By Anthony J. Nocella II, Ph.D. — Anthony Nocella: As the Scott-SRAM team mechanic, you do not race mountain, but you are followed on Instagram because you have a fun humorous style. You make people smile and laugh around you, including the whole Scott Mountain Bike Race Team. There was a picture of you and Gary Fisher together a few years ago on Instagram, where both of you were dressed over the top and ridiculous at Rampage. Can you tell me why it is important to not be so serious, but to have fun in mountain biking?
Brad Copeland: We have a saying on our team: Fun is fast. It is fairly well proven in more academic environments but even through my own empirical studies it’s clear that the best performances come when everyone is in a positive-minded headspace. So, in some ways I take having fun very seriously!
Kate and I prefer to work that way, and our team manager and former racing legend Thomas Frischknecht himself has stated that in life both personally and professionally, he is aware of and sensitive to the positive or negative energy that people possess and exude, and he is drawn to those who approach life from the positive side.
In fact, that is something very central to who he invites to join his team, because when the inevitable unexpected problems arise as we travel around the globe together, remaining positive and working together with people you like and want to help succeed can make all the difference. So fun is encouraged on our team, because it is a proven element that is necessary for a team to succeed in the long run.
For most of us, too, we began riding bikes because it was fun. To lose sight of that fundamental aspect of the shared cycling experience would be to miss the point of what it is we are doing. Bikes have made our lives better and we are happy to have an opportunity to share that with others.
AN: As a mechanic working on Kate Courtney’s bicycle you cannot be joking or messing around. In your opinion, what is the difference between a good mechanic and a brilliant mechanic?
BC: That is a good point and one that should probably be stated for the record: although we do laugh and joke around a lot, we take what we do very seriously—both Kate and myself. I think that’s one of the big reasons we get along so well, too. We share a lot of the same interests and share a similar sense of humor, but we are also hyper-obsessed with the details, and the preparation that we both put into our jobs.
Kate is a very gracious athlete who is quick to share the successes she earns with those who have contributed to them, and I am grateful to be a part of that.
You are right that just about anyone working in the same environment as I do can be assumed to be a good mechanic. I have known a few GREAT mechanics in my life (in shops, on teams, and in R&D roles within the industry) and have been fortunate to work closely with some of them early on in my development—it boils down to having a very sophisticated appreciation for nuance and specificity, an innate ability to focus and remember, and a refusal to cut corners. If you can combine these abilities, the worst possible outcome is that you’ll be a good mechanic.
I think the very best, though, are those for whom the aforementioned attributes are or have become virtually innate and who then look at what they are given to work with not as the end, but as the beginning. Those who understand how, why, and when to modify or alter equipment to further enhance the performance, fit or feeling of the bike and really take it several steps beyond perfect—perfect is the starting point. Then, it becomes a game of making it not just perfect but perfectly tailored to Kate (or any rider I work with) to ensure the bike functions just short of telepathically, with no energy wasted on cumbersome functionality, to give the bike the feeling of being a second-nature extension of Kate’s body when she’s riding it. Mechanics who know not just the equipment, but the athlete extremely well can do even more to enhance the performance of the machine.
AN: You are a very fit and outstanding cyclist beyond being a mechanic. Do you think it is important to be a cyclist if you are a mechanic, and if so or not why?
BC: This is a great question and in my lifetime, I’ve known a lot of mechanics but not many who truly love riding and make the time to do that as a part of their lifestyle. I raced for a long time starting at age 11, both as a cross country mountain bike racer and later on the road bike, too. I grew up riding a lot from a very early age and began working as a mechanic to help subsidize the costs of racing and maintaining my equipment when I was pretty young (before I had help and resources to make that part of racing a little bit easier).
It was in these moments that I learned the value of having a well-prepared bike—that differences in equipment quality often have much less impact on performance than a well-adjusted bike versus one that isn’t. Knowing how bikes work definitely makes a difference when riding them, and I think decades of experience racing and riding them makes a big difference in how I work on them, and especially how I choose the final setup for a given race day.
Taken a step further, knowing how my own riders use their equipment makes me even more able to tailor their bikes to suit a given race course or conditions, and these are all very valuable things that I believe contribute to the success that Kate and I have enjoyed so far. Being familiar with the physical and also mental aspects that come into play during a race week, including the stress and anxiety that a rider experiences, certainly helps to navigate that environment even when I step out of my role as mechanic and into one of the many other roles, I contribute to throughout a race week.
AN: After a number of years with Specialized, Kate switched to Scott Sports in 2019, and brought you with her. Can you tell me why Scott mountain bikes are the best for what you’re doing?
