COLUMBIA — Strapped in, sitting on the windowsill of a Lexus and leaning out to adjust the brakes or derailer or raise a seat post at 25 or 30 miles per hour is part of the job description.
As mechanic for the Jelly Belly Pro Cycling team, Thomas McDaniel is responsible for half a million dollars’ worth of bikes and equipment. With such responsibility comes precision care for each piece of carbon fiber machinery. At about $5,000 a bike, such an investment is a serious decision.
McDaniel will be in the thick of things Sept. 14, when some of the top professional cyclists from around the world converge on Columbia for the fourth stage of the Tour of Missouri.
“This level of cycling is like a game of chess with your heart rate at 180 beats a minute,” said McDaniel, a 29-year-old local cyclist and fitness manager at Walt’s Bike Shop. “Once it starts, it requires 100 percent attention for six hours.”
On Saturday, McDaniel donned a gray Jelly Belly shirt with Oakley sunglasses sitting atop his backwards hat. “Today is wash day,” he said as he scrubbed, lubricated and pieced together some of the racing bikes for Team Jelly Belly in his backyard. The candy company’s team, currently ranked as the No. 5 domestic pro-cycling team according to the National Racing Calendar standings, will be one of 15 teams to come through Columbia during the six-day race.
For McDaniel, working on the bikes is the easiest part of a job that “can be a little crazy,” he said. One of his roles during the Tour of Missouri will be following the riders in a 60-car caravan. With a box of tools and some extra bicycles and parts, McDaniel could be needed to switch bikes after a crash or make any number of what he calls “adjustments on the fly.”
“My heart rate’s high just sitting in the car waiting to see if anything happens,” he said.
McDaniel has almost as much pressure on him as the cyclists come race day. He has to organize and memorize equipment as well as each rider’s preferences, including what kind of wheels, seats and gears each favors. Even under all of the pressure, he tries to keep an open mind and be “malleable.”
His stress level directly affects his riders and their overall performance, he said. “That’s the hard part — to maintain your sanity when there’s always something going wrong.”
Muscular from head to toe with a pearly white grin, McDaniel has been part of the cycling world for nearly five years. Picking up a mountain bike at age 24, he dabbled in off-road racing. As training picked up, he bought a road bike and found that the pavement was for him.
McDaniel grew up in Missouri playing tennis and eventually received a degree in exercise science from MU. Until he bought his first mountain bike, endurance sports like cycling were never on his radar.
McDaniel, a recreational racer, found that by the time he could accumulate the training miles and speed required to join the ranks of the pro-cycling teams, he would be too old. Although he got into it late, he decided to spread his knowledge of the sport and found his niche in training racers and working with their equipment.
It wasn’t until one of the athletes he coaches, Brian Dziewa of Farmington, was signed to Team Jelly Belly that McDaniel got a call from the team manager.
“I got him on the team,” Dziewa said. The team’s previous mechanic had quit, so McDaniel accepted the offer to fill his position last year. He has already been hired for 2008.
Dziewa, a 24-year-old MU graduate, credits McDaniel with some of the success he has attained so far in his career.
“He is probably the second biggest reason I am where I am,” Dziewa said. “The first is probably a combination of my family and hard work.”
The young rider has a lot of insight to the pro-cycling world, but still goes to McDaniel, who became his full-time coach in November 2005, for training and a daily workout regimen.
“He’s my coach, he tells me what to do every day,” Dziewa said.
Dziewa said the combination of McDaniel’s knowledge of physiology and his own knowledge of bike racing has really enhanced his training. “It’s really just friends helping friends,” he said.
Outside of his team obligations, McDaniel also accepted the title of Stage 4 Volunteer Coordinator for the Tour of Missouri as the race comes through Columbia. Medalist Sports, an event management company that organizes the Tour de Georgia and the Tour of California, has contracted McDaniel and others to oversee every aspect before, during and after the race.
Kelly Greene, venue director for Medalist, praised McDaniel’s organization and ability to communicate with more than 200 volunteers. “He has really been running it seamlessly as far as we’re concerned and that makes our jobs that much easier,” she said.
As president of the Columbia Bike Club Race Team and a Columbia resident since 1996, McDaniel is eager to see if the Tour of Missouri turns into something big for Columbia. He hopes the event will stir up excitement about cycling, both recreational and professional, in adults and children alike.
“I’m hoping that it draws a connection between what bike riding is as a child and what it is as an adult,” he said. “You get the same sensation that you got as a child as an adult, and that’s why we do it.”