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Mechanic’s Corner: Q&A with Eric Fostvedt of Specialized Racing

With racing season in full affect, it’s common to make the daily commitment to watch our favorite superstar cyclists do their thing. Whether it’s World Cup Downhill, XCO and Short Track, the Tour de France or your own regional series, the racing is heating up and it’s time to acknowledge some of the people that truly make it happen – the mechanics. Given our long-standing commitment to producing pro-level bike repair stands and premium tools, we have relationships with some of the finest mechanics around the world and we’d like to share some of their stories. Introducing Eric Fostvedt, mechanic extraordinaire and all around nice guy.

When did you start working as a bike mechanic and how did you get into it?

When I was sixteen I found a job at the Bicycle Village location in Boulder, CO.  I started out on the sales floor and thanks to the kind heart and patience of the mechanic there at the time, I was able to make my way to the back room and learn the basic bike mechanic skills that built the foundation of my career. 

I worked there until I left for University in Texas. When I returned to Boulder I went back to Bicycle Village and resumed work for another four years. In a fortunate turn, the same mechanic who had initiated my education set me up with a job at Excel Sports, also in Boulder. It was in that sophisticated shop where I fine-tuned my skills. Building hundreds of wheels, assembling premium bikes from the frame up, and doing all of this for a very discerning customer base highlighted the difference between good and great.   

How did you transition to race mechanic? How long have you been working as a race mechanic?

 My transition from bike shop life to the racing scene was challenging. I quit my job at Excel to take an opportunity out on the road. The first paycheck I received from a pro racing team was for driving the promotion truck for Toyota-United at the Tour of Georgia – my job was to hand out branded cowbells in the expo. Fortunately, that role transitioned to a day-rate, contract mechanic position. It’s important to note that the connections I made driving the promo truck set me up for my next two jobs. Unfortunately, my first attempt at being a race mechanic didn’t go so well, but I landed on my feet and found work with the Rock and Republic Team – directed by Frankie Andreu. I stayed on board for one season, and the following off season I applied to work with Slipstream Sports, a new start-up.

While Slipstream’s mechanic roster was full, they needed an Operations Manager and I jumped at the opportunity. I believed in Jonathan Vaughters’ vision and wanted to be a part of something unique. I spent three years as the Operations Manager while also doing some mechanic work at the bigger stage races – known as a “3rd mechanic”. It was an incredibly valuable experience. I gained knowledge on how a bigger budget professional road team operates. The outstanding efforts of the people behind the scenes never ceased to amaze me. As the team grew, I transitioned from the Operations Manager to the Head Mechanic position for their U23 team. I stayed with Slipstream Sports for six years in total and in 2012, I accepted the Head Mechanic role with Axel Merckx’s development team.

At the time Merckx’s program was known as Bontrager-Livestrong. The next seven years of my life were a blur of learning, challenges, and huge successes both personally and professionally.  Working with Axel was a dream come true. I have always considered myself a student of the sport, so there was definitely an element of admiration as I got to know Axel, his racing friends, and of course his father, “The Cannibal”, Eddy Merckx. Axel possesses a knowledge of the sport that few others in the world can even grasp. I did my best to act as a sponge, putting my own opinions aside to follow his lead. He’s an incredible leader, and quickly empowered me to grow and improve, I consider the opportunity to learn from Axel a gift.

I was also fortunate to have legendary mechanic Julien DeVries guiding me during my first three years with the program. I can safely say that I learned more from Julien than from all the other mechanics I’ve worked with, combined. He quickly taught me what it means to be a professional race mechanic. To this day, he remains a dear friend.

The point of my story is simple, don’t turn your nose up at a job opportunity just because it doesn’t exactly fit what you want to do at that very moment. Sometimes the lessons learned and connections made handing out cowbells will serve you well.

This past April I made the jump from road to mountain, accepting a mechanic position with the Specialized Bicycles Factory XC Team. It was time for a new challenge, and a new focus on a different style of racing – that means fewer riders, but more adjustments on race days (suspension, tire selection, gear choices), and new venues. It’s started off well and I am grateful for the opportunity. The transition happened fast, and since joining I’ve already been promoted to Team Manager. This is a new role for me, and I’m sure I will draw on every experience I have had while working in the cycling industry. 

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?

