Every cyclocross racer knows the importance of a top-level professional mechanic and the Donnelly team is very fortunate to have James Sullivan in the pit for us. With a break in the racing action we thought we'd ask him a few questions about wrenching for the team his favorite tool and his best tip ever.
1. It’s Friday, the day before a big race. What does your day typically look like?
Friday can sometimes be the longest day of the week. It starts well before the riders arrive. I start by parking the van and trailer at the venue, set up all the tents, work stands, trainers and athlete lounge area. Then I prepare all the bikes for riding. Different riders have different habits. For example, Jamey usually doesn’t inspect the course and instead goes for ride away from the race venue. Lance and Laurel will usually do a few laps on course followed by a short spin.
After all the riders finish their rides and leave, I do a quick wash and dry of the bikes and put everything away. I don’t do too much with the bikes at this point because it is often late in the day and we usually eat at team dinner. I don’t like to leave them waiting too long as there is nothing scarier than a bunch ‘hangry’ riders!
2. Assuming you have all three riders at a race. From the time you wake up what is a typical race day schedule for you?
Race day starts with me and an assistant mechanic arriving at least two or so hours before the riders do. Sometimes, if schedule permits, I will arrive earlier and race myself. We first pull all the bikes out and, if necessary, wash them to make sure they are spotless. This also gives us a chance to make sure the pressure washer is working well and we have enough water in the storage tanks. Once the bikes are cleaned we go through each bike from back to front. Checking brakes, pads, shifting, battery charge, and every single bolt. At this point we take a best guess and put on the wheels and tires we think each rider will prefer. The nice thing with having multiple bikes is we can put on different tire setups to make it easier for the pre-race ride. Once the bikes are ready we get the spare wheels prepped. When riders arrive we go over tire selection and dial in the tire pressure for the pre-race ride. We often put their third bikes on the warm-up trainers so we don’t have to do it later. The riders can then get on whenever they want to spin the legs or warm up for the race. When riders return from the pre-race ride we clean the bikes, make sure all the tires are aired up to the desired pressure and every bike is race ready.
For the women’s race, which is typically first, I will go to the start line and make sure Laurel is ready to go before heading to the pits. The assistant mechanic will stay at the tent and make sure the guy’s bikes are dialed for their race. Following the women’s event I return to the tent area. I’ll then get the men’s bikes, head to the start line and do it all over again. After the races we clean all the bikes while the riders cool down on the trainers. We then dry all the equipment thoroughly and get an idea of what needs to be addressed for the next race. Then we pack up and do it all again!
3. What is your favorite tool and why?
My custom tire pressure gauge is my favorite tool. It’s simple and consistent. The riders and I are all familiar with what the different pressures on the gauge feels like while riding. Unlike a digital gauge, it has no batteries and works well in the cold. Tire pressure can really change the way a bike handles, so nothing beats a tool that makes the process easy and reliable.
4. What is your typical tubular gluing process?
The most important part of my gluing process is starting with a clean rim surface. On any new wheel I will start by washing it and using alcohol to remove any oils or solvents that will affect the glue adhesions. Once the surface is prepped and dry, I will lay down a thin coat of glue and let it sit over night. At the same time I will put a layer on the tire and let that sit over night, too. The next day I will put a second thin layer on the rim and while the new layer is still tacky I'll put CX tape on that glue. I then push the tape down on to the rim and hang it to dry over night. On the third day I will start with the second layer of glue on the tire, which is the final layer that goes on the tire. If time allows it I like to let the tire dry and then I place it on a stretching rim for a second stretching to make it easier to install. When I am ready to mount the tire I clear an area in my shop and I deflate the tire and put the last coat of glue on top of the rim tape. I orientate the wheel and tire making sure I don’t mount it backwards and then stretch the tire over trying to avoid getting glue everywhere. Once the tire is mounted, I inflate the tire to make sure it is on straight, then lower the pressure and roll out the wheel pressing the tire down. The last steep is to inflate to a high pressure and let it sit overnight before it is ridden.
