“So I turn up at the hotel at the time and day they said and the lady at the reception straight away asked, ‘Are you Craig? Your stuff is in here,’ and she leads me through to this door. Inside the room there’s just bikes everywhere! I was so naive, they’d already been and gone just in case I brought the police or something!”
Craig Geater was seeing the side of professional cycling we don’t see on our screens. He can laugh about it now, but at the time he found himself helping to clear up the mess from the implosion of the Linda McCartney cycling team, this time attempting to recover the contents of the team’s Spanish service course, which had been held ransom for missing payment by disgruntled staff.
In a typically Kiwi way he tells this story, and indeed his own story of being a mechanic in the peloton, in a very matter of fact way. He likes the spin that just one thing has led to another, and that he’s somehow fluked it. Yes, sometimes that can work, but you’ve also got to prove your worth for it to continue for twenty years.
From Rotorua cycling stock, Craig moved to Geraardsbergen in 1998 to stay with McCartney rider and friend, Scott Guyton, for a few months.
“I went to ride a few races, but I basically got belted! I found I was fixing bikes more and more because I sort of had more use doing that than racing. Robbie McEwen had lived in the same apartment the year before and he was looking for someone to take him motor pacing, so I started doing that too, just going up and down the canal to Ghent and Oudenaarde every day. Then one day Vanessa, Scott’s girlfriend, asked if I could go to a race in Holland with her team as their mechanic had disappeared or something, so I went and found it was quite nice. I came home 11 o’clock at night and Scott said, ‘Oh, Linda McCartney need a mechanic, we're leaving at six o'clock in the morning!’ So that was it, I was off, off to do five one-day races. Sean Yates was the DS there and we hit it off right from the start. They asked if I’d carry on and go and do a couple more races, go to Canada to do a tour with them. I had never been to Canada so I thought ‘this is actually quite good fun.’”
“Next it was Denmark. All of a sudden I was going to all these countries in the space of five minutes whereas everyone else back home was just going to work on the same roads every day. I just got hooked on it really. Next thing the McCartneys offered me a full time job.”
Happy to cut his teeth on the road he was able to witness the highs and lows of this fledgling team, which included a few memorable moments from the Giro d’Italia.
“I never ever dreamed that we would even go to the Giro. We got a stage win and then got second the next day too.”
But the cracks were starting to show towards the end of the season. Salaries were late, if they got paid at all.
“We went and did the Tour Down Under in January ’01 and then flew back to England for the team presentation. It was all done and dusted before we even got there. Sean Yates broke the news to us, I was actually rooming with him at the time and he just got up one morning and said ‘well, it's was nice knowing you and I'm sorry how it worked out and see you later.’ I’ve still got that Jacob’s Creek-Jaguar kit.”
Suddenly out of a job, Geater weighed up his options.
“To be honest, I thought that was it as all the teams would be full by then, and since it was January I thought I’d go skiing until my money ran out then go home. But then Neil Stephens [another McCartney DS] rang me up one day, saying they needed a mechanic for the Australian programme, so I moved to Italy with them.”
THE RIIS MOVE
“I was there for a month or two and Shayne Bannan offered me a two-year contract, but then I got a call from McEwen saying they were looking for a mechanic at CSC. I’d actually spoken to CSC the year before when we were staying at the same hotel during the Franco-Belge and they’d offered me a place, but I was quite nervous as I didn't know anyone from Denmark, so I’d stayed with the McCartneys. Robbie was riding for Farm Frites back then and their mechanics were talking to the mechanics from CSC who’d been asking around for an English-speaking mechanic. Robbie just said, 'Yeah, Craig hasn't got a job anymore!’”
“So, when they rang me they just said straight out, ‘Would you rather be working for the Australian national team or would you like to come to a professional team?’ Back then they had Jalabert, Bo Hamburger, Tyler Hamilton; so yeah, I said yes. I was shitting myself though when I had to tell Shayne that I had just arrived but I was leaving again, but he was so supportive, saying ‘as long as you're going upwards and not down or sideways I'm super happy for you and that's what we encourage.’ I just remember saying to him that if he ever started a pro team I’d come straight back, not thinking he’d actually do it!
