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Wheel change

9 October, 2012

Love bikes, hate your job? Then the thought may have crossed your mind to follow your passion, give up the rat race and make a fresh start in the bike industry, writes Iain Treloar.

After all, there’s a lot to like about it – if you’re mechanically minded, there’s something therapeutic about tinkering with bikes and solving gear and brake problems. If you love the white-knuckled excitement of peak hour urban-riding and being outdoors, being a bike courier may be your pipe-dream. And every roadie has wondered what it’d be like to race bikes for a living. But what is it really like working on bikes, riding them or selling them, day in day out? Does the novelty wear off – or could a bicycle industry job be just the thing you need to reinject some passion into your 9-to-5?

The mechanic

In bike stores across Australia, there’s someone quietly working away behind the workshop counter, tuning gears, changing tubes and giving  bikes a new lease of life. Many of these mechanics have worked their way up through the ranks, life-long bike shop employees or bike enthusiasts; some have diversified from another career, changing jobs to do something a little more hands-on. A small number are certified through one of the dwindling number of TAFE courses offering standardised formal qualifications, although increasingly the onus has been on suppliers to train mechanics and salespeople in how to maintain new products. There’s no one clear pathway into a career as a bike mechanic.

For Richard Brewin, it took a brush with death, a lifelong passion for bikes and a decade and a half working as an engineer, but he couldn’t be happier with the change. “Before I became a mechanic, I completed an honours degree in industrial engineering and computing, and was working for a kitchen company. I was responsible for integrating suppliers into the business, which was a lot of hours of work and a lot of stress but really good money. In the end, though, I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve – and had basically engineered myself out of a job,” Brewin says.

Dealing with dirty, cobwebby, rusty old bikes where everything you touch needs work is the necessary flipside to getting to play with exciting new products, like electronic gearing and high-end machines.

This, combined with a brain tumour diagnosis, led Brewin to reassess his life priorities. “I’d always been around bikes, so after the operation I decided to do something I enjoyed doing. I quickly found that the reduced stress levels were better for my well-being,” he says. After two and a half years at Bicycle Superstore in Hoppers Crossing, he now turns the tools for Salter Cycles in Altona Meadows.

Like any job, there’s the good and the bad; for Brewin, dealing with “dirty, cobwebby, rusty old bikes where everything you touch needs work” is the necessary flipside to getting to play with exciting new products, like electronic gearing and high-end machines. He also enjoys the fact that he’s constantly developing new skills. “I enjoy learning – and [before becoming a mechanic] I hadn’t learnt anything new in so long. Because I love bikes so much, I love learning about bikes. It’s really nice to see evolution happening in cycling.”

Job satisfaction is an important element of any job, and happily for Brewin, the passion is still there. “I enjoy working on bikes, and I get satisfaction from solving a problem. It’s great when a customer comes back to thank me for solving the clicking noise that’s been driving them
nuts. I get a lot of appreciative customers, and get great satisfaction out of identifying problems or putting people on the right bike when they’ve never been properly fitted before,” he says.

Brewin finds himself in the fortunate position of “doing something because that’s what I love doing”. He doesn’t necessarily see it as a career path, but rather, a way to be paid “for an interest and a passion. It’s working with people I love working with – there’s very few industries where you get that, and if I was in a shop where I didn’t like the people I wouldn’t do it. I’ve met some really nice people in the industry that I’ve enjoyed being around.”

The courier

Photo by John Watson

For bike lovers, the bicycle courier must be one of the most mythologised professions out there. It’s frequently popularised in the public  imagination as a job of high-adrenaline, allowing you to speed through city streets in an endless summer. More than any other bicycle sub-culture, it’s had a massive influence on popular culture, as the genesis of the urban ‘fixie’ and the backdrop to films like Quicksilver and the soon-to-be-released Premium Rush.

Andy White is one of the more prominent figures in the Australian bicycle scene, best known as the proprietor of popular bike blog (and now boutique store) Fyxomatosis. However, prior to making the shift into curating restorations of beautiful vintage frames White was active for many years as a bike courier, initially in London and then in New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and Melbourne. As 2003 melted into 2004, he  started writing the courier-oriented Fyxo blog. White jokes that “the only thing faster than a bike courier is the rumours they carry” and has since become a de facto spokesperson for the bike courier profession in Melbourne.

