Manual for Speed spoke with freelance mechanic Fernando Tapia about his story, the makings of a good mechanic, and his return to the trade. At the Tour of Utah, Fernando was working for Team Exergy with Josh Geiszler, Team Exergy’s Head Mechanic at the time and now mechanic at Team TIBCO. What follows is in his words.
My name is Fernando Tapia. I’ve been a team mechanic off an on for 20 years. I’m 49 now. I’ve experienced things, I’ve seen a lot of stuff. Being a Pro Mechanic is a little knowledge and a lot of experience. The latter is most of the job. Efficiency. Learning to be efficient overall is more important than being an expert on wrapping handlebars. It’s absolutely about efficiency. Josh sometimes does things that take up more of his time than necessary. The thing is, he’s going on his own: no one taught him anything, he’s learning along the way. For him to make it this far is a real accomplishment, something to be praised. I think he will spend more time away from the bikes once he gains a little more experience and makes some adjustments. He works too long—efficiency isn’t just about getting everything done, it’s also about avoiding late nights in a hotel parking lot.
You might say its a rough life at times. For the most part we are uneducated. I tried to quit, you know, and work for a big corporation. I didn’t exactly set the world on fire, so I’m back here. It’s a bit of a tail between my legs sort of thing, but this is what I know. I worked a 9-5 at Crocs. I spent four years there. I’m trying to get back on the road now.
We caught up with Fernando again at the USA Pro Challenge where he had contracted with another team:”Now I’m working for Bissell Pro Cycling during this race, simply because theyre the ones who hired me to work.. I’m not working for Exergy—I offered my services, of course—because they already had it covered.”
I started in Mexico doing neutral support in the early 80s, then I started working for American teams when I moved there at 19. And I did that for about ten years or so. Then I got married, got kids—I made kids, my wife would like that—and I went away from it, and now I’m trying to get back in. I left because I thought I was getting old, that my situation was a little stale, that I needed a change. And I took a big change instead of a small one. I tried to be in the bicycle industry, other industries, but like I said, I didn’t set the world on fire outside of working on bikes so I’m back.
I was living in Wisconsin, working for a team in the late 90s. I love the Midwest. If I could live there, I would. We moved to Colorado, where my wife is from, in order to be closer to fanily and I went to work for a company that was sponsoring many teams to be the guy in between the manufacturing and the teams. I thought it would be right up my alley, but soon after Schwinn sold (and moved to Wisconsin of all places), they closed up the shop and I got out of bikes altogether. I’ve been struggling ever since, so I’m trying to make another go at it.“As a mechanic, when you come to the race you come to win. When the team wins, you win. For me, being well-organized with no problems, that's success. I'd rather work for a team that I'm in control of, regardless of size. size doesn't really matter.”Fernando Tapia
It’s all about preparation. I bring lots of wheels ready to a race. You flat one, just grab one that’s ready. Most of the work should be done at your warehouse, not at the race. Here you just do the quick stuff, like wash the bikes. Of course it’s not always the case that it works out. Once the machine starts running in March, it’s impossible to stop. So if you’re not prepared by that first date, you’re screwed. It takes a special group of people: two or three or however many guys, to catch on and actually make it work in a coordinated way.
I’m 49 now. My kids are getting to the age where they dont need a ton of care [11 and 13], so that helps me out. It just wouldnt work without my wifes help, though. She used to be a soigneur. She knows the lifestyle. She understands and she’s all for me. The biggest challenge is my age. I’ve been at a desk for the last four years gaining weight, that sort of thing. I need to get my energy up.“I'm good at this. I'm good at this. I feel like myself at the bike races. I just need to find the right group that sees that in me. That's all it takes. After that, I can take care of it.”Fernando Tapia
[He snaps his fingers.] For the most part I don’t know the guys on the bikes, I know the directors, they’re older like me. I talk to them. I tell them I’m available. That this is what I want to do. I know what I’m doing. I’m older, I’m experienced, I can do this job no problem. Right now I’m freelancing, just on a day rate. I take charge and just get the work done. If you give me the job, you forget about it. You can go about winning the bike race.