Rainbow Winning Wrench – the JP Jacobs Interview

Yet another South African who is working at the highest level of the sport, JP had an incredible 2018 season with his riders winning two rainbow jerseys. Quite a remarkable feat. We asked JP about where his career started, what it takes to work at that level and about the bike setup of Kate Courtney and Alan Hatherly.

BN: JP, howzit, paint the picture for us a bit — where are you from, when did you first start wrenching and tell us about your journey to wrenching at the highest level?

JP: I am from Cape Town and have been a bike mechanic since 2005. I used to work for Team Spur as a professional technical manager where I ran all the technical aspects for the athletes.  Basically, I started wrenching in school days from grade 10 — just at a local bike shop. In those early days, I learnt a lot from being in the workshop and my love for bikes grew. I had always been wanting to learn more about how everything on the bike works. My OCD helps to always strive for perfection in everything I do so in 2009 I went to study in Ashland Oregon, in the States, at the United Bicycle Institute. I completed the classes of DT Swiss Wheel builder, Advanced Suspension Service, and the Master Bicycle Technician qualifications. Experience is key in the field I work in and from 2014 I started wrenching at World Cups, where, surrounded by the world’s best riders I gained insights and added them to my own style of wrenching.

BN: How was the 2018 season with Team Spur, what areas did you focus on to help the riders?

JP: Working with Ariane Luthi, Alan Hatherly, Nic Lamond and Tim Bassingthwaighte my job was to plan all the equipment needs for the season, look at any new equipment that we had access to and analyze the marginal gains they might offer. I spent a lot of time looking at things we can try to be that one step better than the competitor or to ensure we didn’t have any race mechanicals, or how to change wheels quicker in a race and so on. I worked closely with Alan at the World Cups where we felt the XCO team could benefit with more help [as opposed to the marathon program] because the races are so frenetic. We did also support Ariane in the important marathon events like Swiss National Champs, World Champs and Cape Epic etc.

JP and Alan rolling up the trails around Stellenbosch.

BN: Working with Alan Hatherly, what kind of technical challenges did you have to overcome, what changes did you make with him and what was your overall approach to perfecting his setup?

JP: The first thing we did was to get a base tyre pressure so that he is happy and comfortable with the grip and the feedback he gets from the terrain. Once we had that dialed we started playing with the suspension where we added tokens, removed tokens, cut tokens smaller, changed the fluid consistency and so on. We experimented with different seals, different bearings looking for consistency in performance and marginal gains like freewheeling faster, rolling faster and anything where we could help him lap just one second quicker. If we went one second faster per lap that’s seven seconds in a race that we could save – so that’s kind of how we looked at everything.

BN: Did Alan have a set / specific tyre choice for World Cups?

JP: We raced the normal Gripton tyre, not the Grid. The Factory guys were trying the new S-Works compound that is a lighter tyre with a better rubber consistency. We just didn’t feel that we wanted to risk testing something new like that at a World Cup level in a year which was always going to be a pivotal one in his career.

BN: That World Cup season, you started as favorites but then Alan suffered a double wrist fracture and missed some racing. From your point of view, as the wrench, did that injury and the shift in focus to World Champs change the things you were doing during the World Cups to the bike? You know, did you have more time to experiment with things?

JP: Yes, we were just looking at consistency and wanted to have good back to back races. The plan was to get the equipment and everything dialed for World Champs so when we rolled onto the start line in Switzerland we were not scratching our heads on anything. We had a few World Cups in the wet — I mean in absolutely the worst weather possible — which we in SA are not used to — so we gained insights there.

Making a couple pre-training tweaks in Albstadt ahead of the 2018 World Cup. New parts are installed including Ceramic Speed bearings to reduce swingarm friction to increase the Brain rear shock reaction time. Image: Michal Cerveny

BN: What kind of changes did you make for the wet races?