For a relatively small industry, bike couriers are a surprisingly common sight on the streets of the city. However, couriers are an endangered species. “The nature of electronic media and the internet has meant things can be sent online without needing that human touch-point,” White explains. From an economic perspective, the nature of the bike courier role in a technologically advancing world is “a horrible inverse equation…where you’re working harder and harder for less and less”.

Nonetheless, White is confident that “there will always be a need for that personal touch”. It is, he says, “the immediacy of being able to call someone, to have someone who is able to organise things for the time-poor” that is the bike courier’s salvation. As a courier he “always made a  point of differentiating [himself] by being friendly”, understanding that future clients were more likely to provide repeat business on the basis of personal service. In our increasingly disengaged communications, there’s something almost old-fashioned (but charming) about “dealing face-to-face with the person that’s delivering your item”.

It’s a role dominated by “young transient people…it’s normally 20–30 year olds who then move into something else”. White had a slightly different path into the industry, first becoming a courier after losing his job in marketing. Compared to an office job, it’s a different world. “It’s a hard but honest job; if you’re not working you’re not getting paid,” says White. “People think it’s great to be on your bike all day, and getting to explore cities on your bike can be pretty cool, but you do need to turn up every day, even if it’s raining, and just do your job.”

That realism aside, the enthusiasm with which he shares his story makes it clear that it’s a job that White has a great deal of affection for – even as  he acknowledges the physical toll it can take on the body and the challenges of riding a bike every day through city traffic. Crashes happen, and he knows couriers who’ve died on the job, but on the whole, the risks are, in White’s opinion, exaggerated. “You learn to read traffic, you pick up skills of observation and minimise chances of being doored – if you’re a bike courier getting into accidents all the time, you should consider a change of career.”

Unfortunately, long hours on the bike increases your exposure to crashes, and a broken neck and three months in a halo following a training crash caused White to rethink his priorities. “It forced me to re-evaluate my life and I realised how potentially risky it could be as a job. I’m very very lucky to be able to walk,” says White. Although he was back on the bike quickly, White was also able to build a niche for himself by creating the now-iconic Melburn–Roobaix ride, opening his own store and continuing his popular blog with its photographic record of painstaking period-road bike restorations. It’s a slightly less high-octane existence now for White, making “pieces of rideable art” for his clients. “I ride for pleasure now – I’m happiest on my bike and I enjoy sharing my love of bikes,” White says.

And what would he say to those considering becoming a courier? “Don’t do it!” White says with a laugh. “If you want to be a bike courier, think about it seriously. Being fit and having a fixie is maybe the least important characteristic. If you can turn up every day with a good attitude, then maybe it could work. But at the end of the day, it’s an unskilled labour job – with the perks of riding a bike.”

The pro

Photo by Graham Watson

With the rapidly growing interest in road cycling in Australia – a result of years of breakthrough performances by Australian riders on the world stage, capped by Cadel Evan’s 2011 Tour de France win – the sight of lycra-clad cycling professionals has become increasingly common in local media. What was an almost unattainable sporting ambition just a couple of decades ago is now an increasingly achievable one for a new generation of Australian sportspeople.

This year has been a landmark year for Australian cycling, with the creation of the first ever Australian UCI World Tour team, Orica GreenEDGE. Twenty-six-year-old Mitch Docker is a young talent currently riding his first Grand Tour at the Vuelta a Espana; he took some time to tell us a  little about what it takes to race at the highest level.

The adrenaline of race day compensates for the long hours of preparation in the saddle.

Docker’s love of bikes was ignited at the Sydney Olympics, watching Scott McGrory and Brett Aitken’s gold-medal-winning Madison ride. Docker was “hooked, and started track cycling at Brunswick Cycling Club in 2001”. In a pattern familiar to most junior cyclists, he “followed the seasons”,
alternating between road in the winter and track in the summer. His talent evident, he joined the local Drapac-Porsche team “and was nursed through until ready to make the jump to Europe”, signing with Skil-Shimano in 2009. After three years with this Dutch team, achieving great results in the spring classics (15th in Paris–Roubaix, 6th in Gent–Wevelgem) Docker made the move to Orica GreenEDGE.

