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Forging the Gold - The day by day diary
A bike like the TCR Composite Gold demands attention to detail in its assembly. ONCE-Eroski's mechanics are used to that - a sloppily assembled race bike can mean the difference between winning and placing - so they were the obvious choice to put together the 35 TCR Composite Gold bikes.
On the afternoon of Thursday November 14, a four-day operation in Giant Europe's main headquarters in Lelystad, Holland came to a conclusion. Three ONCE-Eroski mechanics, Faustino Muñoz, Luis Miguel Díaz de Otazo and Joaquin Pozueta, together with team manager Manolo Saiz worked long, steady hours putting together the bikes.
"It's an assembly process which requires as least as much meticulous care as if the bikes were Formula One cars, if not more. These are works of art," Saiz claims. "The bikes are for an exclusive category of customer and every last component should be treated with the utmost care and respect. And that's exactly the treatment they're getting from my mechanics."
Monday November 11 - Cranking Up To Speed
Having flown to Amsterdam from Madrid the previous evening, the four are driven to the Giant Europe asssembly plant in Lelystad, some 40 kilometres away, on Monday morning. Two suitcases of the tools Muñoz and his two co-workers use regularly for the ONCE team have formed (a rather heavy) part of their luggage on the flight from Spain.
Waiting for them in a two-room workshop, (next door to the assembly area for Giant's regular bikes), are almost all of the components necessary. The gold handlebar caps, the last part of the bike to be completed, will not be ready until 6 am on Thursday morning. But the rest is ready.
The first part of day one of the TCR Composite Gold operation is spent looking over the factory, double checking the materials available and ensuring everything is in place. To be honest, it is a fairly monotonous process at some points, but the mechanics, visibly impressed by the size and scale of the Giant assembly plant, swiftly get into the swing of things.
For example, handling the lightweight Nokon cable casing with 6000 separate gold threads, calls for exceptional patience, but Díaz de Otazu is more than a match for the painstaking task of threading them by hand. (In total terms of each bike's cabling, if you were wondering, that adds up to roughly 150 pieces of gold 'thread' per bike.)
The assembly of the TCR Composite Golds isn't happening behind closed doors, either. Giant is hosting 57 local dealers and a highlight of the day's program is the beginning of the assembly process. Mechanic Muñoz is the man in the spotlight. On a podium, the Spaniard begins the assembly of a TCR Composite Gold, filmed by tv camera crews. A giant screen offers close-up shots of his work to the audience.
Later on in the same afternoon, the three mechanics work gets underway: Otazu is bent over a table threading the wiring whilst Muñoz and Pozueta concentrate on greasing the headsets, and installing the bottom brackets on all 35 machines.
Next, the fork steerer tubes are cut to the right length, then the handlebar stems have their gold front plates installed - complete, of course, with four gold nuts and bolts.
It's now past seven thirty, and high time to return to a rainsoaked Amsterdam.
Tuesday November 12 - Team Efforts
The first full day of work in Holland for the three mechanics and Saiz begins at 8 am sharp in the Lelystad complex and lasts until 7 pm that evening.
One special visitor that first full day to Lelystad is Rob de Groot, the metalworker responsible for the plating of the components in 24 carat, three-micron thick gold. Some 80 years ago his great-grandfather opened a shop in downtown Amsterdam and with that wealth of family experience, the Dutchman was the ideal person for this crucial part of the process.
The three mechanics use two workstands, swivelling and angling the bike from one side to another. In the back room, Díaz de Otazu has a growing pile of wheels drying out from one coating of glue, while in the front, the 35 frames are stacked on the floor.
The radio blares out music in the background, the mechanics whistle and even sing a little and in one sense they and the TCR Composite Golds could be anywhere in any race, from the Tour Down Under to the Tour de France, but as Muñoz insists: "How often do you get the chance to work on the best 35 bikes in the world? This is a special experience for all of us."
Throughout the corridors and office rooms of the Giant factory, reminders of ONCE-Eroski's achievements abound. It's the same in the workshop. Behind the mechanics are three wall-length posters of Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano crossing the finish line at Zaragoza in the 2001 Tour of Spain. Others show Abraham Olano in the 2000 Criterium International time trial and Laurent Jalabert in pink during the Tour of Italy in 1999.
It's an appropriate backdrop. "The whole point of the mechanics being here is that they felt the bikes should be assembled as if they were for a professional rider," says Saiz.
Their workload is growing increasingly heavy. Wheel rims are sanded down ready for tyres, a process which takes half a day for the 70 wheels, the black carbon dust making the mechanics briefly look like coalminers. Then the process of mounting the cranks and gear and brake levers and the cassettes is completed. Under their patient hands, the bikes are slowly coming alive.