5. After a muddy weekend of racing, what do you do to the bikes to get ready for the next weekend of racing?
Cleaning...lots of cleaning. Following a muddy race weekend it is often dark and late by the time we need to leave the race venue so all the bikes are not always 100% clean when they get put away. This means they often need to be rewashed later in the week. I generally replace all the chains after a muddy race, unless one is relatively new. With the chain off I pull the crank and inspect the bottom bracket bearings and replace as needed. I also check all hubs and wheel bearings at this time. Then I reinstall the bottom bracket, cranks, and pedals with fresh grease. I'll usually replace brake housing and pads after muddy races if necessary. The last step is to put on fresh bar tape if needed and load ‘em all up for the next race.
6. It seems at such a high level of racing every little detail on a race bike needs to be checked over. Do you have a process for that?
I do have a system. I do a bolt check starting from the back of the bike then work my way to the front. I start by using the smallest size Allen key needed for the bike and repeat until I have used all my Allen keys. Then I pull the bike out of the stand, check the thru axles, hubs, and tire pressure. At this point I am confident everything is good to go on the bike. My riders are all in tune with the bikes and will tell when something doesn’t feel quite right. It’s always good to work with good people!
7. You log a ton of miles on the road traveling from race to race? What do you listen to while on the road? How do you break up the drives?
On the road I listen to podcasts, like Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, Radio Lab, and a mix of others. No cycling podcast though! I also try to break up the drives by going for trail rides or runs along the dway. Apps like MTB Project, Trail Forks, Black River and Strava help me out tremendously. It’s way better than when I first started and only had a flip phone!
8. From a mechanic's perspective, what advice would you give advice to all riders out there?
Bring spare part to races! I see lots of people show up to races without some of the most basic parts. It is a long way to travel to not be prepared. There are often people willing to help you, but bikes can be so unique you need to have your own spare parts, like rear derailleur hangers, ready to go. Also be patient. Not only with people, but with the process. Put in your time. Be professional without an ego and you’ll get to where you want to be.
9. How did you become a pro bike mechanic?
I got my start working in bike shops while attending the University of Colorado in Boulder in 2004. While in school I raced all disciplines for the college team, too. At the tail end of school I would travel with collegiate team as a mechanic. After graduating I heard of an opening for a mechanic position on the Maxxis – Rocky Mountain World Cup downhill team. I had good technical skills, but I think what got me the job was my easy going personality and willingness to work hard. I wrenched for the team from 2008 to 2011. It was an amazing experience with lots of European travel and working with incredible riders. I learned how to be prepared, resourceful, and go with the flow. I also learned how to not let the travel get to me!
10. What is the best, most interesting, most odd tip you ever received for your mechanical services?
The best tip I ever received was a World Cup overall winner’s jersey from Sabrina Jonnier after my first season working with her. It was 2009 and she won several World Cups that year to clinch the overall title. She is an amazing athlete.
Anything from Craig Ethridge was the most interesting- anyone who knows him will understand why and anyone who doesn’t is missing out!
The most odd tip was a batch of heirloom tomatoes from a downhill rider in Wyndham, NY. Tasty though.
Donnelly Professional Cycling Team Sponsors
Rochester Cyclocross – Rochester, NY
Jingle Cross World Cup – Iowa City, IO
CrossVegas – Las Vegas, NV
Trek CXC World Cup – Waterloo, WI
KMC CrossFest – Thompson, CT ( Jamey and Laurel )
West Sacramento Grand Prix – Sacramento, CA ( Lance )
Charm City Cross – Baltimore, MD
US Open of Cyclocross – Boulder, CO
Cincy CX Festival - Cincinnati, OH
Derby City Cup – Louisville, KY
Pan Am Championships - Louisville, KY
Los Angeles, CA (Nov 18 + 19)
Ruts N Guts CX – Broken Arrow, OK (Dec 2 + 3)
USA National Championships – Reno, NV (Jan 9-14)
UCI World Championships – Valkenburg-Limburg, NED