The life of a race mechanic is full of challenges – sleepless nights, long travel days, managing personal relationships with riders and other staff – none of it is easy. It wasn’t long into my career that I realized the bikes are the easiest part of the job. I believe that a mechanic who denies that truth is on the road to a short career.

For me, the biggest challenge is preparation. It is the time spent planning, packing, and working long days in the service course that define how the coming races will go. When a mechanic has put in the work, everyone’s life is easier. A team which runs like a well-oiled machine will find great success, and from my perspective that begins with the mechanics. You simply cannot be an effective race mechanic if you’re playing catch-up. Of course, some situations are beyond control, so I would say that the second biggest challenge is calmly managing the unexpected, like when one of those lovely airlines loses a bike in transit. Flexibility and putting the team needs above oneself will lead to success.  Stress for a race mechanic is a given, managing that stress is crucial. I found that the moments of stress, and levels of it, were directly related to how prepared I felt about the given situation.

With proper preparation, humility, and willingness to accept and admit a mistake, life becomes much less stressful. My advice here is to work hard and put your best effort into every task, own your mistakes and learn from them, and finally and maybe most importantly, try to remain positive in the hard moments. The old adage of the grumpy race mechanic that the riders are scared to talk to has no place in this career – it’s no way to be an effective team member, much less help your riders find success.        

What are some of the most challenging last minute or on the fly repairs you’ve had to do? 

 Last minute repairs… that statement sends shivers down my spine. I hate things left to the last minute. Of course, some things are beyond control and must be managed on a limited time. I will answer this one with a story.  

I was at the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2017. The riders had been called to staging and the final instructions were being given when the defending champion, Logan Owen arrived at the team car in a panic. “My shifters are dead!” he exclaimed. I put down my pre-race coffee and pastry (at LBL there are always pastries and I thought we were all set to begin a five hour slog through the Ardennes). Systematically, I began the process – confirmed the shifters weren’t working, changed the batteries on both derailleurs, got a powered response, but still nothing. I went through the pairing process, still nothing. Final thought – must be the shifter batteries (which rarely, if ever, go dead).   

Remove three micro-screws, replace the coin batteries, replace the screws. Easy, right? Sure, when you’re not standing minutes from the start of what we as a team considered one of the most important races on the calendar. This is when it’s important to take a deep breath, remain calm, and try not to let the athlete’s or director’s stress, or the pressure of being watched by an entire crowd of spectators affect your calm. I worked through the process, had Axel take his spare bike off the top of the car just in case we ran out of time and could not get the job done. In the heat of the moment I event fumbled one of the screws. Thanks, by the way, to the Belgian guy with the cigarette who kept an eye on it, picked it up and handed it to me with a classic “Belgie” wink. Logan made the start and had a great ride with no further issues.  He set up the move that helped his teammate win and it turned out to be a great day. 

But the critical point is that although I’d never seen these batteries die before, knowing the system allowed me to mentally run the process and deduce the problem, and find a solution. This begs the question, who carries coin batteries? The mechanic who’s prepared, that’s who.

On the fly repairs are an interesting beast. I’m with the UCI on this one and think that a mechanic hanging from the window of a car adjusting a derailleur, a brake, or even a saddle is an unnecessary risk. However, sometimes you do it simply because it’s what needs to be done. Calculated risks. I’ve changed derailleur batteries, adjusted derailleurs, change a radio, and even helped riders change shoes from the window of the follow car. I don’t recommend it, and if you can’t make the adjustment with one hand, while pushing the rider with the other, you should probably stop and fix it on the side of the road. I cringe when I see riders holding on to the car while the mechanic fiddles with their bike, they are one pothole away from catastrophe. If you have to work from the window; pull the mirror in, have the rider keep both hands on the bars and their eyes up the road, and be quick and calm.  

Have you ever had any riders that always seemed like they needed something fixed, changed, adjusted? For example Eddy Merckx was rumored to change his saddle position daily. (You may be in a unique position to speak on that example.)

I can attest to the fact that Eddy is never content with his position! I was lucky enough to build him many bikes throughout my years working with Axel’s team.  Our service course in Belgium was in the old Merckx Bicycle factory, which is attached to their family home. Just about every trip I took to Belgium, began and ended with work on Eddy’s bikes. It was always an honor, and he regularly thanked me with the finest Belgian beers. 

