Working The Pit With Mike Heenan

Last Sunday at the Chicago Cyclocross Cup New Year’s Resolution the pit became a battleground, where the mechanics were fighting to get the mucky, thick, icy mud off the bikes, in freezing temperatures in a timely fashion to return a (somewhat) clean bike to their racers. It was brutal.

While a few of the bigger teams bring their own pressure washer to the pit, most of the pit crew had to share the lone washer, leading to long lines. For the racers, the conditions meant heavier and heavier bikes, gears slipping and for some, frozen gears. A tough day for all.

“The first couple of laps, they were kicking up all this gravel so there’s little bits of rock in there which made it like clay so it was really sticky and then it started freezing after it had been sticky. So sticky mud, frozen mud and then the spots where it was wet, the water was getting in and then freezing. It was the most difficult as far as pit goes, not the messiest, the most difficult that I have ever done.” explained My Wife Inc’s Mike Heenan.

Mechanic by trade, Heenan worked the pit for Adam Myerson (SmartStop / Mock Orange Bikes p/b Ridley) in the elite men’s race. He also raced in the Masters field earlier in the day.

“I’ve been working in bike shops for quite a long time. I think a racer makes a pretty good pit person if they pay attention, they know what to expect, what they’re going to want, what gear they might want.” said Heenan who worked his first cross pit at the inaugural CrossVegas race for VeloBella. The following year, he pitted for three-time World Champion Erwin Vervecken at the USGP Madison, and has since worked with other riders including Molly Cameron, Brian Matter and Myerson.

Though the conditions on Sunday were extreme, the approach to preparing for and working the pit remains the same for every race. Days after the race, both Heenan and Myerson shared their experience and knowledge with podiuminsight.

Mike Heenan (My Wife Inc) washing a bike at the 2011 USGP Madison

The first thing to remember is to show up with a clean bike, and that is up to the racer.

“I’m lucky that I have two really great mechanics that I got to work with this year. At home it’s CJ Congrove and he lives local to me and so I’m able to pick him up when we travel to the race together, we get to work together every weekend so we get to know each other. And then for the races outside of New England, Mike has been available and it’s been really great to have Mike as my sort of road mechanic. Having the two of them has been awesome.” explained Myerson.

He went on to point out that unlike the bigger teams, no mechanic is taking his bikes in between races, “I’m still responsible for showing up like any good pro. You should give your mechanic a clean bike to start with. I think the starting point is just making sure that your bikes are washed on your own during the week. I feel that every pro bike race should at least be capable of washing and tuning their own bikes.”

Myerson added, “I like to work on my stuff and I’m particular on how my stuff works so I actually like to dial my bikes during the week and show up with my stuff already in race condition providing time allows. That’s step one, showing up with your stuff working. And if you’re having an issue, showing up with it properly diagnosed, giving your mechanic a heads up so if he needs to bring anything, that he can come prepared for you as well, of course if you’re lucky enough to have a mechanic right?”

The gunk was sticking everywhere on the bikes

Heenan recommends spending time prior to the race to get the bike ready. “When it’s muddy like that or there’s potential for it to be muddy, spending a couple of hours a couple of days ahead to make sure that your bike is clean, make sure that everything is lubed properly. Because as soon as you introduce any sort of mud or debris, anything that is wrong with your bike is going to show up and it’s going to be amplified a ton just because all of a sudden it’s going to shift really poorly, the chain is going to skip if you’ve a worn cassette or a worn chain.”

“If you’re not running sealed cables, all the cables should be dry, that’s the big thing with cables is once you get moisture in them, either from washing it or not maintaining it, that moisture in there freezes and then your shifting is just going to go completely south.”

And think about replacing worn parts. “And for a big race like Nationals, spending $150 replacing a cassette and a chain if you’ve raced on them for two seasons, or putting new cables on your bike early in the week so that you can work the kinks out is money well spent really. At this time of year, everyone is trying to eek out the last life out of their equipment but they’re traveling six hours and spending hundreds of dollars to race but they don’t spend $100 maintaining their bike. It’s kind of ridiculous.”

Step two on the day of the race is to discuss the pit options with your mechanic(s) after inspecting the course.

“My warm up always consists of a lot of course evaluation, I spend a lot more time on the course than I do on the trainer. It depends on the conditions and how much help you have, when the course is muddy it’s sometimes even more important to get a lot of course inspection done but that also means a lot of extra work for your mechanic so I try to get there early enough to do one inspection lap between races where I just ride one lap just to look at it.” said Myerson who usually does his warmup before the women’s race.

