There is no doubt that race mechanics have a demanding lifestyle. But when you’re the mechanic, partner, and coach to one of the most prolific cyclocross racers to ever toe the line, things are a bit different. Mark Legg-Compton (aka Mr. Katie Compton – seriously, that’s his Twitter handle) takes us through what brought him to professional cycling and how he prepares to tackle one of the toughest jobs in the industry.
Pay attention – the Mark and Katie duo have accomplished 23 CX World Cup victories and 15 US National CX Championships – the way they go about things can be considered “The Template” for aspiring cyclocross superstars.
When did you start working as a bike mechanic and how did you get into it?
Like a lot of mechanics, it was necessity! I started bike racing when I was around 14 years old in New Zealand and money was limited, so I taught myself how to work on my bike. Back then there were two ways to learn bike maintenance: buy a book on how to do it, or learn from someone in the local club. I eventually started volunteering at a local shop (Uncle Sam’s Bikes) which significantly increased my experience before I moved to the US in 1988. I started my first real shop as a mechanic at Hank and Frank Bikes in Lafayette, California. And a month later I found myself at California Pedaler in Danville, California where I worked as a tech in their road-focused store. This was all right about the time Shimano released their first STI levers, which really changed the drivetrain game.
How did you transition into becoming a race mechanic? How long have you been working as a race mechanic at this point?
There were a few smaller projects, but the really big moment for me was in 2000 when I was a mechanic for the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia. It was a pretty incredible experience, especially since we had a total of 72 bikes and only two mechanics working 18-20 hour days. Working with the US Paralympic Team would lead me to meeting Katie in 2003, when she was piloting a tandem for the Blind World Champs in Quebec, Canada.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a race mechanic? What is the most stressful part, before, during, or after the race?
This is pretty easy – there’s getting to the races, the race-prep, the races, and then the post-race – sound easy?
Internationally, the first stress of the day begins with parking. Finding a parking spot that isn’t a ten plus minute walk to the course more difficult than it sounds. It’s easier now that we have a mobile home, but parking is a premium in Belgium because the races are often in small towns on narrow roads. And Belgian teams like to park together, leaving very little space for the independents.
Aside from that, the most stress is the pressure I put on myself. If there’s a mechanical issue it affects Katie’s results (and our income) so I need to be on my A-game. Truthfully, there’s been some days I haven’t brought it, which has affected Katie’s results.
Post-race is cleaning and washing the bikes, using the power washer to clean Katie’s skin suit and socks before they head to the washing machine, then finally loading up the mobile home and making the drive home. Once we’re home, I’ve then got to unpack everything hopefully have enough time to unwind. The double-race weekends definitely kick my butt these days. Mondays are usually spent overhauling the wheels and detailing the bikes. I try to get in a recovery ride with Katie but some days I end up crashing on the couch for a couple hours, reading and napping.
What are some of the most challenging last minute or on the fly repairs you’ve had to do?
I don’t have a lot of on-the-fly repair stories, which I guess is a good thing. I try to run three bikes for the races which allows for one bike to go down and still keep two bikes in the rotation.
But CX Nationals in Madison (’12 or ’13) was challenging because the power washer water was freezing on the bike. That was back in the days of cable brakes and drivetrains…so it was a problem. But fortunately is was a problem for everyone and we snagged another jersey!
Once we found we were supplied us with the wrong chainring combination, which we didn’t discover until the chain jammed between the rings (improper chainline). The chain jammed between the rings during the race – I had to remove the crank and chainrings.
And I recall a time we lost a brake at CX Worlds in Luxembourg when the hydraulic lever lost pressure, which caused Katie to crash and break a rear derailleur. Unfortunately she wasn’t able to finish the race. I discovered the threads for the bleed port had popped which caused the loss of brake pressure.
But, preparation is what keeps me from having many stories, 15 years later.
Do you have any pre-race rituals? What are they?
I don’t have anything in particular. But like athletes trying to achieve a “flow-state” I try to calm myself with breathing exercises and let-go of my “monkey brain” to get into a calm, relaxed and focused state. This allows my body to perform the tasks I’ve trained it to perform without interference with undesirable outputs. During the race I send positive thoughts and love to Katie to help her have an asthma free race and a race she can enjoy.
What is the number one thing home mechanics can do to keep their bike in excellent working condition?
Keeping a bike in great shape always starts with a solid bike build. If the bike is well built, lubed, and greased properly, then it’s easy to perform the most important maintenance – keeping the drivetrain clean and lubricated.
A well-built bike won’t have those mystery creaks you need to chase down or parts that wear out prematurely. And if you really obsess like I do about resistance and bearing seal drag, you will definitely want to wash that bike often – a clean and lubed chain is free power! Fortunately these days there’s a lot of environmentally safe degreasers and soaps that work great without the extra scrubbing needed. I’m a huge fan of plant-derived, solvent-free chain cleaners, and am glad the industry has moved in the right direction because my early days as a pro mechanic were less favorable (yes, using petrol as a cleaner was a thing).
I find having a bike wash station set up at home makes it a lot more convenient to wash the bikes. If it’s easier, I’m more likely to do it more often. Aside from having multiple repair stands, I’ve recently bought an electric power washer that really makes washing the bikes super easy. You can drop the hose into a bucket of water or plug it directly into the garden hose and spray the bikes down. The batteries recharge pretty quick so it makes the whole process a lot easier.
I keep separate brushes for chains and tires so I don’t contaminate the rubber. If you use an aggressive soap on tires it can strip the natural oils out of the rubber, which results in less traction. Another lesson learned the hard way was at Cyclocross Worlds in Tabor, Czech Republic – I used a bike wash on the tires, which left a detergent on the tires and made them slippery. Not an ideal situation when you’re racing on snow and ice. It ruined Katie’s Worlds and was a very big lesson in how bike cleaners can affect the performance of the bike.
Lastly, home mechanics (and shop mechanics for that matter) should inspect your tires every ride. Your tires are your only contact patch to success (or failure). When you suffer a tire blow out it’s often while the tire is being stressed (aka cornering), which can lead to race-ending consequences. Check the side-walls every ride and check the tires for any embedded glass or sharp gravel. Many of the flats you suffer from is due to glass embedded in the tire slowly being pushed into the tire casing as you ride. You can save yourself a lot of flat tires if you inspect your tires and dig out the perpetrators.
As you read our Mechanic’s Corner information, there are several clear trends: proper builds with attention to detail, keeping a clean drivetrain and inspecting tires tends to prevent most problems. Check out our repair stands and tool kits for the purpose-built home service station that’ll keep your bikes running smooth!