As expected, the life of a professional cyclist is highly regimented. Whilst not reaching the obsessive heights of Lance Armstrong weighing every bowel movement, a team nutritionist works closely with the riders to “guide us to reach specific weights for specific races”. “The training is well guided by the team – I like it that way,” says Docker. Depending on the time of the season it can be a highly demanding training schedule. “Pre-season is about building up for the year, getting fit and identifying the first goals for the year. I target the classics, so would focus on long kilometres with gym-work on alternate days. In spring, once the racing season kicks off, a week might have up to three one day races, so you just do short recovery rides in between to make sure you’re ready for the next. After this you look at the next goals, and have a buildup period of more long rides with big efforts slotted in. And then generally the program will consist of a stage race for a week and then have a week or two before the next,” Docker says.

However the physical toll of life as a pro is just one part of the equation. For Docker, his choice of career means he is away from his Melbourne  base for 10 months of the year, living in Girona, Spain, from January to October. “Being away from family and friends is probably the biggest downside of racing overseas,” Docker says. “It’s really tough to catch up with everyone when I’m back home, and ever so slowly you notice you start to drift away from some mates, which is a shame.” It’s a significant sacrifice to make for the opportunity to race bikes for a living.

Lkewise, the training and race schedule can be a chore. “Having a massive training ride on the program that has to be done, you’re solo and it’s raining…at times like those I’m dreaming of the boys working back home in an office job,” Docker says. “But on a sunny day in Spain, with a few team mates heading out for a one or two hour ride, talking crap with a big brew stop in the sun, I love it.” The adrenaline of race day also compensates for the long hours of preparation in the saddle, making major races an exciting change of routine. “In a big race like Paris–Roubaix, riding through the crowd on an important cobble sector and feeling good – it’s pretty amazing,” Docker says.

In his debut grand tour, Docker has been a fundamental part of the leadout train for fellow Aussie, Allan Davis. Following an early season training accident – he crashed on a descent, suffering a serious concussion and a number of months off the bike – he’s relieved to be able to line up at the start. “This seemed miles away at one point this year, so it is very exciting to be here – but I’m nervous too. The main aim is for me to build some  experience and learn how to take care of myself in a long stage race, both on and off the bike,” Docker says. Three weeks of hard racing under the Spanish sun also provides a great base of form for another tilt at the spring classics after this year’s lost opportunities. “At the moment I haven’t really focused past that and I’m sure after the Vuelta I’ll know a lot more about myself,” says Docker. And in the distant future, after he’s retired,  there’s a backup plan waiting to swing into action. “I’d like to come back to Melbourne and open my own bar,” Docker explains. It sounds like a  fitting return for all those long hours in the saddle.

Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network Victoria. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 October, 2012 3:10 pm

    Urgh. A wheel change is tantalisingly close. Why did you have to write such a great description of all that is good about stepping out of the lane I’m in now and into the bike lane…. don’t tell the boss.

  2. 10 October, 2012 1:01 pm

    Would love to have heard you cover “The Coach” and maybe even “The Promoter” ?

  3. Veloaficionado permalink
    10 October, 2012 1:19 pm

    “A small number are certified through one of the dwindling number of TAFE courses offering standardised formal qualifications, although increasingly the onus has been on suppliers to train mechanics and salespeople in how to maintain new products.”

    There is at least two trade training courses, that have been growing in numbers of industry employees enrolled, run by Bicycle Training Australia in Fairfield and Kensington. BTA train people in mechanically specialist areas as well as general mechanical skills, and also offer courses for public participation. Rather than dwindling, they are growing!

  4. 11 October, 2012 9:51 am

    Would be awesome – am also tinkering with the idea of setting up bike touring company… offering 1, 2, 3 or 4 day tours in Melbourne and Victoria – though wonder whether it has legs… and what sort of things i would need to prepare for ie; insurance, equipment, etc – maybe set up cost outweighs benefit??

  5. 11 October, 2012 9:52 am

    Reblogged this on ekatsocial.

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