Pro Mechanic Eric Jellum reports from Asia

A dispatch from Eric Jellum, team mechanic Kelly Benefit Strategies - Optum Health Cycling Team

One of the most enjoyable experiences of my job as the head mechanic of the Kelly Benefit Strategies - Optum Health Cycling Team is when the team travels to new exotic international races. For the first race of the year, the KBS - Optum Health squad visited Singapore for the OCBC criterium and also competed in the Jalajah Malaysia stage race. Along with the 6 riders traveling over to Asia there were 3 staff members supporting the racers.

Doing any sort of international travel for a bike race can be very difficult on a team’s support staff. All the crucial elements needed to take care of a team will have to either be flown in or we will have to hunt them down once we arrive at our destination. Just on the mechanic’s end of things, all the race bikes, spare bikes, spare wheels and tools will be packed up and flown with as luggage.

Of course, when I am traveling such a long distance for a bike race I’m limited to what I can bring on a trip with me. Most Airlines have a 50 lbs limit on any single piece of luggage that is going to be loaded onto a plane. This was my 6th time going over to Asia so I have a pretty good idea of what I need to pack for the trip and what items I can find on the other side of the Pacific.

The day before the team started the 20 hours of flying it takes to get to Singapore from Los Angles, I flew into LAX to start packing all the bikes for the trip. It will take me about 4 to 5 hours to meticulously pack all 6 race bikes, 2 spare bikes and 4 pair of spare wheels. I really take my time when packing bikes that are getting loaded onto a plane. Nothing is worse then showing up half way around the world with a busted frame.

Also I will pack a spare parts bin that will be needed for the trip. When packing spare parts for the bikes, I try to focus on items that will need to be replaced due to wear. Tires and tubes are probably the most important item, (2 tires for everyday of racing for a team of 6) then chains, cables/ housing and bar tape are all at the top of the list. After that I’ll bring 1 of everything else that might be needed for a bike, 1 complete gruppo, 1 handlebar, 1 extra fork and so on.

Of course I’ll be packing a repair stand, floor pump and a small canvas pouch that contains my most trusted and most used tools. The PRS 21 repair stand and floor pump will be packed into the spare parts bin and my tools will make the journey in my suitcase. Along will all my essentials that I need to do my job, I’ll make a run to Home Depot to pick up some items that might be hard to find in Asia. I’ll pick up some bike washing brushes/ sponges and also zip ties and tape. Once all the bikes are packed up the teams souignier will then pack all the Clif product and water bottles needed for the trip into all the empty spaces in the bikes travel bags. This cuts down on the number of boxes we have to bring and it also gives the bikes more padding.

All of the riders and staff on this trip flew into LAX and we all traveled together over to Asia. Just going over to Singapore is about 20 hours total of flying, but then add the 6 hour layover in Shanghai and it adds up to some serious time. Being crammed into a airplane seat for 20 hours may not sound all that pleasant, but I kind of enjoy it. Just like when I’m driving across the country, the time spent on the plane is time when I can unplug and catch up on my reading, napping and movie watching.

With the 6 hour layover, we where able to escape the confines of the airport in Shanghai and take the bullet train to downtown. It was nice to stretch the legs and eat something other then the fine cuisine that is offered at airports and on airplanes plus we got to witness the interesting architecture of downtown Shanghai. Back to the airport and another 6 hours of flying to Singapore.

We showed up in Singapore at about 5 a.m. and by the time we went through immigration, customs and got to the race hotel, it was breakfast time. Singapore is exactly a 12-hour time change from Boston. You would expect me to be way out of whack when it comes to a sleep schedule, but the excitement of being in a new and different place keeps my awake for a while.

The OCBC Critirium was to start about a day and a half after we arrived so I had plenty of time to build up all the bikes. The first thing the riders usually want to do after sitting on a plane for 20 hours is to ride their bikes. Unpacking bikes takes about 1/4 the time it takes to pack them up and all the equipment made the journey in fine fashion. So when the riders where spinning out the legs I went and hunted down a store where I could find a some essentials that I couldn’t fly with or items that are to bulky to stick in the bike bags. No matter where in the world I find myself, I can always find a medium sized bucket, dish soap and cheap water hose. When I say “cheap water hose,” I mean a 10-foot section of super cheap plastic tubing that may be able to direct water to wash bikes.

Once getting over to South East Asia, one of the hardest aspects to deal with is the 4:30 afternoon nap-time, especially in the days that leading up to the bike race. I spend my time in those late afternoons trying not to fall asleep. If you succumb to the grogginess in that late afternoon and try to take a short nap I guarantee you will not wake up till sometime after 2 a.m. Then you’ll be up all night. This makes it even harder to get adjusted to the time zone change.

