Talking tech

A quick chat with Ken Ilegems

By John Stevenson

Click for larger image
Enjoying the sunshine at the Tour of Qatar
Photo: © Ken Ilegems

Telekom mechanic Ken Ilegems ICQed me the morning of the first stage of the Tour Down Under to ask us to pass along a message to the Telekom riders in Adelaide. I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the mechanical side of Telekom's preparations for the 2002 season.

Cyclingnews: At this time of year you are preparing for the new season?

Ken Ilegems: Yeah, already since the beginning of November. We are almost finished with the preparations. We only have to wait for the last delivery from Pinarello now.

CN: Which bikes are the team riding? Prince? Does anyone have any unusual requirements in how their bike is set up?

KI: We are using the Prince for almost the whole season, except for the spring classics (Omloop Het Volk till Paris-Roubaix) there we use a steel frame, similar to the Opera but without the carbon rear, and for the Giro - Tour we use a lighter version of the Prince

CN: That's interesting - why steel for the classics? More comfortable on poor Belgian roads?

KI: Lots of cobbles here, and then the riders prefer a more solid steel frame.

CN: That makes sense - very stiff frames can knock you around on the cobbles.

KI: Although the frames are made of steel, they're still very light. And for the unusual set-ups... there's a lot of unusual riders in the team so it's normal they have their unusual set-ups :-)

CN: OK, what are the 'usual-unusual' things about Zabel and Ullrich's bikes?

KI: For Ullrich the most typical is the old model Campagnolo brake levers, and he likes to try out new, light saddles in the weeks before the tour. Normally he races with the Turbo-Matic 4 with gel from Selle Italia in the tour he used the light SLR saddle also from Selle Italia.

Zabel is one of the more normal riders except for Milan-San Remo; there he uses a brand-new bike. He trains with it the first time the day before the race or if the frame arrives early enough in one of the Tirreno-Adriatico stages.

CN: So he gets a new bike that's the same as his previous one?

KI: Exactly the same, only a brand new one -- it's a tradition.

CN: I suppose in a race that important it also makes sense to leave nothing to chance…

KI: It also contains a small risk to ride a new bike, but no bigger risk than with the old bike. We use the old bike as a spare. At that time of the year there can't be nothing wrong with the old bike (only 3 months old).

CN: I did wonder about that. So in effect it's just a 'for luck' sort of thing?

KI: It's all in the mind as they say :-) But if Erik feels good about it, and keeps on winning Milan-San Remo like this, why not do it?

CN: Absolutely! Winning is as much from the mind as from the legs, heart and lungs after all.

KI: Yep, it is.

KI: The most unusual rider is Udo Bolts.

CN: How so? What's unusual about him and his setup?

KI: Most of the time his set-up is never the same two days in a row.

CN: Is there a specific reason for that, or does he just like to tinker -- or have you tinker?

KI: No specific reason most of the times he brings something to the race and asks us to try it on his bike. He also likes to use an old model of saddle.

CN: Which model?

KI: Selle Italia Pro Team but the problem is they don't produce them any more we hope that Pinarello can find a few more of them.

CN: Yeah - it's annoying when you like a saddle and the manufacturer stops making them. My wife has the same problem - Terry made her favourite saddle for about a year, then stopped.

KI: Yeah, that's a big problem Once you are used to one they change it again.

CN: The bike industry has a product-of-the-month mentality.

KI: Innovation is good, but some new things are no steps forward.

CN: They are different just for the sake of being different. Lots of that in wheels and tyres too.

KI: Commercial thinking of the manufacturers. Most cycling-tourists buy something for the look of it, not for the quality, I can see that when I'm going on a ride with a group that goes 3 times a week in my area. The older tourists are competing in showing off the newest products...

CN: Same here - old guys riding round Centennial Park on $7,000 bikes. Still, if they have fun buying toys it keeps the bike industry going.

KI: True, they're the biggest consuming market for the goods and not the [professional] riders.

CN: Tell us a little more about the mechanicking side of Telekom. How many mechanics does the team have?

KI: We have 7 mechanics, plus one extra occasionally.

CN: How did you get the job?

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Working on Ralf Grabsch's bike at Qatar
Photo: © Ken Ilegems

KI: I was working for a small team, combining it with cycling myself U23. It was very difficult to combine it, but it worked more or less. Somewhere in August I was visiting Julien Devriese (US Postal mechanic) and he said to me, "It's time you choose now: you quit cycling and go working for a big team, or you keep on cycling and look for a normal job."

Somewhere I knew he was right, but quitting cycling was not an easy thing for me. So I hesitated a while... Eventually I decided to quit if I found a really big team.

I talked a few more times with Julien Devriese, and he talked with Bruyneel. So Julien told me there was a possibility to come in the Postal team. But I had to wait a while. Somewhere on a November evening I got a phonecall from Walter Godefroot. I was suprised of course.

He asked me if I was interested in joining Telekom and wanted me to come for a meeting in the team base in Ghent. One week later I signed with Telekom, just before the Ghent six days. On those six days I saw Julien Devriese again, and he was surprised I had signed with Telekom and said it was too bad, because everything was almost okay for joining their team, but he couldn't blame me for taking no risks.

At first I was surprised by the unexpected offer, but I think Julien Stevens mentioned my name to Godefroot. Stevens joined the team also in 2001, and came from the Vlaanderen 2002 men's team, so thanks to him I am here.

CN: Did you start as a bike shop mechanic?

KI: First I was helping out a little in a local bike shop, Primator BikeShop Zwijndrecht-Antwerp. The owner Peter Lemaire taught me almost everything, as a favour. After six months I got an offer from Vlaanderen 2002 ladies team (now Vlaanderen - T-interim) And then I signed with Telekom.

I owe a lot to Peter.

CN: What's the hardest race, from the mechanics' point of view.

KI: I know a few hard races but I can't pick one out in specific. The hardest one day race for mechanics is Paris-Roubaix (of course !) But a big tour like Giro, Tour or Vuelta is also hard. Three weeks long, day-in, day-out working under stress, changing hotels every day...

And an overseas race is also hard for us, because we have to pack and unpack all the material for the flight, often lots of damaged material caused by transportation Normally everything is save and well packed in one of the team trucks, and we got everything with us. On an overseas race you can only bring the minimum of material what means sometimes you need something, and you don't have it with you.

CN: Ever lost anything really important because of flights?

KI: When I was working with the Vlaanderen team, we went to Montreal and Philadelphia for the world cup races over there. We had a short stop in London when we arrived we discovered that none of the bikes came with us! They were all lost in London Heathrow, as well as a few suitcases and my tools

We had to wait days for the bikes, and on the race day in Montreal we had only one bike, which had arrived the day before. so all the other teams and a local bike shop gave us what they could miss and the girls raced on borrowed material. They did not too badly (two in the top 10) considering they were off the bike for 6 days, and didn't race on their own bikes.

The rest of the bikes arrived the next two days, just on time to take them with us to Philadelphia.

British Airways...