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From his college days in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the highest roads of the Tour de France, American Ian Sherburne has had one of the greatest rides as a bike mechanic. A familiar face on the UCI WorldTour, Sherburne is currently the only American on the powerhouse Team INEOS. We caught up with him recently and looked back over his years in the sport, from working in a bike shop to the top of cycling’s WorldTour.
Ian, how does an American mechanic get a job with Great Britain’s Team INEOS, one of the world’s most successful squads?
Well, there are not a lot of Americans working in the WorldTour these days, that’s for sure. But I had the chance to start working with BMC as the team was developing [in 2007]. I was living in Santa Rosa, California, at the time. I was with them for 12 years, from when they were just a Pro Continental team to their rise, winning the Tour de France back in 2011. Then last year, when BMC was sort of folding, I thought that it might be the moment to try something different. I contacted what was Team Sky at the time and it worked out.
But really it all started much earlier than that. I actually dropped out of college to work in a bike shop up in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1990. I was going to college at the University of Alaska for two years and a bike shop, All Weather Sports, opened just down the street. I started just hanging out there because I always liked bikes. And one day the owner told me that if I showed up at 9 a.m. the next morning he would start paying me. I was like, “Well, I could keep scraping together money to go college, which isn’t much fun, or I can get paid to work in a bike shop, which is a lot more fun!” I worked there for five years. But during that time I also attended the mechanics clinic at the U.S. Cycling Federation in Colorado Springs and eventually started working for the U.S. national team in 1994. First I worked for the junior program with Roy Knickman, but I also worked with other programs like the women’s team. I was going back and forth from Colorado Springs, Europe and Fairbanks and then I just started spending more and more of my time living in Europe.
Wow, it’s been an amazing road well traveled! Today you are working on state-of-the-art bikes in the best circumstances. But are there things you learned back in the day building up wheels in a bike shop or with the U.S. national team that still serve you well at the WorldTour level?
Yeah! The technology may be advancing, but the principles stay the same. Some of it is just basic, you know, just how to do good work. Some things are the same, say like wrapping handlebars. I just have to do it faster today. Understanding how a bike shifts and adjusting derailleurs, for example, is very much the same, whether it’s Shimano Di2 or an old Super Record derailleur. You still have to pull a tire off a rim and true a wheel. And if you know how to build wheels, well, it comes a lot quicker. A lot of it is problem-solving. And you learn a lot about problem-solving when you work in a bike shop on cheap bikes and have to fix something on a commuter bike for under 30 dollars. On a WorldTour team you are often simply replacing something more than repairing something. But the troubleshooting always comes in handy!
What has been the biggest change you have seen at the high-end level of racing bikes?
Certainly the move to electronic shifting. That has changed the way you interface with the bike. For my last couple of years on BMC and now on INEOS, we have been using Shimano Dura-Ace Di2. And every piece on the bike essentially has firmware with different settings. And the first thing Shimano asks you when there is an issue is whether everything has been updated on the settings of the bike. In the old days, the first thing we did was get our hands on the bike and mess with it a bit. Now the first thing you are expected to do is have a Bluetooth app on your phone and check that the firmware is updated and all of the settings. The new way of doing things has shifted. But the basic thing of adjusting a rear derailleur has not changed in 20 years.
You have been working with Pinarello and the new F12. What impresses you the most about these bikes?
Well from a mechanic’s point of view there are not huge differences with carbon-fiber frames today. There might well be ride characteristics that are quite different for the racers. But we don’t interact with the bike in that way. So if the frame is doing what it is supposed to do, we don’t interact as much with the frame as we do with the drivetrain or the wheels. For any mechanic, what we want most is drama-free operation and for us, certainly, Pinarello is more than easy as far as that goes!
Is there a part of the bike that you like working on in particular—say working on wheels or headsets or adjusting derailleurs that you really connect with—where you just feel that you are really dialed in?
Well, I have always appreciated how Shimano engineers their products and as a result I often take extra time to read all of the tech manuals and updates. I want to know that if a top Shimano engineer shows up, takes a look at all of the settings and how I have set up the bike, that it would be up to their standards.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Well, that is funny because sometimes the hardest part is the best part. There are times in the season where it is particularly busy and you just wish you had a few days at home. At the same time, what always attracts me to the job is the dynamic lifestyle and the traveling. It’s a Catch 22. Sometimes in this job it goes from, you get to travel to you have to travel. But mostly I feel lucky that I have always worked with really good groups and good professional teams of people that you come to care about and you support each other. It’s never about just collecting a paycheck.