we have to wrap the bars really tight to stretch it out as thin as possible. He likes to feel the bar in his hands.’

Them’s the brakes

Shriver is also involved in rolling out any new technology the sponsors may have, and keeping abreast of big changes coming from the industry. The conversation inevitably turns to the subject of disc brakes, at which point Shriver grimaces.

‘For us we’re still in the testing phase but I’d say we’re ready if they lift the ban. We’d like to jump back in but right now the drive isn’t coming from the riders – it’s the industry that’s pushing it. That race bike, one that offers a huge advantage, just hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m sure as soon as it does the riders are all going to want it.’

Part of the team’s resistance to the adoption of discs comes from technical considerations that aren’t always at the forefront of people’s minds. For example, car roof racks would have to be adapted to handle bolt-thru axles, so from a practical point of view the whole team would have to switch in one go.

‘We’d have to change the whole team but it would probably just be for special events, like Paris-Roubaix, where we already use one-off bikes anyway. It would have to be a race where that system would actually be an advantage,’ says Shriver. ‘But we’re not in any rush.’

The service course isn’t just a big warehouse for the team – it often acts as a base of operations for bike supplier Trek.

‘We get quite a few engineers coming over from the US and we base them here for product testing with the riders. Fabian was here quite a bit when we were testing the new Domane, as it’s very close to the Flanders and Roubaix courses,’ says Stouffer. ‘Everything leaves from here. We go and do the testing, then come back to do whatever needs to be done in the privacy of the service course, so we don’t have Fabian on the side of the road in Belgium, attracting attention.’

Some of the riders are fussy with the contact points. Cancellara has special super-firm foam in his saddle

Connecting the pro team with the engineers at Trek is another key part of Shriver’s role. ‘I’m sort of an interpreter sometimes between the riders and the engineers at Trek. You know when they bring a new bike down for the riders to test, they’re just talking a different language. Also the riders might not want to say bad things straight to the guy who designs their bikes.’

‘We do plenty of custom stuff for the riders too: from smaller things like custom lasts for their shoes up to fully custom lay-ups on bikes.’

So the pro riders get special bikes created to suit their needs?

‘Yeah, we do custom lay-ups on the carbon, especially for the Classics. We did one for Flanders and another for Roubaix that had more give in it,’ says Shriver. ‘This is Fabian’s custom bike for the Tour [pointing to the Madone a mechanic is unpacking]. It celebrates all the jerseys he’s worn from all his different teams and green jerseys, yellow jerseys…

‘He has a custom handlebar for the Madone. He prefers an anatomic bar but with a round top, rather than the standard aerodynamic one.’

Playing the odds

Take a look at the palmares of any team’s background staff and you can tell experience is key to success. With all that experience comes a mentality that, whenever possible, surprises should be avoided. Even if someone unexpected within the team picks up the yellow jersey, it’s a scenario that has already been planned out.

‘Lots of things are predetermined on the Giro or the Tour,’ Stouffer says. ‘We look at the route and if there’s a prologue, and Fabian is going, a lot of people would take that bet. So we would ship a yellow frame, although we don’t tell him. We play the game, but we don’t want to heap pressure on the riders. It’s a bit of guesswork and a bit of playing the odds.’

So is the team playing the odds this year?’

Stouffer laughs and says, ‘Hmm, yeah. Well, we’ll take some yellow stuff with us and that’s all I’m saying.’

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