Bike mechanic course yo!

Cycling superstars may steal the limelight and capture the hearts of the masses but bike mechanics, the key support personnel of a professional racing team are the ones who really rock! Master Mechanic Alex Roussel, a former professional race mechanic who is currently attached to the Equipment Commission under the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) that is based in Switzerland was in town from 21st to 25th January 2013 to conduct a basic bike mechanic course for bike mechanics and enthusiasts.

Though the word “mechanic” in the course title may sound intimidating, the UCI-SCF Mechanic Course Level 1 is also suitable for new bicycle enthusiasts (e.g. me) who are keen to pick up some skills and practical knowledge in bike building.

If you are a “newbie”, getting familiar with the names and terms of different parts of the bike will definitely help you a great deal throughout the course.

This is the first time that such a course, sanctioned under the UCI, is conducted out of Switzerland. Administered jointly in collaboration with the Singapore Cycling Federation (SCF), the course was well received with 27 sign-ups. The morning session had 22 participants while the afternoon session had 5 (+1 =me!). I had the great opportunity to sit through the entire course and learn from the master himself!

Day 1 – Frame and Fork Preparation

Though Alex had just flown in to Singapore the day before from Switzerland and was still feeling jetlagged, he certainly did not show it. Warm and friendly, he greeted us with enthusiasm and we were asked to introduce ourselves and share why we had signed up for the course. A bona fide expert in his field, Alex wealth of experience spans more than 30 years – he was riding competitively until 1980 when he decided to become a bike mechanic. His passion for all things bike was certainly evident and he was more than happy to take questions from the ground.

Day 1 session touched mainly on frame and fork preparation, as well as learning about the different headset standards and how to install the headset correctly onto the fork.

Alex showing us how to install the fork.

Sawing the carbon steerer to a suitable height – a special type of saw is used for sawing through carbon material.

Greasing the headset bearing – lots of greasing required to keep your bicycle in good shape.

Setting up the crankset and installing it into the bottom bracket.

 

Day 2 – Cable routing and brakes installation

As we eased into Day 2’s lessons, Alex highlighted an interesting point to emphasize the importance of fixing the wheels properly onto the bike frame for safety reasons. He mentioned how competitive cyclists (with dirty tricks up their sleeves) would creep up on a fellow rider ahead of them during the race and use their bicycle front wheel to loosen the clasp of the back wheel of the rider in front. (refer to right image below)

(Left) Your rear wheel is properly secured onto the bike frame but you will struggle to loosen the clasp due to the lack of space that would give you the leverage to remove it easily. (Right) Facing the clasp outwards can be dangerous as it can be easily loosen if it catches on something. 

Securing the wheel clasp in the ideal position gives sufficient leverage and makes it easy to remove the wheels.

On the topic of brakes Alex gets one of the partipants (above) to carry the bike over the shoulder as he subsequently demonstrates how a cyclo-cross rider (in a cyclo-cross race, there is a segment where everyone carries their bike over their shoulders) once sneaked up on his competitor from behind and shifts his competitor’s cogset to the highest gear (Just imagine what happens to the oblivious rider in the next stage of the race when he hops onto his bicycle).

Other technical areas covered on Day 2 included installation of front and rear road brake callipers, feeding the brake and derailleur cables through their respective housings and the appropriate technique to tighten the stem bolts on a typical 4-bolt stem faceplate.

(1) Tightening the stem bolts on a typical four-faced stem bolt plate should be done in a cross-diagonal sequence (2) Checking of handlebar alignment to the bicycle frame. 

Feeding brake and shifter cables into housing and adjusting them properly. This is how hands on the course is.  

 

Day 3 – Chain installation and derailleur adjustment

Working for the UCI certainly has its perks! Alex’s ten-year long career with the UCI has brought him to numerous major sports events like the Olympics. He shared briefly on his encounter with Swiss professional tennis player Roger Federer whom according to Alex, is the same nice person that we see onscreen. Stories aside, Day 3’s session covered pedal threading, ascertaining the appropriate chain length prior to installation, how to fix the chain onto a bike as well as front and rear derailleur adjustment.

Alex demonstrating how to ascertain appropriate chain length prior to installation

Inner tubing needs to be dusted with talc (baby powder) before slipping it into the clincher tyre prior to installation to the rim. 

The bicycle chain (left) is not centralized. Hence, too close to one side of the front derailleur and the rear derailleur (right) gets adjusted to the right position. 