JP: Ah, we did various things like experimenting with motocross foam to prevent mud from sticking to the bike and other secrets so that should it rain at World Champs then we would be prepared. We would walk the track together so I would also understand what was going on out there. We would look at dry lines vs. wet lines. Where the ruts would form. We would analyze the track and look at overtaking spots in the dry vs. overtaking spots in the wet. We literally analyzed the entire track and factored in every possible challenge, then created the solution for it.

BN: Do you think that being a good rider yourself also helped with the line choice, race strategy and technical solutions with Alan?

JP: Definitely. All the years I have spent riding trails helped me puzzle out the best lines with Alan and it also helps me understand the equipment better. So if there is something going on with his setup or equipment, when he tells me about it I know exactly what he is referring to and then I can come up with solutions a lot quicker.

BN: Winning the U23 World Champs – it’s a big thing you guys accomplished — how were you feeling that day, was your preparation of the bike 100% spot on, were you guys super confident or vervous wrecks? Take us through the day.

JP: Alan and I became very good friends. . We learnt a lot from each other, spent a lot of time together traveling through the circuit. We got to know each other well. I would go to war for him. So, I get pre-race jitters like you cannot believe; I start second guessing things like bolt checks and so on. I have a notebook where I write everything down but still on race morning the nerves and anxiety are off the charts. I am worried about things I may have forgotten, if I have all the tools with me in the tech zone that I might possibly need and so on.

JP carries his notebook with him everywhere. Here in Albstadt, Germany he is recording everything from the track conditions for the race, the riders setup, the weather conditions and so on for Simon Andreassen and Alan Hatherly. Image Michal Cerveny

Um, the first half of the race was nerve-racking because we wanted this badly. Real bad. Seeing him in 10th on lap 3 was soul destroying — but it’s XC and that’s early days in the race. Tim and I motivated him, telling him the splits. Then there is this one climb out of the feed zone he enjoys, he always goes hard there and recovers on the downhill. Before we knew it he and Chris Blevins the silver medalist got away there and the two of them dominated the race to the end.

Moments after Alan overtook and dropped Chris Blevins on the last lap of World Champs in Switzerland. Image: Michal Cerveny

BN: So back up a little, with Alan in the front, were you relieved or even more stressed?

JP: There was relief but you are still in a high-pressure situation so I had all the tools and spares in my hands in case there was an issue, I was ready for anything. Alan looked confident, composed, he is a smooth rider and not hard on the bike. He knows that a mechanical is not always a mechanics fault. He understands that if he hits a root at the wrong angle and slices a tyre for example, that it’s his fault and not mine. We were watching on the big screen, he made that one attack on the last lap and Chris couldn’t match him.

BN: What did you do as he crossed the line to win the World title?

JP: I have got goosebumps just talking about it. When Alan won I ended up on my knees crying. To come back from two broken wrists to winning the World Champs only 8 months later is unreal. There were long hours, lots of hard work and as a team to accomplish that — it was huge. I was just overwhelmed. I couldn’t speak.  A mate of mine looked after my spares and I made my way down to the finish line and UCI box where Alan was waiting. We hugged and it was very emotional. To then stand in the front row of the crowd at the podium and sing the national anthem was very moving.


BN: Just incredible — and then the next day it all happened again with Kate?

JP: Yes, I was also Kate Courtney’s mechanic for the season and the very next day the same thing basically happened. We won another rainbow jersey.

BN: Tell us about Kate Courtney’s bike, was there anything you noticed about her technique that you factored into her setup, is she super particular about anything?

JP: She is such a rad person, a rad bundle of energy with good vibes. Working with her was amazing and we certainly just pushed hard everywhere. In terms of setup, Kate is a bit more of a grinder on the bike, preferring the lower gears and torque efforts so we did some stuff because of that. Technically she is very good. For her the biggest thing was getting the brakes right, she liked them to bite as quick as possible but the tricky part was she runs a very small reach preferring the lever to bite just before it touches the grip. That was a tricky setup as any amount of brake pad wear would mean her brake lever hits the bar before the pads bite. Then with dropper posts we were able to get her a bit quicker through the techy stuff too.