Wednesday November 13 - Forging Ahead With The Golds
Outside on the flatlands near Lelystad - Giant's factory is ten metres below sea level, on terrain recovered from the North Sea in the 1960s - the rain continues to pour down in sheets.
In the workshops the assembly process is equally unremitting. While Muñoz concentrates on the threading of brakes and mounting of the gears, Díaz de Otazu and Pozueto continue to work on the wheels, patiently gluing and sticking. Otazu prefers to use an old toothbrush to apply the glue while Pozueto has converted a bidon into a glue bottle. Each wheel requires four coats.
Rather than complete one bike at a time, the ONCE mechanics bring all of the bikes to the same point in the assembly process before moving onto the next.
"At one point it seemed like there were too many different tasks all at the same time," Díaz de Otazo comments, "but in fact this way we're getting it all sorted out relatively quickly. It's a little more time consuming, that's all, but with three of us there's no problem and this way we know we have complete control of the process."
More visitors come and go: in less than half an hour two journalists and a photographer from the French press and writers from UK and Dutch specialist magazines all knock on the door on the room containing the TCR Composite Golds. Most requests are for interviews with Saiz, who patiently explains the whys and wherefores of this collaboration.
By now the Nokon cables have all been fitted onto the 35 bikes. The seatposts and saddles are the next to be fitted and now all that remains is the question of the taping of the bars and adding the glued wheels. Around 3.30 pm the operation is fast reaching its conclusion, with 25 bikes now completed. As if in acknowledgement at such rapid progress on the golden steeds, come the late afternoon even the sun has come out.
Thursday November 14 - Signed And Sealed
The final touches have now been made to the 35 frames as one by one each immaculate model gets the thumbs up from Saiz and his mechanics.
There was also time to talk of the future. Lengthy discussions are expected between Saiz, Muñoz and the Giant staff. "Being here is an ideal opportunity for debate about the plans for next year as well as the supervision of the project in itself," says Saiz.
This includes the ONCE-Eroski race calendar for 2003: the Tour Down Under in late January is already known to figure, but plans are being made both for further racing in Australia and the USA. And of course, there is intense discussion about the new bikes for 2003.
One of the key discussions is between chief frame engineer Jack Chen and Saiz on the design of future models. These meetings are punctuated with much arm-waving, gesturing and good natured defence of each person's point of view but there is a notable degree of mutual respect as well and progress is always made.
"The bike is every bit as good as I'd hoped," adds Tom Davies. "Having Jack and Manolo here is something we appreciate a great deal. They've made a major effort to find quality time to be in Holland, on home territory, which is pleasing because we have all the resources here and developing new projects can become more fluid as a result."
Andy Wollny, responsible for co-ordinating product between Taiwan, Spain and Holland, uses the opportunity to talk at length with the Spaniards. Marcel Veneendal, the materials expert, is equally interested. The controlled trickle of media interviews has become a steadier flow outside, but there is no let-up in the assembly process.
Wina Smeenk, Giant Europe's Art Director, has also discussed skin design with Saiz - a technical word for the design of each bike - including a special 2003 Tour de France model. The centenary edition of the Tour is a cause for celebration throughout the sport, and Giant plans to be a strong part of it as well.
The final part of the process takes part in surprisingly little time: brakes are changed for the carbon wheels, the final saddles fitted, the last models have their tyres pumped up. A plate of sandwiches and yoghurt appears, a few cameras flash, the last sections of video film are made. It is all falling in place.
Then the last bike is wheeled to the inner storeroom, Otazu gives the floor one last sweep and then the three plump on the floor, weary but pleased to have made such steady progress without any serious hiccups.
The local media have crowded in on their work in the morning, and others have been present at another press conference given by Giant Europe general manager Ed Hasselman and Saiz. The Spaniard has explained yet again (he doesn't appear to be too bothered) why he is so interested in team time trialling and how Lance Armstrong can be beaten.
Late that same evening the four Spaniards returned to Amsterdam airport and their flight home: the mechanics will enjoy a brief holiday period, but for Saiz the preparation of the 2003 season has already begun and next week he will be supervising the ONCE-Eroski riders as they begin serious training.
And as for the bikes Munoz and his men have assembled? Six have already been sold in the UK, another five in Spain. 001 will be put in a special case in Giant's headquarters in Taiwan. 007 has been reserved for a James Bond fanatic - so far, so Davies insists, known only as M.
What is certain is that wherever their final destination, Giant's TCR Composite Gold is one very exclusive weapon.
Or as one mechanic wrote on the whiteboard next to the storeroom containing the 35 models: "Todo muy bien" - "Everything Just Fine."