BC: We had a very smooth and easy time transitioning onto Scott bikes in 2019. They are very well engineered and are very efficient. Their racing pedigree speaks for itself, and after almost 2 years with the team it is clear to me why that is. The engineering and product management side of Scott’s business takes a very active role interfacing with our team (and all of their sponsored athletes’ teams), and take any and all feedback with great interest and interpret that feedback into real changes, even when they are nuanced and so small that most might ignore them. They invest in our program as once of the best teams on earth, and use it as a real-world test platform to develop the next generation of products. When a company invests that much research and financial assets into continuously refining the performance of its products, you can count on good results. We are very fortunate for the support of Scott Sports and their enthusiasm for our program.
AN: As a professional mechanic, what are the key steps you take in preparing a bike to be ready to be raced?
BC: Well, every race is a little bit different, but as a mechanic for a big pro operation we are fortunate to have plenty of equipment on hand—spare parts and all needed service items, tools, etc.—so there is not really an excuse for the bike to be anything short of perfect every time!
It really just comes down to wanting to be perfect and being willing to invest the time necessary to get it there, while always being mindful of other variables like the course conditions, weather forecast, and sometimes other factors—like in cases when Kate has a lead in a series overall title competition like last year’s World Cup, we might make selections that enhance the bike’s durability at the expense of a bit of added weight as insurance against any mid-race mechanicals, flat tires etc.
So, it depends a lot on what’s going on in the world around us as we make decisions on the bike setup at a given race. However, we always start with the same baseline setup at every race in terms of suspension settings, pressures, and tire pressure, and make little changes here and there to tune it to the course conditions or whatever other factors may be in play and that may influence some of these choices.
AN: Can you tell me a great moment as a professional mechanic that woke you up and said you made it as one of the best mechanics in the world?
BC: Haha! Well, it’s not over yet, but the trajectory I am on now feels a little more certain than it used to. As Americans, for both Kate and myself, it takes a bit more of an investment for a team to be interested in having us be a part of it because so much of what we do takes place halfway around the world. That means a lot of extra expenses for travel and associated things for Americans to participate. (Fundamentally this is a big obstacle for growing the American presence in pro racing, but that’s another topic.)
So I guess I would say that when Scott-SRAM MTB Racing team owner Thomas Frischknecht (a MTB racing legend and someone I grew up following) recognized the value of my relationship with Kate and invited me to continue working alongside her on his team when she decided to join it at the end of 2018 was a moment when I felt like okay, this guy knows everything about mountain bike racing and is known as a brilliant tactician in the sport, who has a legacy of running his program with an emphasis on developing incredible talent and delivering consistent results year after year.
So for him to see and acknowledge the ongoing value of my alignment with Kate, and being willing to accept whatever costs and challenges came with the decision to bring me into his team with Kate, was the closest I’ve come to thinking “I made it!” It was the first time someone actively decided to do something a little more complicated and expensive than he had to do, just to have me be a part of Kate’s operation going forward. So I am very grateful for that, for the acknowledgment and the opportunity that came with it. And I am happy we delivered some big results early on for the team to prove that we were as good as he seemed to think we were!
AN: With so much going on socially and politically globally, how can the cycling community care more about the world and are there any issues that you think cyclists should care more about?
BC: There are always issues going on that we should be mindful of, whether social or political or in terms of public or environmental health. Some may be very broad while others may affect only our immediate surroundings.
So, I think it’s important to remain engaged in doing our best always—not just when things boil over to the point of rioting in the streets, or a global health crisis. Even small acts can make a big difference, so while 2020 may have been the year a lot more people actively engaged in topics like health policy or politics, I hope that we learn from our difficult year and that these types of concerns remain at the front of our collective consciousness going forward, leading to perhaps more collective consideration for one another and to future decision-making that can mitigate crises like we are experiencing right now.
While this year has been crazy and that craziness has been a bit louder than in years’ past, I have always done my best to remain positive, open and accepting of those around me no matter what the sociopolitical climate is at a given time. Traveling internationally on a regular basis has opened my eyes to what I believe to be the inherent good nature of most people across cultural and political boundaries.
Engaging with members of the global community in a positive way leads to positive exchanges. Remaining humble and gracious in spite of whatever highs or lows you are in the midst of personally usually leads to positive outcomes. We try to keep this in perspective as we pursue our own goals because at the end of the day, bike racing is a small and somewhat insignificant activity, but it gives us a platform to lead by example.
I think Kate would agree that we have kind of realized that maintaining a positive approach to the world, to unknowns, to stress and to new experiences and new relationships is the best way to improve your experience with life when encountering those moments. Remaining optimistic and humble while giving others the benefit of the doubt is the best way we have found to tackle uncertainty, and we have had a lot of opportunity to practice that approach this year!
[…] Interview with Brad Copeland, Professional Team Mechanic for Scott-SRAM MTB Racing […]