by Tony Kelsey
I had the chance to speak with Zane Freebairn, the head mechanic for the Rally Cycling women's squad while at the Spring Training Camp in Oxnard, California. To say I was immediately struck by his affability is a complete understatement. He's actually a giant teddy bear of a man, who not only exudes an immediate likability, but a sense of professionalism and dedication that is sometimes bereft in our sport. As you watch him move about both the minor and important tasks of his job, there is little doubt this man loves what he does. And, he knows every detail will come into play, later in the day or later in the season when the women are racing for a podium. When I first arrived, Zane was getting prepared with the day; opening the bright orange Rally Cycling trailer, cranking out the awning, setting up his and his coworker's bike stands.
Zane got his start as a mechanic, like so many others. "It was either get a job that paid money, or get a job in a bike shop to get cheap bike parts," he laughed. "Luckily, in Salt Lake City, there's a warehouse for customer service center for Specialized. That's where I got a job in customer service and then ended up in the service center where I was doing wheels and suspension. That kind of rolled into this."
By rolling into this, he means, first a gig as the "RV guy" for another team before moving into a mechanic position, and then the job with Rally Cycling in the team's inaugural year.
Now in his fifth year with the team, and at this particular training camp, Zane is responsible for supporting five riders. Two bikes apiece. "Training camp is actually really nice," he said. "We don't really have to wash them every day, usually every other day they get a wipe down. It's more of the fit that becomes the trouble. Pre and post ride. Checking with the riders. They come back with requests, 'Can you drop this? Can I change that?' It's super, super crucial. You have to focus on a lot of the little things. Do it right here, it makes your season go way, way easier."
Racing has a whole different set of responsibilities for mechanics like Zane, notwithstanding the primary function of keeping the bikes spotless. "Let's say we have a good day. We have no flats, no crashes. Bikes comes back and we wash everything. If it's a sunny day, sometimes even the bikes on the roof don't need a wash. If they're dusty we literally spray them down while they're on the roof and then hand wipe them. And then look for the little things. If anything is cracked. Is there stuff in the tires. But if you get a flat tire you've got to start glueing. If you have a crash you have to do a deeper inspection. Sometimes you have to pull the fork out. Make sure the steerer tube is not cracked."
Of course, all of that is just a part of the job when the team is racing. While Zane might have been up into the late hours working on a bike or any number of the multiple wheelsets they will have to support the riders, he will also be at the ready in the team car if something should happen during the race. "I'm always in the back seat, passenger side. On a good day I can take a nap. Or we have funny jokes and funny stories."
But if something happens, Zane has to be prepared to launch into action. "It's awesome and it sucks at the same time," he says, meaning the instantaneous rush of adrenalin. "You're sitting there, especially if it's the middle part of the race. You're going super slow and it's peaceful, right? Then you hear on the radio, 'Crash! Crash!' And, crashes are always the worst. Hopefully, the girls are up and want to get back on the bike. Secondly, I hope the bike's not falling apart. And you sprint. If you're doing well, and up in GC [General Classification] you only have to run twenty or thirty meters. But if you're not doing so well you have to run a hundred meters. But it's always interesting. You have to jump with wheels and tools. You really don't know what you're going to see."
It's at this point in our chat that Zane once again reveals the kind of guy he and all his fellow mechanics are at their core. "We respect these athletes," he said. "We were all racers at one point and we couldn't cut it because this sport is so fricking hard. So, we want to make sure the bike is neutral. We don't want to see the race won or lost by the bike.
"When I get to the pile I start looking around. Orange, orange, orange," he said, mimicking how he scans for Rally Cycling team members involved in a crash. "None. Okay, good."
And if there are none, Zane could easily go back to the car.
"But, I try to help too. I've been in a scenario where I've had three riders in a crash. You only have two arms. So, I always try to help other riders up. We mechanics always have each other's back."
Tony Kelsey has 20 years marketing experience, previously serving as global vice president of creative for an international, $1B IT solutions consultancy. Although a self-proclaimed “mediocre” racer in high school, his intense passion for cycling and bicycles in general has never waned. Today he is VP of marketing at Pactimo and frequently writes about cycling as a sport and hobby.