“CSC just grew bigger and bigger, Jens Voigt, Bartoli, Tafi, Sastre, the Schlecks, they all came on board and then all of a sudden I’m in one of the biggest teams in the world, going to the Tour de France with them every year. The first time, back in ’01, I was only supposed to stay the first couple of weeks, teams still do it today because it’s super busy at the start, but I was so rapt to be there I asked if I could stay and just sleep on the floor. I think the last five days I was sleeping on the massage table but I thought it was great!”
Geater is a veteran of not only the Tour but also multiple spring campaigns. “Every year since I’ve been with pro teams, so 20 years now. It’s actually helped because CSC said I’d have to live back in Belgium, so I moved to Kluisbergen, at the bottom of the Oude Kwaremont, lived with a family that I now call ‘Ma and Pa’: Roland and Karen de Wolf. I lived up in their attic, came and went as I pleased and they become my family away from home.”
At CSC he was reunited with Yates, Geater putting his name forward when Riis asked Geater if he knew any English-speaking sports directors. However, it was Yates that eventually prised Geater away from CSC after Yates was handpicked by Armstrong to DS at Discovery Channel. As the saying goes, ‘What goes around comes around’.
THE ARMSTRONG YEARS
Geater was there for the last two years of Discovery, staying with the crux of the team as they transitioned into Astana, welcoming Armstrong out of retirement and back into the team.
“Yeah, Contador was already there and winning Tours and the Giro, but Armstrong was obviously coming back to be the leader. It was cool for us because we had two guys that could potentially win, but for them it became uncomfortable. It never really showed on the road but the conflict was always there and that made people short-tempered. In the end they just said ‘bugger it’ and Bruyneel and Lance started RadioShack.”
Employed as head mechanic at RadioShack, Geater was also chosen to be Armstrong’s personal mechanic. Working this close Geater got to see him when the guard was down, and looking back enjoyed his time with the Texan.
“I’ve nothing bad to say, he was never rude to me and I really enjoyed the time that I spent with him. He was always super professional with his bike, even had his own tape measure so he knew everything was exactly right. The media portray him to be this arrogant Texan and they were always digging to see if he was clean or not, so I guess he just got sick of them and that’s where the arrogance comes from. But when I actually worked with him on the team I found him to be really good. He was sort of like a little bit Kiwi, always joking around and fun. Basically, he just wanted his bike to work.”
After two years with RadioShack, Geater got a call from Bannan saying he was starting a new team. True to his word he signed for the start-up GreenEDGE team, somewhere he instantly felt at home.
“I was back with Neil Stephens, I’d been Matthew White’s mechanic at Discovery, Julian [Dean] was going there, heaps of people, probably half the team I’d worked with before on different teams. It’s always been friendly, right from the start, maybe because we can all laugh at ourselves if we make a mistake, whereas in other teams you’d get told off. It brings out the best in people and everyone is so relaxed, enjoying what they are doing, which seems to help people make less mistakes.”
Based near the team’s service course in Varese, Geater juggles his Mitchelton-SCOTT duties with Cycling New Zealand sorties, moving back and forth from the back seat through to the front. “I’d been a mechanic for them at the Road Worlds pretty much since 2000. I missed a few years, but pretty much since London I’ve juggled being sports director too, doing every Worlds since. More directing and less of a mechanic, which I found good. It was still the same sport but it was something different, so it was quite challenging.”
LEARNING FROM LEGENDS
You can’t spend 20 years on the road without bumping into a few legends along the way, and one of them has to be Julien DeVries. Known for ‘spannering’ the steeds of Merckx and LeMond, Craig worked alongside him during his Armstrong and Contador years. Not only the mechanic of champions, Julien’s legend extended to his stash of tubular tyres in his basement, aged in darkness for years, brought out only for special races.
“It’s still there that basement, Katusha use it now. He was a bit of a grumpy bastard but I got on well with him, learnt from him. It was good to see how he interacted with people, like when sponsors come along and try to push products, but you know it’s just not ready for use yet. He was really good at explaining it to them without upsetting anyone.”
It’s a skill Geater carries today, for as a pro team you are often the test team.