I have had many riders over the years who always needed something adjusted. I won’t name them out of respect for my friendships with them, but I have assigned many riders nicknames such as “Mr. 1mm” (always asking for 1mm saddle height adjustments) and Buttercup (because he was a ‘princess and the pea’ regarding saddles). I have found that at the end of the day, the rider’s comfort and confidence with their equipment is of primary importance. When a mechanic is able to go along with what may seem like a ridiculous request, and find a way to work with each rider, life is better for everyone. If you are one of those riders, don’t forget that your mechanic only has so much capacity and you should recognize their efforts with an honest “thank you”, a cold drink, an ice cream, or the ever popular…cash. Shouting “Thanks!” over your shoulder as you walk away doesn’t mirror their efforts – make it count.  

Most bike racers are not known for their mechanical aptitude. Have you ever worked with a rider that could hold their own when it came to mechanic work, or even replaced you as the team mechanic?

These are the unicorns, but I have found a few throughout my career. The vast majority though are far from competent mechanics. It makes sense when you consider that race mechanics are at the truck or in the service course working on bikes, while the riders are out training. But. my beloved friends and former riders Ryan Eastman and Tao Geoghegan Hart are pretty solid with a wrench and receive honorable mentions here.      

What type of riders do you prefer working with? Those that appreciate the fine details you put into your work or those that just swing their leg over the bike and ride it?

Of course, it is nice to be appreciated, but this is a bit of a catch 22. The guys that just swing their leg over and go off and race are always nice because they rarely present extra work. The riders who appreciate the mechanic’s attention to detail commonly require more work, because they do notice those precise details. Personally, I have found it most rewarding to work with athletes who really understand what goes into the job because it results in a much deeper appreciation of the work investment. It is always nice when you make an extra effort for a rider, and it doesn’t go unnoticed.   

What are some of the wildest quirks that you’ve had to work around? Any riders ever need their computer mount at a perfect 1.5 degree angle or have their hoods positioned in a crazy way, etc.?

The most challenging quirks come from time trial specialists. This special breed of humans are so exacting in their preparations and their pursuit for marginal gains that they can drive a mechanic to insanity. Fortunately for me I’m a genuine aero nerd. Time in the wind tunnel, perfectly trimmed cable housing, or a more creative way to route wires on a time trial machine has found a welcome place in my world.

The wild quirk that I will never fully accept is moto, or UK brake setup. There is a far too large group of riders who prefer their brakes to be setup as they would be on a motorcycle. I understand why, but I reserve the right to think this is, at best silly and at worst, dangerous. Especially in a road race where it is not uncommon for a domestique to hand his bike off to a team leader in an emergency. I have almost gone over the bars a number of times having grabbed the wrong brake during a test ride or pre-race coffee run.

Any pro tips for the home mechanic? What is the best thing they can do daily to keep their bike in tip top condition? Most overlooked repair or maintenance?

This one is simple, both in understanding and execution. I will sound like a broken record, but WASH YOUR BIKE! A clean bike is a happy bike. The more often you do it, the easier it is.  Built up grease, dirt, oil, sand, muck, spit, sweat, drink mix; all of these things greatly reduces the lifespan of vital parts.

Almost every bike shop in the world offers a clinic, many free of charge, to teach this relatively simple skill. I will happily show anyone who asks how to professionally wash a bike in under ten minutes. The required equipment can be found in most homes; a sponge, a pipe brush or old toothbrush, a stiff bristled brush, some dish soap, and a hose. Add some degreaser and chain lube to that list and you’re set. There are a number of eco friendly degreasers and chain lubes available on the market, I am partial to the products from Finish Line. They make a great run of bicycle care products; get those and their nice brush set, and your bike will be happier. Remember to be mindful of where you are spraying pressured water (if you use high pressure). A little effort with a sponge will always be better than a high-pressure water stream for longevity of your bikes moving parts. 

Most overlooked maintenance? Tire care. I suggest checking your tires often. Look for cuts and abrasions that could lead to failure or puncture.  Check your pressures, a tubular tire will bleed out roughly 3 psi an hour, a clincher far less, but still need to be checked at least every four to five days. Consider your tire pressure as well. Most road riders will find the best performance between 70 and 105 psi, depending on rider weight, tire selection, road condition and weather. On the XC mountain bike side, anywhere from 20 to 27 psi will provide the best combination of traction and efficiency. Finally, a quick pre-ride bolt check is always a good idea. Respect manufacturer torque specs, and don’t forget to carry a small multi tool in your ride kit.