“Usually on that first inspection lap is when I start thinking about things and then in my warmup when I do things more at speed is when I’m really deciding on how it’s going to go in the race. But, for instance, Mike and I talked this weekend, we knew that on Sunday we were going to be changing bikes every lap, that the mud was heavy enough that it potentially going to break derailleur hangers, and it was piling up and freezing to the bikes and it added a lot of weight, and there were a lot of sections where you went through mud and then sand, so it was like getting tarred and feathered and your gears would be slipping afterwards, you had to change bikes for that.”

With only one pressure washer and a line to wash bikes, both Myerson and Heenan came to the conclusion that it wasn’t feasible to change bikes every half lap so they decided to do it every lap. The next decision was which time through the pit would the exchange happen?

“So we evaluated where was most of the mud, and the second time through the pit close to the finish had a long pavement section and a less muddy section.” Myerson continued. “We made a choice to change on the second time through the pit rather than the first. I had three bikes so I could have changed at a half lap even if the other bike wasn’t ready and all three bikes are the same except I only had two sets of the tires that I wanted to ride so if I had taken that third bike, I wasn’t going to get the tires that I wanted. That third bike is mostly at that point, if something broke and I needed to keep changing, that was the third bike is for.”

Of course after the pre-ride wash and dry the bike. And then maybe applying Pam to your bike.

“A lot of guys will go and put Pam on the downtube and around the fork to keep it from clumping up but I don’t think this weekend it would have mattered because it was so cold. As same point, the Pam is not going to do anything once it’s cold, the big problem this past weekend was not so much the temperature…. the bikes were coming in muddy but it wasn’t so much the mud but the ice.”

And Heenan recommends investing in some de-icer for the pit if freezing temperatures are expected. “Having de-icer in the pit for Nationals is going to be crucial just like you’d use to de-ice your lock on your car, like that. So you can spray the chain and if it clumps at the derailleur and the spring, you can spray that and it will just melt the ice off. You can hit with that and then hit it with lube on top of that just to keep everything going.”

Line for the power washer in the pit

Step three, the race.  Every lap,  Heenan had to try to wash & dry the bike, lube the chain, derailleur and cassette to try to keep it free of ice and dry off the hoods and the saddle and the top tube the best he could – all in about seven and a half minutes in freezing temperatures.

Once the bike exchange was made, Heenan ran to the pressure washer to wait in line. “Luckily everyone kind of plays nice with one another. The big teams with budget have their own, which is great, awesome for them. You just make the best of it, everyone gets in line, the next person in line holds the bike for the person washing and moves it around and spins the wheel so that you can just blast and it makes it go just a little bit quicker.”

“I tried to get most of the chunks off while I was waiting in line, it was everywhere, it looked like they have spokey dokes on the spokes when it freezing to the spokes, so I would stand in line and I would try to chip it off and wipe off as much as I could.”

It was all about being efficient with the short time allotted. “Really in those instances when you’re standing in line, the pressure washer time is at a premium, you really have to be efficient in the way you wash the bike and go in one direction so that you’re not having to go back having to wash a second time because you sprayed mud everywhere.”

Then, Heenan ran back to his spot in the pit to dry the bike. “I had a backpack with my tools and I basically stuffed it full of dry rags so that every lap I had a dry rag to dry those things off so I wasn’t taking a muddy rag trying to dry those things off.”

“I was basically working on the bike until he came around that last little off camber chicane right before the pit and I had the catcher time, 20 seconds, 10 seconds. I’d get up, get the pedal set in the right spot, get it in the right gear and send him on his way. It was definitely the second most hectic time I’ve pitted was Sunday for sure.”

Clean hoods for Adam Myerson (Smarstop-Mock Orange) at Sunday’s New Year’s Resolution

And finally, after the race, wash the bike and get it ready to travel or race again.

If you’re wondering, the most hectic time in the pit for Heenan was two years ago at the UCI3 Festival. “The Friday was super muddy, I was pitting for Molly (Cameron) and she was pitting every half lap and they had a hose, and that was it. That was insane and luckily it was warm enough that it was just mud so you could wash it off but it’s frozen, it takes twice as long.”

One last recommendation from Myerson is to think of investing in a mechanic. “The thing is that I’m paying these guys. I’m not paying them a lot but I think when you get to the point where if your results matter and you have two bikes, and you’re trying to invest in your result, you want to get passed the point of asking your girlfriend or your boyfriend to be your mechanic or your mom or whatever. And even just asking a buddy. I started recruiting from the B race originally, like who was already going to be there, who is racing before me, who is a good mechanic and who would be excited to do it? And then if you want good help, you want to pay for it.”

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