The slippy-slidey descent through the woods, with all its crashes and the rowdy beer tent on the bottom corner, just wasn’t manic enough. So I headed for the pits.
Being a fly on the wall here is a far more hazardous occupation that tucked behind an inflatable safety barrage on a downhill.
While even on the most treacherous parts of the course the general direction of movement is forward, here in the pits it’s forth and back, left and right, ankle deep in mud that is being continually rehydrated by the spray of jet wash and the spill of buckets.
Pressed against a barrier, I watch mechanics stumble through the gloop and swing bikes wildly onto their shoulders. At least once I duck, Laurel and Hardy style, to avoid a face full of disc brake.
“It’s stressful in the pits, especially here at Gavere,” says Didier Vercruysee from beneath the peak of a cap. “Every year in Gavere it’s the same. It’s special mud. Other places you don’t have this ground.”
Didier Vercruysse between bike changes
There are few Ps and Qs here. The mechanics are present for one thing only – to keep the bikes in service for their rider.
Vercruysee is here to support Arno Debeir from the Lares-Doltcini team in the Under 23s. Even in this aspirant category, each rider will typically have at least two helpers to themselves: one catching the used bike, the other dispatching a clean machine to the passing racer.
Vercruysee’s pit partner is Debeir’s father Martin. Their respective wives form the rest of the rider’s support team, attending the start and finish to handle warm clothing and pass-up food.
Like blood through the heart, the race flows through opposite sides of the pits twice per circuit. The first passage comes after a trudge through the withered limbs of an orchard, the other after a lung-aching slog of a climb.
“They need to have my bike ready every time I come through,” race winner Tom Pidcock told me after the race.
Because of his high demand on equipment in these conditions, he adds that all three of his mechanics, Seth Smith, Luc Aelbrecht and Wouter Feayarts, had been dispatched to the pits for this race. “Usually it’s just two, but Luc had to go in as well in case it was really busy. If one of them was caught up at the jet wash, there would be someone else to catch my bike.
“Normally he’s on the course,” Pidcock added. “Doing the times. Or if I want a change -like a different tyre pressure- then I tell him and he’ll get to the pits and get the bike ready.”
I was not surprised to learn that once he’d settled in, Pidcock was indeed taking a change with every passage of the pits. At the start, though, he’d pushed his luck by riding the same Trek for the opening lap and a half as he tried to established his position. “I probably shouldn’t have done that,” he admitted.
One day earlier, I had done a few laps of the circuit myself, giving Ridley’s latest X-Night SL a try out. For what it’s worth I liked the lightweight machine: an agile mover, well balanced, nicely finished with electronic Ultegra gearing.
If there was anything to fault it was the choice of a do-all tyre for Gavere’s extreme mud. Despite it’s good clearance, when I tried to ride two laps without bothering to swing off course for a jet wash, I accumulated so much clog behind the bottom bracket I could barely turn the wheels.
24 hours later, the course has taken several more inches of rain and been rutted and chewed by the morning’s junior and youth races. Yet for all the in-pit chaos and frantic manoeuvring, the bike changes themselves remain remarkably slick.
Careful to stay out the way, I study riders coming in, dismounting on the left, fluidly leave a bike in the hands of one mechanic and, almost in the same movement, retrieve another identical machine from their colleague.
The rider doesn’t say a word, he barely looks at his helpers and remains focussed on the job of racing.
The mechanics –ubiquitously dressed in waterproofs and wellies- also get on with theirs. The receiver of the dirty bike bounds with it on his shoulder for the jet wash station at the far end of a central aisle demarked by barriers. Here on a low-scaffold platform in the trees buzz eight Kärchers assembled like petrol pumps on either side of a gantry.
Nozzles are rushed up and down and angled into nooks. A mist wafts off into the woodland and the runoff puddles across the course. When all eight pens of the jet wash are occupied, a short queue forms. But it’s not like anyone is taking their time; the intervals between changes can be as short as three minutes.
The other mechanic meanwhile transports a third bike across the aisle into the other half of the pits, the zone that services the second passage of the course. With fingers and a brush from a bucket, he fills the waiting moments working at some finer points the jet wash didn’t get to: mud behind the chainset, blades of grass in the jockey wheels, brown smudges on the bar tape. He’ll apply a little lube.
A last minute wipe for Tom Pidcock’s bike. Because Pidcock is leading, mechanic Wouter Feayarts is able to enjoy the luxury of tracking his rider’s progress towards the pits on the big screen
Study one team at work and their three bike juggling act is as systematic as clockwork. The complication is that every other rider in the race has a setup doing a similar thing. The mechanics get in each other’s way, trip over each other’s buckets and sink in the boggy footsteps left by the man before them.
But the process goes on until their rider has passed the pits for the very last time. I stand and watch as things eventually wind down.
Team Pidcock pack up and head towards the pit exit, one checking with another that they’ve seen their charge successfully cross the line. Feayarts confirms that he’d seen it on the screen, so they bump fists to celebrate.
Vercruysee leaves a little after, his man Debeir having finished sixteenth.
Vercruysee has worked with the rider since he was in the youth categories but I ask if maybe he’ll also help out in the women’s race or the elite men (pictured top). Debeir’s Lares-Doltcini is afterall a feeder squad for the senior Marlux-Napoleon Games team.
Vercruysee smiles and shakes his head. “Doing one race is quite enough,” he says.