SPORTS

Veteran mechanic keeps Canadian wheels turning at Olympic Velodrome

08/07/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/06/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Punctures. Broken saddles. Shoe issues. The Olympics is not the place for a cyclist to have a mechanical malfunction.

Some problems can't be anticipated. But for the rest, the Canadian track cycling team has veteran mechanic Sandy MacDonald.

The 66-year-old Scot is at his seventh Olympics, having worked the previous six for Britain. But he was part of the Canadian team at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, helping Curt Harnett.

"Sandy and I go way back," said Harnett, who is doing TV work here for the Canadian broadcast consortium.

"Confidence in your equipment is a big factor when it comes to events like this," Harnett added. "Especially the power events where you do a standing start. Something snaps, carbon-fibre these days can cause a lot of damage, so you need to make sure that everything is well taken care of and he's one of the best."

MacDonald and Canadian coach Richard Wooles also go back — some 23 years by Wooles' reckoning. They also worked together at British Cycling and the world governing body of the sport, criss-crossing the globe together.

"He knows how I work and I know how he works, so we sort of marry it together," said MacDonald, who has also worked with the Irish and Spanish national teams. "So it's good."

"We just have a good relationship," said the 40-year-old Wooles. "No airs, no graces, get on with the business. And I trust the guy 100 per cent.

"These are high-pressure situations ... You need somebody you can trust 100 per cent."

MacDonald's day job is with Specialized, an American bike company. He's based out of a town near Munich, Germany, but lives about 40 kilometres outside Edinburgh and commutes as needed.

He also travels the triathlon and mountain bike circuit. At the Games here, he will head to the mountain bike event after the track cycling to work out of a Specialized booth, before heading to Sweden for an ITU triathlon event.

The Canadian track team has seven riders and approximately 30 bikes in London. The number swelled when they got some new bikes at a pre-Games training camp in the Netherlands.

Some changed over, others didn't. But whatever choice they made, they needed replica backup bikes in event of a crash. Edmonton's Tara Whitten, who won bronze in the team pursuit before turning her attentions to the six-event omnium, has five bikes here — a road bike, two pursuit bikes and two points race bikes.

The riders have their preferences. MacDonald said it took a while to convince Joe Veloce, for example, to change his saddle.

As you might expect, the bikes are not cheap. Zach Bell's track bike, for example, costs between $7,000 and $8,000.

For MacDonald, track bikes are more complicated than a mountain bike or road cycle.

"They don't look it because there's no brakes and no gears, but you've got different scenarios with different wheels, different tire pressures. Whether it's an endurance event or a sprint event, they use different wheels. ... You've got to be on top of it all the time."

MacDonald, who looks a decade younger than his 66 years, was not involved in the road race events here because he was tied up with the track cycling team.

But he is no stranger to Canadian road racers. He spent several weeks in Italy with Clara Hughes, helping her tune her Specialized bike before a German stage race.

All the teams are based out of the infield of the stylish 6,000-seat Velodrome in the Olympic Park. Each country gets a small space, framed by orange office-like cubicle walls. A lot happens in that tiny space, from riders warming up on a stationary bike to MacDonald working his magic.

Some bikes are kept on the infield here, others beneath the stadium.

Despite all the security, he takes no chances. "Everything is all chained up."

The day starts early. Breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and he's on the track at 7:30 a.m. until the final race of the day.

"You have to program this ahead. If you don't, it catches up with you," he said.

And it's hot work. The Velodrome is kept at 28 degree Celsius, considered the optimum track temperature, and it's even hotter down on the infield.

Teams have fans in their booth, but it's no wonder MacDonald's uniform consists of shorts and a Maple Leaf T-shirt.

MacDonald takes his marching orders from Wooles the night before on how the bike gearing should be set up. He makes that happen, then comes in the next morning, takes off the tire covers, pumps up the tires and checks to make sure everything is ready to go.

He says experience makes his job easier, helping him anticipate possible problems. But ever-changing technology means there are always variables.

"You've got to keep moving with it," said MacDonald, who has not missed a Summer Games since Seoul in 1988.

He knows his machines, reckoning he could take one of his bikes apart and put it together again with ease — "Probably blindfolded as well," he added with a laugh.

Bikes have been a huge part of MacDonald's life. He had a bike shop in Edinburgh for 33 years and used to race himself.

He represented Scotland as a road racer and in the time trial at the Commonwealth Games and was on the training squad for the Munich Olympics in 1972 but didn't end up making the team. He also managed the Scottish team for five years.

And his wife managed a velodrome in Houston for 18 years — a track that has hosted Canadians Monique Sullivan and Laura Brown as juniors.

The fledgling Canadian track team is looking to build its framework and support staff. To that end, Wooles brought an apprentice mechanic from Winnipeg to the test event in London before the Games.

MacDonald has been involved with the Canadian team for some five years now and says that in that time the Canadians "have really moved on and stepped up the level for sure."

MORE:cpSports