  This is how the rear derailleur moves when adjusted.

  

Day 4 – The basics of wheel-building

In 2009, under a project commissioned by the UCI, Alex produced a wheel building DVD titled “Mastering the Wheel” together with Gerd Schraner, an accomplished master wheel builder (retired) from DT Swiss who had published several books on wheel building. Wheel building is considered one of the most challenging aspects of bike building which requires tremendous amount of patience and years of practice. As the saying goes, “to become a full-fledged bike mechanic, you have to master the art of wheel building”.

The video is thorough and lengthy, so I only managed to catch 50% of it to prepare myself for Day 4’s session.  Alex would jokingly remarked…”Ahhh… the video is boring… so technical” and he mentioned that the “more interesting” content is found in the second half of the video (The video is quality stuff by masters of the craft by the way). Anyhow, it is cool how Alex does not take himself too seriously.

On the long awaited “wheel building session day” that I was looking forward to, we were taught (1) different spoking patterns, (2) how to lace the spokes to the hub and (3) wheel truing (tuning the bicycle spokes to the ideal tension), a skill that takes lots of practice and many years of experience to master.

Alex showing us how to lace the spokes to the wheel hub. 

Truing the wheel – tuning the bicycle spokes to the ideal tension. This process requires tremendous amount of practice and patience.  For the bike enthusiasts, we had a good feel and understanding of the process but it was certainly not realistic for us to get the tuning right immediately.

Checking wheel alignment.

Day 5 – The basics of bike-fit

Friday’s session was more relaxed and less technical. Alex spent the first half of the session covering UCI’s technical regulation on rider’s equipment. Interesting trivia shared by Alex included how some riders illegally used hydration packs to improve their aerodynamic positions; riders are only allowed to use them strictly for hydration purposes in races. In order to preserve the culture and the image of the sport, Alex shared that the goals of the equipment check is to limit the impact of the equipment on rider’s performance and to ensure that victory goes to the best sportsman and not the best machine.

Subsequently, we moved on to the topic and importance of bike fitting –  though cycling is easily picked up by the masses, achieving a good pedal stroke and having good cadence (rpm) is more important from a biomechanics point of view.  Tips were also shared on the general rule of ascertaining the suitable crankarm length depending on the inseam length of the cyclist and determining the correct saddle height (length from the centre of the bottom bracket to the top of the saddle).

Measuring saddle height.

Conclusion

Alex’s passion for his craft is evident and I thoroughly enjoyed the week-long session. The course was comprehensive and I benefitted much from the master whose work experience spanned over 30 years. Throughout the 5 days, there were guests or visitors who would pop by and sit in to listen briefly to his course. Each time the “invited” guest(s) walked out of the room midway during class, Alex would always look at us with a bemused expression and jokingly questioned/remarked “Is my course too boring?” (And yes, that never failed to amuse me). The course participants were constantly encouraged to ask questions and Alex was more than happy to entertain us even if the session had overrun.  On top of that, Alex had lots of interesting stories to share, tapped from his great wealth of experience.

For someone who is relatively new to the technical side of bicycles, I found the course informative and helpful. It was fun getting my hands dirty (lots of greasing and clunky mechanical work involved) and building a bike from scratch. Did I come out of the course competent enough to build a bicycle on my own? Probably not. No one can become an expert in anything overnight – a bike mechanic can only become competent with lots of practice and experience, be it working in a bicycle shop or for a professional team. Throughout the course, Alex was constantly empasizing this point as well. So the question is, what do I plan to do with what I have learnt? Well, I am still on the lookout for an inexpensive and unwanted market bicycle to tear apart and put together again just for fun.

On the whole, the SCF-UCI Bike Mechanic course Level 1 is suitable not just for bicycle mechanics but also for bicycle enthusiasts with a keen interest in bike building. Aside from bike mechanics and people from the industry, the course attracted a diverse crowd that also included two bike enthusiasts who took leave from their full time jobs to attend the session, a father who wanted to pick up bike building skills to give better support to his teenage son (who is riding competitively) during competitions, a teacher who had been overseeing the cycling expedition programme for his school and a couple of triathlete coaches. For those who missed out on the course conducted by Alex this time round, rest assured that there are plans for Alex to return in the later part of the year to run such courses again! (Possibly Level 2).

Do keep a lookout for the interview with the master himself in Part 2 of this featured series. 

Special thanks to Alex Roussel and Singapore Cycling Federation (SCF)!