We caught up with Capetonian and Head Mechanic of Cannondale Factory Racing as he transits to Leogang for the UCI World Cup.
| INTERVIEW: Jazz Kuschke | IMAGES: Michele Mondini |
Bike guru extraordinaire and downright cool dude JP Jacobs has had a rollercoaster of a time over the past two years. From being unemployed to landing his first full factory gig with Specialized, then staying relevant through lockdown, then managing a radically shortened and frantic 2020 World Cup season. Then the biggest opportunity of his career to date came along in the form of the Head Mechanic position for the Cannondale Factory Racing program and he dived right in. As if that wasn’t wild enough, just a few days ago he was announced as the Manager, Coach and Mechanic for the SA Mountain Bike team at the Olympic Games. We got the lowdown.
Let’s jump right into the good vibes! The ‘gees’ on Cannondale Factory Racing seems super good, the team seems to have gelled really well. Was it easy for you to adapt to the new World Cup outfit? They definitely do believe in good vibes – work hard while having fun, that’s what we go by. So that being said, the transition was fairly smooth. I’ve been in and around the Cannondale crew a few times over the past few years, having helped them out at a few smaller races. I’ve also known Mani Fumic since he started coming to South Africa so it didn’t have that ‘new, new’ feel. We started off in December with a massive training camp in Stellenbosch, where we got together as a team for the first time, obviously, we’d had a little Zoom meeting and things like that, but that was the first time where we worked together fas a big unit. That’s when I really got to know Henrique and Mani and also got to figure out how they like their bikes’ setup. Obviously having Alan and Simon around made the transition a bit easier – knowing their riding style and the way they run their bikes made the initial workload a little bit less stressful.
Now, let’s talk a bit about the tech. From a wrenching point of view, how difficult was it getting to grips with the new bike and the Lefty? Switching bikes was definitely not as smooth as switching teams. My toolbox, techniques and work protocols were built around the Specialized which I was on from 2016 (I saw a couple of generations of Epics), equipped with SRAM. It was a big learning curve. Sure a bike is a bike, but to squeeze every inch of performance and free speed out of it so that these guys can race at the level they do, is a different ball game. I had to break the toolbox down, put all the tools on the ground and then build a Scalpel from the ground up, to see which tools were needed and which weren’t. With the Lefty, I was given one and told to take it apart. So I did some basic Lefty maintenance on the training camp with the help of Dan our team manager, who knows his way around some spanners (that really helped the confidence, thanks Dan!). It was pretty easy to find my way around it though, at first I thought it was quite a complex unit being air and damper in one leg – obviously, you think it’s a ticking time bomb with small parts everywhere, but meanwhile, it’s actually a beautifully simple damper system at the top and air piston at the bottom. In terms of tuneability, we have quite a wide range and things we can do to help the rider set it up to work best for him. All four riders have different riding styles and so different fork-tune preferences, it is quite nice to be able to offer them such a range of tweaks. On that note, Simon and Alan both adjusted to the new bike quite easily. Then, on our first block of the season in 2021 I spent two days with ‘Lefty Larry’ – the guru brains behind the fork. It was nice to sit with him and pull a Lefty apart, see how it works and see what you can do and can’t do. He showed me some quick race fixes and tweaks too. It was super helpful and insightful to be able to do that in ‘real life’ and not just over a Zoom call.
Tell us a bit about what it’s like traveling abroad in these times? I love traveling! I love the cultures and the people and seeing new places and things. Over the years I’ve been quite fortunate to travel quite a bit. As of 2020 traveling became a bit more of an issue – you needed way more paperwork and visa applications and appointments became far more stressful. Previously we could travel on pretty much tourist visas where now you have to do applications for sports visas and you need a whole stack of paperwork from the team and UCI and things like that. The psychology of traveling is also very different right now – knowing you’re putting yourself out there and exposed to the virus is not easy. You try and keep extra safe, because it’s not just you that will get infected but the entire team so you have a different mindset when it comes to touching things (and not touching things) and living in a bubble. From a racing point of view, it’s pretty much a Covid test for every country you enter, just to be street legal.
On that note, what’s the vibe like at World Cups with limited speculators? Must be super different now? The UCI have done an amazing job to put on the racing during current times and put it on safely. Teams are divided in bubbles, there are no spectators, and we have Covid tests just about every second day – which means a new colour wrist band for the day to get into the venue. So they really try to keep the environment safe for everyone, from people working at the venue to the staff and the athletes in the pits. There is still a great vibe but the fact that there are no spectators is very weird at the same time. What is nice is the fact that you can pretty much hear the racing happening – you can hear how deep these riders go by actually hearing their breathing – where previously the air was filled with the sounds of rowdy crowds – bells and bike rims and things like that. That noise definitely created a war-like atmosphere which does get us in the feed lane hyped up and pushes the riders to go harder, so that is missing. We miss the spectators but are thankful for being able to race during these times.
It’s just recently been announced that you’re going to Tokyo. This will be your second Olympics right? How important is this for you? That’s right, this will be my second Olympic Games. (The first was Rio 2016). It a big deal for me for sure. It’s really nice to be able to say you’ve wrenched at the highest level, I’m looking forward to representing my nation again. I will be team manager, coach and mechanic for Candice Lill and Alan Hatherly. Fortunately, both are on Scalpels. One is running SRAM, one is on Shimano, I’ll need a few different tools crammed into the toolbox for the trip! Having a rider in each of the categories is going to be interesting too, in 2016 it was Alan and James, so everything was always on the same day. Now with men’s and women’s, it will be over two days of racing and different time slots for training/practice. The schedule will be a bit fuller than in the past but I’m ready for the challenge and it helps me grow as a person and wrench. Hopefully, in the near future, we can bring some medals back home!