SRAM’s Problem Solver
Bike Tips and Stories from SRAM NRS director Mark Niemiec
SRAM NRS director Mark Niemiec knows his job. “You have to be a problem solver,” he says. As director of SRAM Neutral Race Support, which covers cycling races in events around the world, Mark and his crew of pro mechanics and drivers face plenty of problems. In pro races, neutral support provides cars and motorcycles in the official race caravan to help any rider with a flat or mechanical issue. SRAM NRS also attends grassroots cycling events and races around North America, helping ordinary cyclists with a repair when they need it most.
Chaotic race caravans. Bent derailleur hangers. You name it. We caught up with Mark at last weekend’s Grand Prix Cyclistes WorldTour races in Quebec City and Montreal to talk about the challenges of servicing cyclists in often hectic situations:
The Grands Prix Cyclistes (Quebec City and Montreal) is the third UCI WorldTour event SRAM NRS has covered this year, with Ride London and the Tour of California being the others. This is the highest level of cycling, and your team works these events and many others, right down to gran fondos and fun rides. What is SRAM NRS’s purpose for being at all these events?
It's about being there for the rider in their most important race in their most important moment. Be there to sort of save the day, that’s what it’s all about.
What is your background in neutral race support? It’s a complicated endeavor with lots of protocols and, in the race caravan, many written and unwritten rules.
I started out as just a mechanic. In order to move up, we had to work all of the different positions in the race. So you work as a mechanic in NRS Car 1 or Car 2 or Car 3 or in the moto, and in all of the different positions you start seeing how each section of the race functions. Once you do that, my boss at the time put me in the safest position, which was way back in Car 3 that didn’t see any action. But I learned how to drive with other vehicles and riders around. They move you up to Car 2. That’s a little trickier because you’re with a group of riders and there’s more stuff going on behind you. Then I worked my way up to moto and Car 1. It’s sort of a long process. You never take a rookie and throw them into Car 1. You have to work them through the system first even if they’re good drivers.
Even people who watch pro bike races don’t realize everything that goes on in the caravan.
It’s a circus.
What causes that? Is it team cars moving up to service a rider, then falling back amid the cars? Or is it riders in the caravan trying to rejoin the pack?
If it works, it’s organized chaos…. But there’s a travel lane. The caravan is all in the right lane typically. Then the lane next to it on the left side would be for moving forward if you’re going to service a rider, feed a rider. All of the motos go up that lane, the photographers go up that lane. Then you’re drifting back you drift back on the right and cars kind of move out around you. Once you’ve done your service you fade off to the right. It seems pretty chaotic, but it’s fairly well organized.
When you’re dealing with a wheel change or a stuck chain, is the idea that you have to ‘go slow to go fast,’ to take your time so you don’t panic and fumble and delay the rider even more?
The idea is to assess the situation pretty quickly. Do it efficiently. If you do it efficiently, it comes out faster. If you’re trying to rush, something is always going to go wrong. You can look at a chain pretty much and see if you’re going to be able to pop it out or not and determine if you need to do a bike swap or not pretty quickly.
And the rider should usually get off the bike?
Definitely getting off the bike helps the mechanic. Get off the bike, hold the saddle so you don’t drop the bike on the ground. Don’t walk away from the bike. Most service is done on the right.
In your career, what are some of the big races you've worked?
I’ve worked the Tour de France a number of times. Worlds. Paris-Roubaix. Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In North America, everything from the Tour of Alberta to Tour of California, the Colorado races, Tour de Georgia… All of those.
Looking at those races from a fan’s perspective for a moment, what has amazed you most about watching these athletes compete at the top level, especially looking at the best riders?
Guys like Sagan are amazing how they can seemingly come from the back of the pack or the middle of the pack and suddenly they’re in front.
It’s having well rounded skills, being pretty good at descending, being pretty good at climbing, then having just one thing you do well.
The pros ride very close to the vehicles in the caravan. Do they sometimes say hi or thank you as they pass? We’ve seen riders give a friendly nod now and then.
They’ll just give you a thumps up, or a wink or a nudge. Or they’ll clip your mirror in. There are all sorts of things they’ll do.
When you’re working at grassroots events instead of pro races, what are some tips you would give to cyclists to ensure their gear is ready for their event?
It’s all in preparation, really. If you’re going to a big event all year, really take the time to have your bike gone over before the ride. Not the day before the ride but like a week or two so you can ride it a few times and know that everything works. Also, show up with parts that are probably not going to be easily accessible in remote locations. Bring an extra derailleur hanger. Bring more tubes than you think you would. A big one is use how to use your CO2 cartridges. Practice that before you go. Most people I came upon at one gravel event had never used it before. They got a flat and were trying to change it and blew all of the air out of their CO2 because they didn’t know how to use the valve.
Speaking of the derailleur hanger, do you recommend unscrewing the rear derailleur from the frame before packing your bike, especially for flying? It is easy to bend that!
I would always take off the derailleur and zip-tie it or strap it to the frame. Keep it protected.
And put a little grease on the threads before screwing it back in because it can seize up, right?
Yes, most people don’t do that. But also bring an extra hanger because if you’re on a warm up ride and happen to drop your bike and bend your hanger, you’re out.
For yearly maintenance for a road bike, what do you recommend?
Cables and housing once a year if you’re riding a few thousand miles a year. A new chain and cassette every year. It will be night and day. It’s amazing the number of being who will come up and say, ‘my shifting is really stiff.’ You put in a new cable and housing and it’s brand new for them.
We’ve seen you help out cyclists coming up to you at cyclocross races or other events. They have a mechanical and are panicing, and you save their race for free. They must be pretty grateful.
It’s always nice to be able to fix something and have them do their race or finish their ride. I just to like to know that it works. It’s the best compliment I get, just to know that I did it right, even more than a tip. I like to know that they rode away and everything functioned like it was supposed to.
What kind of riding do you like to do most?
I ride a road bike. I ride mostly dirt roads. A lot of farm country.
You must have been a curious kid given your mechanical background. Were you a tinkerer?
Oh, yeah. I destroyed a lot of stuff at my house early on. Taking the clocks apart, taking everything apart…. Eventually I started putting stuff back together.
Main photo and bottom four photos by Jordan Haggard