“Yeah, we get all sorts, we are the guinea pigs for the new gear. We do break stuff but you don’t see that,” he says with a wink. “I’ve been on some teams where the tyre treads have peeled off or the chain links have started to split, but everything is getting better now. Continental is a good sponsor to have because we’ve had tyres that have gone clean through the canvas after crashes, but they’ve got a thick layer underneath so the rider has ridden on and finished. I’ve had hairline fractures in the frames in the past, but they are just so strong now, more robust.”
One thing they can’t make more robust is the riders. Craig is often the first to the fallen.
“We do run to the crash and look at the rider first and ask if they’re okay, sometimes you can see clearly that they are not. If they are pretty banged up you still get their bike ready just in case and try and get the medic to them as quickly as possible. We have a team doctor in the car 90% of the time for the Grand Tours, and you’ve also got the race doctors too, but often I think the riders just get a little bit of relief or comfort that they’ve got someone from the team there with them.
“Basically you see if they are okay and if they are starting to get up then you quickly grab their bike and check it is still functional. You push them off on their way and if they are struggling a bit you can treat them from the car or fix something while we are moving if it needs fixing.”
The sticky bottle of the DS is perhaps more notorious than the sticky Allen key from the mechanic, but watch cycling races long enough and you’ll see back brake or saddle adjustments are often required after crashes.
“It’s never been legal, but the UCI have started enforcing it more and more in the last few years. You are not supposed to hang out and try and fix the bike, but you still get the odd one where someone’s gears aren’t working properly after a crash, so instead of swapping the bike you just get your Allen key and bend the derailleur out, hoping the hanger doesn’t snap off!”
“But we’ve had some nasty ones too. The Paris-Roubaix that Matt Hayman won we had Mitch Docker crash. He was a mess. I wasn’t in that car but if you look at the footage of when Fausto [the mechanic at the time] came back to the car and they asked if he was alright he just said ‘No. There’s blood everywhere.’ He was scared by that.”
The Spring Classics is always the busiest time for the team mechanics, with special builds for these special races. Geater takes it in his stride.
“You are always going to get it done. So, you get tired and miss dinner and get grumpy or whatever, but you always have time before the next day to fix and fit everything, in theory you have the whole night. All the mechanics on the WorldTour are like one big family though, we’ll always help each other and you never turn anyone away because you never know when you’ll need help yourself. Plus, if you’ve worked for a few years chances are you know the staff in other teams as you’ve probably worked with them before.”
And as the years have passed, Geater has seen all the cobbled trends.
“We’ve gone away from that phase of suspension and spoked wheels, now they ride normal carbon bikes and carbon race wheels. They always ride wider tyres, between 25 and 28mm, you need 28s really because of the gaps between the pavé, and we’ll be running mostly 54/44 tooth chainrings with an 11-21 cassette. They used to ask for double bar tape but now they just get on and ride it, except [Sam] Bewley, he rides double-wrapped all year.
“We get some strange requests for Roubaix, some people want to undergear themselves or want less air in their tyres, so it’s more comfortable on the pavé but they forget there’s still 180 km of normal roads in between. When Matt won he was saying beforehand how he’d always done everything right but he’d always failed, I just said, ‘It’s because you never pump your tyres up properly.’ I explained that in between secteurs you are either chasing to get back on or you are trying to break away, not sitting in a group because the groups always split up.
“With Roubaix you are going to be uncomfortable no matter what you do. You could be on a full suspension bike but you’ll still be uncomfortable. You’ve just got to suck it up as it’s basically just survival.”
As you’d expect, Craig travels everywhere with his personal tool box, guarding his tools closely, although some more than others.
“My favourite tool is still my custom titanium hammer. You can bang things, people,” he laughs. “But I’ve got my tool box down to around seven kilos as you don’t need that much in it really. I always have a set of Allen keys in my pocket from when I get out of bed in the morning until I go to bed.
“I’ve also got a fishing rod on the bus. The last time I caught a fish though was at Paris-Roubaix when we were staying at a château with a moat around it. I got told off by the chef there, he said that they were his as he feeds them all the time!”