This Sunday, we’re getting ready for one of the most special Monuments: Paris-Roubaix. Last edition was won by Peter Sagan and once again he is one of the favourites to claim the victory. This race is not only special for the riders and fans, but also for the mechanics. We spoke to Risto Usin, head mechanic of BORA-hansgrohe, who is responsible for preparing Sagan’s bike. How special is this race for him, how does he prepare the bikes for this Classic and what are his special mechanical tricks to conquer the cobbles?
What’s the role of a mechanic?
Usin has worked with the team for seven years now and, as with most of the BORA-hansgrohe staff, used to be a cyclist as well. The Estonian was the second generation of his family to become a pro rider, his father was a cyclist as well. When his career ended, he started to work as a mechanic for the German team. For him this was a logical move because he always had an interest in the mechanical aspects. His father had a bike shop in Estonia and he used to help him when he was young. His job mainly consists of setting up the bikes and performing general maintenance and repairs during the race days. Furthermore, he also supports in the Service Course, such as checking if all material is in stock.
Usin also helps with the overall planning for the mechanics and keeps an eye on them to see that everything runs well. The team consists of twelve mechanics. This may sound like a lot, but for a stage race they send out three guys and the team might be racing at several cycling races at the same time. Plus, you have to make sure you can plan enough rest for the mechanics because they all have a busy schedule. For example, Usin started in Australia, flew to Italy for the Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo and then went to the Tour of Flanders in Belgium last weekend. This weekend he’s at Paris-Roubaix and for the rest of the year you can find him in other races at the Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta.
Out of all the one-day-races, he’s really looking forward to Paris-Roubaix. “I love it! Not only because I love the cobbles myself, but it’s the whole process before,” Usin said. “We have special bikes for this race and every rider has an individual set-up. The days before the race, we go out for recon and testing. Next, you have the weather that can change all plans. It’s just so interesting because there are so many aspects involved. It’s also the big tension until the start of the race that makes it so special for me. For me it’s even more special than the Tour of Flanders and really my favourite one-day-race.”
The team travels with four mechanics to both of these big Classics and Usin explains why: “We use special bikes, different tyres and specific materials for these races. It therefore takes more time to prepare everything. The bikes also need special attention because of the rough cobbled tracks. We triple check everything, like each screw two or three times until the final moment of the race. From then on, it’s just a matter of keeping the fingers crossed until the end of the race. For us Paris-Roubaix is actually more about the pre-work than the race itself. You just have to prepare everything perfectly for it and then you can sit a bit more relaxed in the car during the race.”
Tips and tricks for the cobbles
You can find many tips and tricks online on how to prepare your bike for this race; all to make your ride on the cobbles a bit more comfortable, like using a double set of handlebar tape or lowering the tyre pressure. We asked Usin which of the following tips he applies for the BORA-hansgrohe team as well:
A special frame
“Yes, we use the Specialized S-Works Roubaix frame. This frame has a suspension in the front and a flexing seat post. This dampens the bumpy cobbles during the ride. The suspension can be opened on the cobbles and locked on the tarmac. This year, we have a new bike with new improvements. We hope it all works out well, but we’ll find out during the recon.”
Other tyres and applying another tyre pressure
“Yes, the wider the tyre, the better. That’s why we ride with special “Hell of the North” 30 mm tyres. Regarding the tyre pressure: normally we ride with a tyre pressure of 7 to 8 bars, but for this ride we lower it to 6 or even 4.5 bars. This depends of course on the weight of the rider and the weather conditions, because on rainy days we ride with a lower pressure.”
“Partly, we use the same saddle model as always, but instead of carbon rails we use titanium or aluminium rails. All to minimalize the risks of breaking something.”
Disc brakes or conventional brakes
“This year, we completely switched to disc brakes, so it’ll be our first Paris-Roubaix with discs. We’re happy with these brakes. They require more attention, but they deliver a huge improvement when you’re riding in the rain and on technical courses.”
Double handlebar tape
“No, since the introduction of the suspension bikes, fewer riders use a double wrap. They ride all season with a single tape wrap and are used to this grip. That’s why we prefer standard wrap.”
“No, we use the same type of 50 mm carbon wheels as always, so no aluminium wheels. This is because we gain a lot of race speed because of the better aerodynamics. Nowadays, these carbon wheels are strong enough for the cobbles.”
Another place for the electrical shifters
“Yes, some guys want the shifters on the top of their steer, but that’s an individual’s choice.”
Another place for the brake levers
“No, since we’re using disc brakes it’s not possible to use the top mount brake levers anymore, so they stay in the same place.”
Install a chain catcher
“Yes, and we’re glad to have these! This way the chain is always safely secured. Because these catchers are so light, we use them all season on our bikes though, so not only for this race.”
Extra grip on the bottle cages
“Yes, for this race we place some sandpaper in the bottle cages. It’s not necessary, but we do this just to make sure they don’t run out of water during the critical moments. It’s hard to get close to the riders with the car during this race to hand out bottles to them.”
Use grip tape on the pedals
“No, we don’t put tape on the pedals. We have never had problems with our shoes and pedals so there is no reason to do so.”
Wrap your hands with tape
“No, since we use the suspension bikes it is not necessary to provide extra protection for your hands, this is not an issue for the riders. And after the recon they are already used to the cobbles.”
During the race
The bumpy cobbled sections of Paris-Roubaix require a lot from the bikes. This means the team has to be able to react quickly to any mechanical failures. Therein lies a challenge: it’s very hard to reach the riders by car in this race. That’s why BORA-hansgrohe strategically places team members and supporters alongside the route with bottles and spare wheels. All 29 cobbled sections are covered and in total 50 to 60 pair of wheels are available (including the ones in the spare bikes).
You would expect that the team worries the most about hitting bad luck on these cobble sections, but that’s not the case according to Usin. “The worst moment of the race is at the beginning. At the first cobbled tracks, everybody is so nervous to claim a good position. Here you’ll find many crashes where they hit a derailleur or get a puncture,” he said. “You have to be a little bit lucky here. Last season, we only had one puncture. It’s a combination of preparation and luck, we hope for the best.”
After the race
You can imagine that these bikes get very dirty after this race. So, after the finish they remove the wheels and chains and they give the frames a proper wash. Afterwards, they place the frames completely clean in the Service Course. Because there are no special cobbled stages in the upcoming Grand Tours, like in last year’s edition of the Tour de France for example, the special cobble-proof bikes have to wait for next year to be used again.
Last year’s Paris-Roubaix was won by Peter Sagan. The triple world champion attacked from a group of favourites with more than 50 km to go and never looked back. “It was crazy! You don’t see a winner in a rainbow jersey often,” Usin said. What are his thoughts for this edition? Will the team be able to strike again? “Sagan wasn’t at his best during the Tour of Flanders, but this is a different race that can play out in his favour.” This Sunday afternoon, we will see which rider will raise the biggest cobble stone on the podium in the beautiful velodrome of Roubaix.