BOBKE STRUTs into Chatham County

Signed title page of my old school Bobke book
Bob Roll came to Chapel Hill this past Tuesday night under the aegis of book promotion (his new book is basically an Idiot’s Guide to the Tour day France) and he spent approximately 1 hour rambling about professional cycling and answering questions from the rather substantial crowd (I’d guess about 200 people). The Bob Roll you meet in person is by and large the same Bob Roll you see on OLN: he can tell a good story, he’s got a wry sense of humor, and he’s just as amazed as the audience that he’s carved out a niche for himself on television. Bobke vividly personifies the stock from which Euro pros blossom: an admittedly poor student, a blue collar upbringing, and a genetic predilection for enduring season after season of pain and suffering on a bike. What sets him apart from the rank and file members of the pro peloton was some nascent intelligence and sense of purpose which manifested itself in his writing and immersion in the cycling culture of Italy and Belgium. This is a man who wrote poetry on his sidewalls, a man who worships Fausto Coppi, and a man who survived years of the primal, shitty, Belgian Spring Classic weather. To me, he’s the Mike Watt of professional cycling. While Bobke has quite a knack for pleasing a crowd at a book signing, I’m sure he’d be even more of a hoot in a bar after slugging back a few beers. I wanted to get him into Local 506, buy him a bunch of rounds, and hear him pontificate on the stories which didn’t find their way into print. I wanted to hear why he called the organizers of the Tour of the Adirondacks a bunch of douche-bags and vowed never to race there again and I wanted to see the Bobke Strut live in person.

I’m having trouble coherently organizing my thoughts so I’ll just spew forth with my memories of the Bob Roll Experience: Bobke really loves Lance and is convinced (as I am) that he’ll win his 6th Tour this July, Bobke likes to drink, Phil Liggett can drink Bobke under the table, Bobke noticed Kirsten Gumm’s “two new friends” but reserved further commentary, Bobke is under the spell of pro cycling omerta and refuses to believe Jesus Manzano’s drug allegations, Brasstown Bald is as tough as any European hors categorie climb, being a television announcer sure beats roofing houses in Durango, riding the Gavia Pass in a blinding snowstorm was Bobke’s toughest day on the bike (that was my softball question to see if he’d say anything else, but his vivacious description of being blind and screaming for Massimo Testa at the finish line while being filmed live on Italian television was in itself worth attending the event. Bobke’s quote to the world was “This sport SUCKS!”), just like one of Bobke’s heroes he was the Man in Black, and it’s always heartening to see ex-pros who look slim & trim.

Flashback to 1996…

1996 Tour DuPont rider roster for the Raleigh, NC Time Trial stageI’m a geek when it comes to cycling memorabilia. While I was looking through my Graham Watson books for a picture of Bob Roll riding the cobbles in Paris-Roubaix, I came across this program from the 1996 Tour DuPont’s TT stage in Raleigh tucked away in one of the volumes. I’m always fascinated by looking at past start lists to see which Euro pros have raced in the U.S. (quick quiz: did you know that Tom Boonen was on the podium of the 1999 Univest Grand Prix and that a young Laurent Jalabert finished on the podium of the 1990 USPRO race in Philly?) While I remembered Mapei sending their A team (Tony Rominger and co.) to do battle with Armstrong, check out who else made the trip. I’m pretty sure that these guys hadn’t really hit the big time yet, but nonetheless look who was here: Erik Dekker, Robbie McEwen, Michael Boogerd, Daniele Nardello, Marcel Wust, Leon von Bon, Arvis Piziks. And there’s also the contingent of Belgian/Dutch hard guy domestiques who live for the Spring Classics: Nico Eeckhout, Geert Verheyen, Tom Desmet, Erwin Thijs, Serge Baguet. What I was most amazed about was I missed my chance to meet the legendary Dane Claus Michael Moller. I have some sick fascination for this guy who’s been banned from racing in Denmark (due to failed drug tests) and survived on crap teams in Portugal. He must be pushing 40 these days, but he’s still going strong and lighting it up in the smaller Spanish and Portugese stage races. What also struck me was seeing all the American domestic pros who were such a huge part of the racing scene in the 90s who now are largely, if not totally, forgotten. Just like Bob Roll mentioned that Doug Shapiro disappeared into the woodwork, I wonder what happened to these guys who were on the forefront of pro cycling’s rebirth in the States? It’s also interesting to note the surprisingly few riders who competed both in the last incarnation of world-class stage racing in the U.S., the 1996 Tour DuPont, and the recently completed and fabulously successful Dodge Tour of Georgia: Scott Moninger, George Hincapie, Bobby Julich, Trent Klasna, Chris Horner, and last but not least Lance Armstrong (and an honorable mention should go out to Jonathan Vaughters who competed in 1996 and was the USA National Team D.S. in Georgia) are the only repeat competitors.

I was a spectator for a few of the 1996 Tour DuPont stages. I saw the TT stage in Raleigh, followed the peloton from Raleigh to Greensboro the next day, and then saw the start of the stage in Mt. Airy the day after that. It still boggles my mind that these guys raged through downtown Raleigh, that Leon von Bon won a hot spot sprint on Franklin Street near Peppers Pizza, and that Radisa Cubric nearly won the stage finishing in Greensboro while racing on a freshly fractured wrist. That bastard (Cubric) is still terrorizing (both figuratively and literally) the Masters and Pro/1/2 fields in the Southeast. I got to meet and chat with both Graham Watson and Phil Liggett in Mt. Airy, NC. That was an odd encounter. I remember talking to Graham Watson and looking over his shoulder to see some goofy-ass Barney Fife impersonator strutting around Main St, Mt. Airy. I don’t think the Euro pros quite understood what was going on or why this character fired the starting gun. Main St., Mt. Airy is also the place where I got to meet for the first and last time living-legend Sean Yates. What I remember the most, however, was the incessant bitching and griping that dominated the local news the evening of the Raleigh TT. Never mind that Lance Armstrong just kicked Tony Rominger’s ass, the only thing reported on was all the pissed off people in Raleigh who were inconvenienced by the streets being closed on a Friday afternoon. While I think the Tour of Georgia proved that the U.S. public can tolerate road closures (aside from the geezer who creamed the U23 rider with an SUV in the TT), unless there’s a rock star performer of Lance Armstrong’s stature it will be a tough sell in the future.

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