The OCBC nighttime crit went off with out a hitch and the following day the Jalajah Malaysia race organization picked us up at the hotel to take us across the border from Singapore to Malaysia.

We had a whole day in Johor Bahru, Malaysia to get ready for a 6 day stage race. Most of my work was done because of the Crit that the team competed in the night before, but there are always things that need to be taken care of.

International UCI races in Asia will usually supply a team with a car with bike rack and also a van or small SUV with driver who will handle all luggage transfers. The race organization will make arrangements to transfer all our bike luggage to the last hotel of the race, so we don’t have the cart it around all week.

Seeing that we don’t have a truck or trailer to store the bikes, the hotels will provide a bike storage room and sometimes provide a 24-hour security guard to watch the bikes. If the security of the bikes seems questionable I’ll either lock the bikes up with a long cable lock or I’ll even keep all the bikes in my hotel room. Sometimes I’ll even put a cable lock on the bikes up in my room (just to be sure).

The first hotel we stayed at for Jalajah Malaysia, had a bike storage room that was on the top floor of the hotel, which was the 25th floor... Lets just say, I had to get a little creative with how I washed and tuned bikes and then transferred them back upstairs. Just like anywhere in the world, the bikes will always need a watchful eye, it only takes a few seconds for someone to steal a bike.

Once the race gets going, it’s easy to fall into the routine of riding in the caravan during the day and washing/ tuning bikes in the evening. Every team in the race is provided with the same vehicle set up, so any transferring of bikes that is needed to and from stages is done with a large box truck. If the riders can’t ride to the start or from the finish, it’s my job to hunt down the right truck and load up all the race bikes. Then it’s a mechanics job to wait around for the bike truck to show up, especially after the race when the truck driver does not seem all that motivated to make it back to the hotel in any reasonable time frame. Once all the race bikes show up, it’s a scramble along with all the other team mechanics to wash bikes.

Let me try and paint a mental picture of a situation when 15 mechanics are trying to wash 6 bikes each, all working off one water source that is located in some dark ally behind the hotel. You can do the math. (15 x 6 = 90) That’s a lot of bikes and people in one small place with only one hose.

I’ll explain more about the water hose. Most of these “back ally bike wash stations” their is only 2 separate water pressures available. Either the water is barely trickling out of the spigot or we are all trying to wash bikes with a high-pressure fire hose that has no turn off valve. It’s a real test of patience and teamwork. Even though we all work for different teams, we need to be courteous to each other to get our jobs done. It usually works out fine.

Once we get over to Asia and the race is moving along, Id say my work load stays pretty consistent to what I have to deal with over here in the states. On one hand, I’m very limited on spare equipment and resources. But on the other hand, I only have to maintain 6 race bikes, 2 spare bikes and a handful of wheels. Back home we have a trailer full of equipment to meet the riders needs for certain races and stages. The riders are much more relaxed if we don’t have their ideal wheel choices or cassette choices when racing overseas.

The race will provide a pretty typical “western meal” for breakfast and dinner. At the race hotels, we never are faced with eating something we wouldn’t find here in the US. Being the adventurous type, once all my work is done I try and hunt down some local cuisine. I find that some of the best food is found right at street level. In Malaysia there was always a night market near the hotel, where I could experiment with new food. It’s always a gamble when venturing out for street food, but the risk can be well worth it.

Before we knew it, the race was over and that’s when I really have to get to work. All the bikes and spare wheels will need to be packed up for the journey home. This is by far the hardest day of work for the entire week. Most of the time, the riders will finish the final stage and we will be flying back home within 2 to 8 hours once they cross the finish line. Luckily this year we were not flying out for another 6 hours, so I had plenty of time to pack up. I usually recruit the riders help when packing up to go home, I’ll ask them to take off the h/bars, pedals and rear derailleur. The rest of the packing is up to me. I had just enough time to finish packing, take a quick shower and jump onto the bus that was taking us to the airport. Then, another 20-plus hours back to LAX.

Bob, met me at the airport and we went back to where the trailer was located and started to pack up bikes for his trip to Taiwan. A separate group of riders were going to be competing in the Tour of Taiwan, and we where basically repeating what I had just done a week before.

For me though, I was going to be flying back to Boston for a little R & R.

All in all it seems like a lot of work and travel for a bike race, but like what I said before, going to new international locations and working on bikes is a great experience. It challenges all your mental resources and adds valuable experience.

Can’t wait for the next overseas race.

Eric J