German Katusha mechanic Roger Theel thought he was just going to work one race. But more than 15 years later he is still at it and shows no signs of slowing down. Along the way the Katusha-Alpecin wrench has worked with some of the sport’s biggest names. And he has a chest of war stories to prove it….
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton Magazine
Peloton Magazine: Roger, you are known in the professional cycling world for having the coolest tool kit in the peloton. You have made a customized tool rack out of leather that hangs over the back seat of your team car and is easily accessible. How many tools do you have there?
Roger Theel: Oh, that’s a hard question. But I have enough to work with. It’s perfect because everything is in front of me. I was hoping to get another one ready for the Tour but I ran out of time. That said, this one still serves me well. It’s really got everything I need.
Peloton: How did you become a pro mechanic?
Theel: Well I raced bikes myself when I was younger. I stopped fairly early but I was just really into everything mechanical. I built up a business with a friend of mine fixing cars, scooters, everything, you name it. Then one day I had a chance to come back into cycling. Back in 2001, Team Coast asked me if I could come help them out at Paris–Nice. I thought it would just be a cool experience. But I liked it and ended up staying.
Peloton: What teams have you worked with along the way?
Theel: Well, Team Coast became Bianchi. Then I worked with Phonak, CSC, RadioShack, Trek and now, just this year, I started with Katusha.
Peloton: Well, that’s a lot of big teams, with a lot of big champions. Sometimes mechanics develop a real strong relationship with a particular rider. Was there any one in particular you have worked with?
Theel: Yeah, I have worked with a lot of big champions. But a lot of cyclists are champions even if they have not won as many races as some. Of all of the guys though, I would say I worked the most with Fabian Cancellara. We just worked for so many years together that real bonds were formed. Those sorts of relationships don’t happen all the time but, yeah, with Fabian it was special.
Peloton: What was it like working for Cancellara?
Theel: Well, Fabian knew what he wanted. He was real clear. And then, of course, we won a lot of races.
Peloton: We’re here at the Tour de France where the stories are always so great. What was your craziest moment on the Tour?
Theel: Well, that would probably have been the start of the 2009 Tour in Monaco. My wife was due with our second baby before the race so I was staying at home as long as possible. She was actually due a couple days before, but I had everything planned out. I had all of the bikes ready beforehand. But then my child was two days late. Everyone started to panic, but I thought I could still fly down on the morning of the start.
The only problem was that the Air Berlin flight from Berlin to Nice, was not going to give me enough time to get to Monaco before the start. Things were really getting tense. Fabian was texting me all the time and finally Stuart O’Grady, another great rider, arranged to helicopter me from the Nice airport to Monaco. So as soon as I got off the plane, someone met me and took me to the helicopter. We were just in the two-seater with a clear floor. You could see everything below! Then, in Monaco, someone else picked me up on scooter, because I would never have made it through the Tour de France traffic in a car.
So there I was racing through Monaco on the back of a scooter with all of my suitcases and toolbox in my arms. I got to the start with less the 30 minutes to go. And when I saw Fabian by the start ramp he was stressing because the speed was not reading on his computer. Finally, I just ripped it off and said to him, “Hey, fuck man! You just have to go full gas!” And that’s what he did. He went out and won!
Things like that you just never forget, not just because Fabian won, but because of everything the team did to make it happen. But there are so many good stories.
Peloton: What is the best thing about your job?
Theel: Well, things like this for sure! Those moments when you have a great team and everybody is working well together. That’s just so satisfying.
Peloton: And what is the worst thing about your job?
Theel: Well, when you’re not winning. You know you can’t win all the time and there can be moments when things just aren’t clicking, communication is not great and suddenly if just feels like a regular job. It’s always much easier when everybody is winning!
Peloton: A lot of mechanics who have been wrenching for a long time get tired of being in the team car. But you still seem to like it?
Theel: Yeah, I do. Sometimes I do go straight to the hotel, but the problem with working at the hotel is that you have to drive the team truck. And boy do I hate driving 85 kilometers an hour on the autoroute!