JP with 2018 UCI XCO World Champ Kate Courteney.

BN: Did Kate also have a big focus on World Champs or was it more a race by race strategy and were there any special tweaks you did to her bike that you are happy to share?

JP: It was obviously her first season as an elite rider and we were building up towards Worlds. We did exceptionally well on the Short Course racing. We did a few little things to freak out the competitors like removing a water bottle cage on the start line showing her competitors that she ‘had an edge’. Just mind games really. We had fun with that. We kept our front row seeding for World Cups and we were slowly getting the recipe right. We had challenges for sure, but we went back to the drawing board and it all worked out for World Champs.

BN: What was her strategy for the race, I mean yea she won but did her race unfold lap by lap according to a plan or was it more that it just panned out that way?

JP: She had a plan and executed perfectly. To just ride it, not to try and lead out front. She slowly caught Annika and then put Annika under pressure, she slipped in the roots and Kate managed to put in an attack and get away.

BN: Having your riders get two rainbow jerseys must have been incredible – how did you feel with that second win, could you believe it was happening?

JP: I didn’t know my lefts from my rights anymore! It was the perfect way to end the season. When everything that you do with the rider works out at the biggest race of the year there is no describing the emotions.


BN: So now in 2019, Kate has moved to Scott and Alan is on the Factory team which leaves you as a wrench for hire. You have already done some work with DiData, tell us about that?

JP: I know Doug quite well and through Jon o Connor my name was put forward to help DiData with their off-season training camp. I didn’t realize what I was signing up for! What happened is they were moving from Cervelo to BMC and they needed some help with the disc brakes. I sorted out the brakes on all 30 bikes. I ended up teaching world tour mechanics the do’s and don’ts of disc brake setup and tweaking. Doug and the DS then asked me to help out at the UAE Tour and Strada Bianchi early in 2019 which was a lot of fun, and hard work.

BN: Couple more questions then, what is the one tool you can’t live without?

JP: I would say defiantly my Unior Torque wrench, with the type of equipment I work with and the tolerance the manufactures have on they’re equipment to over tighten is quite easy so rather be safe and torque the bolts. 

BN: What are your favorite locations to race / work at?

JP: I would have to go with Vallnord, Andorra — it’s a small principality between Spain and France — its at high altitude which always makes for interesting racing and you never know who will win as the altitude will affect each rider differently. We always stayed down the mountain in a small town outside of Andorra in a place called La Seu d’Urgell which has a rich culture and beautiful old style churches and buildings. It’s just such a beautiful part of the world and a great place for a bike race.

BN: In your opinion, what area of bike technology needs the most improvement?

JP: I would say XC suspension, over the past couple of years there has been a great improvement in the suspension as technology has trickled down from Downhill bikes. However, the World Cups XCO tracks are getting harder and harder with more demanding terrain, at the moment we do have better air springs and dampers but I feel we are still playing catchup to the technology the Downhill guys have. The riders are becoming aware of the benefits from having more traction so the whole era of ‘you need a light xc bike’ is kind of going out the door. It has become more about being able to go faster and carrying more speed on the terrain you race on. Perhaps in the not too distant future, we will start to see coil shocks on XC bikes…..

BN: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to pursue a similar career?

JP: Experience is key, stay humble and always be willing to learn. You can’t rush this process at all — it took me about 9 years of retail and events to get to wrench at my first World Cup. A lot of where I am at the moment has been from following the big teams and making friends with them if they are in town. We live in a rad place with some of the best trails and training conditions all year — many of the pro teams have training camps down in SA and can’t always fly out here with all their staff. So sometimes they need a run around guy locally and that’s how I met up with Team DD and had the opportunity to show my talent. Who knew that a few weeks later I would be on a plane heading to my first world tour!

@jeanpierre_jacobs

ENDS.




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