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From six-day racing to the Tour de France, Germany’s Jörg Wohlleben has raced and wrenched with the best for more than 30 years. Today the muscular team mechanic works with the U.S.-based Cannondale team. Peloton caught up with him to talk about the many changes he has seen in the sport—along with transporting the team’s service course across the Atlantic for this coming weekend’s Grand Prix races in Québec and Montréal.
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton
Peloton Magazine: Jörg, you’ve been a mechanic for as long as I can remember. How did you get into wrenching and become a top professional mechanic?
Jörg Wohlleben: Well, I raced in Germany for almost 10 years as an amateur track and road cyclist. But my father owned a bike shop where we lived in Bremen, close to Hamburg, so I was also a bike mechanic on the side. And one day, back in 1988, the German Federation called me in an emergency as they were short a mechanic. I had just finished the Bremen Six Day as an amateur, but I had to make a decision. I had always said that, if I couldn’t make it to the pros, I would stop. And I wasn’t really improving anymore.
My good friend Andreas Kappas [an outstanding German professional in the 1980s] mentioned me to the German Federation and I decided to take the job. I’ll never forget my first race, the Tour of Cuba, for five weeks in January. That was a pretty good start. After two years with the federation I went to the German Telekom team, which became HTC-Highroad and when they closed down in 2011, I came to Cannondale
Peloton: Wow, you’ve been with top teams for nearly 30 years, what was the biggest change in terms of the bikes that you have seen?
Wohlleben: Okay, well, first I would say the electronic shifting. That’s bigger than anything else. Carbon-fiber was of course a big jump in terms of the bike itself, but actually, for us mechanics, it was not a big difference. The electronic shifting, however, was a big step. It was a big step up for us mechanics in terms of technology, but once we learned it, electronic shifting really made our lives easier.
The other big difference I have seen is when it comes to aerodynamics, especially when it comes to time-trial bikes, with all of the internal cables and everything. That was something we were really working on a lot already back with HTC. It’s funny, we talk a lot about marginal gains and all today, but really HTC was the first team to be pushing those limits. We did so much aerodynamic testing. We had a partnership with McLaren and I spent a lot of time in their wind tunnel testing with all kinds of different wheel sets, trying to find which one was really the most aero.
Peloton: How do you think you were able to use your 30 years of expertise here on Cannondale?
Wohlleben: Well, over the years I really understood that all of the guys at service course need to be at the same level and work together as one. I was with Telekom for nearly 15 years and there were barely any staff changes in the team, so we really were one well-oiled machine. And I’ve tried to emphasize the need for us all to work side-by-side as a team.
Peloton: You are here at the Grand Prix races in Canada, where you have transported part of the team’s service course over the Atlantic and into this oversized tent in Québec City. That must be a very complicated affair?
Wohlleben: Well, with Cannonade, it was even more complicated because we had part of the team coming from Europe and part of the team coming from Alberta. Most of the teams here just had to get everything to the charter flight in Paris and they were good. But we had to juggle bikes coming from Europe and bikes coming from Alberta. We had to pick up all of the stuff from Alberta in Montréal and drive it up here and then build it all up. I just put together five bikes in less than an hour, but it still makes for a late day of work.
Peloton: What is the most satisfying part of your job?
Wohlleben: Oh, that’s a hard question. Winning is always nice but it doesn’t really change anything. I don’t know what it is really that I love about my job. All I know is that I tried to stop once for a year and it drove me crazy. I couldn’t deal with leaving the house at 8 a.m. and back at 6 p.m. every day. After four months I started packing my bags. I had nowhere to go but I started packing. And soon enough I was back. I guess I just love the fact that every day brings a new set of challenges. I like my time at home, but after four or five weeks, it is time to start again.
Peloton: What is the hardest part of the job?
Wohlleben: Well, the travel is tiring. Especially when you’re in a part of the season when there are a bunch of races. You are just constantly on the go and it is very tiring.
Peloton Magazine: This is obviously not the easiest time for the team as a potential sponsor fell through and they are doing a crowdfunding project simply to be able to continue another year. How are you dealing with such a situation. It must be stressful to say the least?
Wohlleben: Well it is not the first time I have been in that situation. But I have confidence in Jonathan Vaughters and that he is doing everything he can to find new partners. But for the moment I just am concentrated on doing the best I can here. We will see later what the situation is for the future.