Growing up in South Africa, Gary Blem would watch TV coverage of the Tour de France with great enthusiasm, but he never dreamed that one day he would actually be one of its actors. That all changed when he became a pro team wrench and worked his way through the ranks to become principal mechanic to three-time Tour winner Chris Froome at Team Sky.
Words and images by James Startt
Peloton Magazine: Gary, I think you are the only South African mechanic in the pro peloton, right?
Gary Blem: Yes, I think that is correct. Actually, I think I am the only African mechanic in the WorldTour.
Peloton: That must be an amazing story. How did you get from South Africa to working for Chris Froome at the Tour de France?
Blem: Oh it’s a long story. Basically, I went from being a shop mechanic in South Africa to a pro mechanic with the Barloworld team that was run by John Robinson, a South African manager. While there, I got to work with Giancarlo Bianchi, one of the best mechanics in the world. From there I went back and worked with the MTN team, which is Dimension Data today, and after that I was head-hunted by the HTC team. I think they figured that if I could work with Giancarlo, I could work with or on anything. Within a few months at HTC Mark Cavendish took a liking to me and I became Cav’s mechanic. And then when Cav moved over to Sky, I moved with him. But when he left [in 2013], I stayed.
Peloton: And here at Sky you have forged a place on the team as Chris Froome’s principal mechanic….
Blem: Yeah, the pressure continues! Looking after Cav was a great experience because, well, I prefer riders that keep me on my toes. The job can be easy, but I prefer a challenge. Cav was definitely a challenge because he was very demanding.
Peloton: Yeah, I remember once in an early-season training camp, Mark spent like two hours working on the position of his stem. Something wasn’t quite right. It was a minute detail, but he just was not going to stop until it was perfect.
Blem: Yeah that’s true. And I enjoyed taking on the challenge. Shortly after Cav left Sky, Chris came to me and asked me to be his mechanic. I was actually a little surprised. Cav had just left the team and I remember thinking that the pressure was going to be off me a bit. But that was not to be! And so I’ve been taking care of Froomey and Geraint Thomas, who I both knew back from the Barloworld days.
Peloton: Although Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome are completely different cyclists, when it comes to their bikes are there any similarities?
Blem: Yeah, both Cav and Froomey are very sensitive. They will change their positions constantly. “G” [Geraint Thomas] however doesn’t care. Just give him a bike and he rides it. If the seat is a centimeter high or low he doesn’t care as long as the wheels go around. The position he sets in January is the position he has at the end of the season in December.
Peloton: Describe how you work with Chris a little bit more.
Blem: Well, we spend a lot of time working in training camps together. That way I am there to help him if there are any issues. It’s good for me to work closely with him so I can check his position, et cetera. That way, if there are any problems with injuries, I know exactly where he is on the bike. In addition Froomey rides with the Osymetric chainrings, which are more difficult to work with. They take a lot more attention, so it is good that someone is always working with him because he is the only rider using them. They are very difficult to set up and there is a certain feeling with them.
Peloton: You must have a lot of great war stories. What was the craziest day you ever had as a mechanic?
Blem: Well, last year on the Mont Ventoux was pretty crazy. I was in the car that day and it was so frustrating because I could see [on the in-car TV monitor] Froomey running without a bike but the race officials were holding us back behind riders that had been dropped. It’s understandable but frustrating. When Froomey said, “I need a bike!” we were like 2 kilometers behind him. By the time the officials let us pass, we couldn’t pass the riders because there were so many spectators on the road. And you can’t just run them over. I had options. I could run with a bike, but he was 2 kilometers up the road. And how far up the Ventoux can I run with a bike? It was a frustrating moment.
Peloton: What’s the best thing about your job?
Blem: Cycling is just a passion for me! I used to race years ago. And as a kid I would sit in the bike shop and just watch the Tour de France. I remember seeing Greg LeMond or Stephen Roche fighting it out. But as a South African I never had a chance to go see the Tour, let alone to be a part of it. I’ve been a part of four successful yellow jerseys [Brad Wiggins in 2012 and Froome in 2013, 2014 and 2015). But really the greatest satisfaction is simply being a part of it all!