The world of professional bike racing mechanics is as rich and varied as the professional peloton, and a potpourri of languages can be heard at any service course in Europe. The 41-year-old Trek-Segafredo mechanic Rober Gonzalez, however, has made one of the more fascinating journeys—working his way up through bike shops in his native Colombia all the way to cycling’s WorldTour.
Words & Images: James Startt
Peloton Magazine: Rober, you come from Colombia. How did you become a mechanic for one of Europe’s largest bike teams?
Rober Gonzalez: Well, I was a small professional cyclist in Colombia until I was 24 and then I had to find a job. I was friends with Raúl Mesa, the old director for the Café de Colombia team, and in 1996 he gave me a job working in his bike shop; I would sometimes also be a mechanic for some Colombian teams. Eventually I started working for the national federation, but the idea of working for a big European team was always on my mind. So I went to Spain in 2004 and managed to get a job with an amateur team in Burgos, and then in 2005 I got a job with Saunier-Duval, my first big pro team. I stayed with them until 2008 and then worked two years for Cervélo before coming to Leopard-Trek in 2011. I have been with Trek ever since. It’s been great, and I still feel fortunate because not many mechanics from small countries like mine can make it to the big leagues and be part of this big circus!
Peloton: This week, you have been back in South America at the Tour of San Juan in Argentina. And, somehow, you managed to bring a full service course with you from Belgium. That always amazes me. How do you get all of these bikes and all of this equipment halfway around the world?
Gonzalez: Yes, sometimes it’s difficult. Whenever you come to a race in a different country like Canada, Qatar or here in Argentina, you really have to calculate the weight of everything—the bikes, the water bottles, the wheels, the tools, et cetera. It can be so hard to make the weight restrictions with the airlines. Some airlines are more relaxed than others, but sometimes you have to make real choices on what you bring and what stays back at the service course.
To be honest, the Tour of San Juan is not so difficult because there are no time-trial bikes allowed here. As a result, we only have to bring two bikes per rider. There are six riders here so that makes 12 bikes. Each staff member has his own luggage but also a bike or a box of equipment, gels, water bottles, everything. But in a race like the Tour of California, for example, we also must bring time-trial bikes. And that can be very complicated.
Peloton: And once here, you must set up shop so quickly!
Gonzalez: Yes, when you get here, you have to unbox everything and get it set up ASAP. For example, we arrived here in San Juan on Friday, January 20. But the bikes came by truck from the Buenos Aires airport on Saturday morning. By that point the riders really want to get out and ride because they have been traveling for two days. It’s important for their recovery. So we had about two hours to unbox everything and get their bikes set up. In one hour really, we had the first six bikes ready so each rider could go train. But compared to some races, coming to Argentina is “easy” because each rider just has two bikes. There are no extra TT bikes…and no extra bikes for the leaders.
Peloton: It’s not a problem for the riders that they don’t have TT bikes for the time trial?
Gonzalez: Well, that decision was made by the race officials before the race so it was the same for everyone. The only difference is that, here, they allow handlebar extensions on the road bikes during the time trial. But the handlebars for our new Madone bikes don’t have TT extensions yet. [Bauke Mollema and Matthias Brändle finished second and third, respectively three and sevens seconds behind stage 3 TT winner Ramunas Navardauskas.]
Peloton: What is the best thing about your job?
Gonzalez: Personally, I really like working on wheels. I don’t know why. I think it is because they are a constant. Bikes are changing all the time. The technology is changing all the time. But wheels don’t change so much. You still have to glue the tires on, et cetera. It is a special job, a very particular job. But there is just something about doing that that I love.
Peloton: What is hardest part of your job?
Gonzalez: The travel. My daughter is eight years old. And she is growing up so quickly. It’s hard for the whole family when I am on the road a long time.
Peloton: What is your favorite race?
Gonzalez: I would say the Criterium du Dauphiné. We are in and around the French Alps for a week in early summer. The racing is still pretty relaxed. And it is just so beautiful.