“Thierry breathes cycling. He has cycling in his heart!” says BMC sports director Yvon Ledannois when speaking of Thierry Viaene. The unassuming Viaene is just one of the sports’ dozens of mechanics. He’s a ‘wrench’ and he couldn’t be happier.
Words & images: James Startt – European Associate to peloton
From: Le Lioran, France
“I grew up on the outskirts of Lille next to service course for the old Peugeot team,” Viaene says when speaking of his entry into the sport. “Already, when I was seven or eight, I would see great champions like Bernard Thévenet or Jean-Louis Danguillaume hanging out at the headquarters and they would give me caps or water bottles. Later, I would walk by it every day on my way to high school. And when I saw that the team had returned from a race, well, I didn’t go to school that day. Instead I’d go in and start washing the bikes, paint the bike racks or do whatever I could. I was only 13 or 14 years old, but that’s what I wanted to do.”
While his apprenticeship came under Peugeot, first real employment came with another team based in northern France, La Redoute. He immediately impressed them at a tryout in the Tour of Limousin, a minor race at the end of 1978. And he was hired full time with them in 1979. “And I’ve never quit!” he says.
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In the 1980’s, Luis Ocaña, winner of the 1973 Tour, hired him on the Fagor team. And he worked on a variety of Spanish teams like Kelme, Caisse d’Epargne and Movistar before settling in the the American BMC team in recent years. “You know the way he talks about legends like Thévenet or Ocaña, with real first-hand knowledge, you would think he was 70 years old,” say Ledannois. “He’s not. It’s just that he started when he was 13 or 14.”
Indeed, Viaene, now 54, has seen the sport evolve from its artisanal ranks in the 1970’s to today’s neo-futuristic state. “Today you have to be more of an electrician than a mechanic,” Viaene jokes. But he insists, “The transition has been progressive, so it has never posed a problem.”
Many experienced mechanics opt out of the team cars after numerous years on the road. But not Viaene. It is his lifeblood. And still today, after nearly four decades in the sport, he can still be found in the back seat behind his sports director.
As Viaene recounts the early days, you still sense his passion. “I sometimes spent more time hanging out the window than in the car, ready to jump out at any moment. And for time trials, we actually carried a spare bike on our shoulder. That way, if there was a bike change in the middle of a TT we would just jump out the window. We could save 15-20 seconds right there. It cost me a couple of fractured ribs, but I had goosebumps all of the time.” And with a hint of regret he adds, “Such techniques have long been banned.”
According to Ledannois, “He is the kind of mechanic a sports director needs.” And the Ledannois insists, “You can never be a super sports direct if you don’t have a super mechanic at your side. There is a complicity that installs between the two. I remember when I was starting out at Caisse d’Epargne, Thierry taught me things in the race. He opened my eyes. He helped me see where some of the key moments were in a race. And if I am even a decent director today, it is at least in part due to him.”
Clearly Viaene still lives for those moments when the competition is most intense. “The best moment is when you are in the car in the last 10km of a climb, when you have a chance to win. That is where the emotion is! The one thing I can say is that I’ve never been bored. I live a child’s dream every day!”
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