“Tur-bo! Tur-bo! Tur-bo!…”
heckle: To try to embarrass and annoy (someone speaking or performing in public) by questions, gibes, or objections; badger.
Geoff Kabush is undeniably a world-class heckler. The accompanying photo surely speaks for itself. I need to meet this guy.
When I think of hecklers I envision Spike Lee courtside in the Garden ripping into foes of the Knicks. I’m not sure that cycling, at least in the US, will ever be a mature enough sport or an activity conducive to fostering a faction of hecklers. Firstly, we just don’t have enough fans, much less knowledgeble ones. To really get under somebody’s skin one needs intimate knowledge, information about how to really push an athlete’s buttons. Your everyday, casual fan at an event such as USPRO or San Francisco Grand Prix only has a vague notion of who Lance Armstrong is. The rest of the peloton is an anonymous blur of colors. The sport of cycling itself is hard on hecklers since the peloton is whizzing by at high speeds, and depending on the course, rather infrequently. Heckling demands constant, repetitive, irksome speech and if the peloton rolls around about every 30 minutes and pass by in a matter of seconds then the most creative witticisms will likely miss their target or cease to be effective. Kabush had the right idea by unleashing his Deaner persona at ‘cross nationals: cyclocross is relatively slow, you can get right up into the riders’ faces, and they come by about every 5-6 minutes. I’d bet the Jacques-Maynes twins can attest to the effectiveness of Kabush’s fury.
Of course, there’s also the proper balance between heckling and hate. If you ride your bike out on the open road you’ve been on the receiving end of evil: whether it’s the ubiquitous finger, getting buzzed, being pelted with bottles/cans/fast food detritus, or just your friendly, “Get off the road, faggot!”, cyclists are an all too frequent target of venomous speech or action. Since we get shit upon all too frequently during our daily training rides, part of me thinks that getting heckled, even good naturedly, at races is just not what the doctor ordered. Competitive cycling itself is not immune from venom bordering on violence: just ask Lance Armstrong’s or Jens Voigt’s opinion about fan behavior on L’Alpe d’Huez. But then again, some people just seem to deserve a hearty helping of verbal whupass. All’s fair in love and heckling when one spars with aural, not physical judo.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to the nascent days of cycling heckling. I offer you:
Upstate New York’s Wise-ass Patrol vs. Thurlow Rogers.
So it’s 1984 and USCF road nationals are in the backwoods venue of Sunapee, NH. I had already competed in the junior men’s 14-15 event earlier in the day and had my heart (and kneecap) shattered 50 meters from the line. Doh! After a trip to the hospital to get stitched up, I returned to the race course to watch the afternoon feature event: the senior men’s national championship. For some of our country’s finest cyclists (i.e.- our Olympians) the race must have seemed a bit of a letdown. Afterall, with the Los Angeles Olympic road race fresh in one’s memory, any race, even a national championship, has to pale in comparison. Still, there were some grumblings and bitterness in the U.S. camp. Yes, Alexi Grewal uncorked the ride of his life and unbelievably torched Steve Bauer for the gold, but there were a few other Americans peaved that it wasn’t them out in front. Grewal was a headstrong, cocky bastard who very nearly missed the race due to some herbal tea tripping a drug test mere weeks before the Games. A few of our other athletes, such as Davis Phinney and Thurlow Rogers, seemed jealous of Grewal’s success and still sported jumbo-sized chips on their shoulders. I don’t recall when the scheduling for nationals changed to its current incarnation, but back in 1984 road nationals took place over approximately 9 days and included individual time trials and road races for junior and senior men and women, plus a team time trial for senior men. My memory is rather fuzzy, but I believe Thurlow Rogers was on his way to duplicating Ron Kiefel’s unprecedented 1983 San Diego nationals triple gold medal performance (Kiefel won the individual TT, was on the winning TTT, and capped it all off with a win in the RR) in New Hampshire. Rogers may not have won gold in the Olympic road race, but he wanted to prove he was still a force to be reckoned with in Sunapee. I’m almost positive he had already won gold in the TT and the TTT, and only approximately 100 miles of NH road stood between him and a third gold medal. Unfortunately for Thurlow, I don’t think he counted on some drunk-and-getting-drunker-by-the-lap acqaintances of mine from Utica and Hamilton getting under his skin.
A potent mix of Upstate NY’s preeminent cycling smartasses, most of them approximately 10-15 years older than me, came to cheer me on in Sunapee. It was a glorious, sunny summer day and what better way to enjoy a race than by slurping down icy beers from one’s roadside cooler. I think they were already buzzing pretty hard for my 10am-ish race, and were definitely in rare form by the time I joined them for that Sunday afternoon’s feature event. The course was rather odd. The hardest climb in the circuit took place all of 100 meters past the start/finish line. You had to line up in your granny gear and immediately start climbing when the gun went off. This climb was fairly steep and narrow, perfect for spectators to get an up-close and intimate glimpse of the competitors. The Upstate NY crew was camped out about half-way up the climb, and were eager to see Thurlow Rogers claim gold. Now, Thurlow had a nickname, “Turbo”, which I’m sure was forever etched into his brain after that fateful Sunday Sunapee afternoon. Lap after lap after lap, my friends chanted “Tur-bo, Tur-bo, Tur-bo, Tur-bo…” right in Rogers’ face as he toiled up the climb. And as luck would have it, Rogers was not having a stellar day. In fact, I believe he bailed on the penultimate lap once he realized he had no chance in hell of bridging up to the winning break from which Matt Eaton would emerge as national champion. The last several times up the climb (probably laps 10, 11, and 12) Rogers was visibly flustered and rather perturbed when my fan section lit into him. I think the last time he went by, my friend Edmund, I believe the most vocal of the Turbo contingent, remarked, “Damn, I think Turbo wants to kick my ass”. As it turned out, the only ass getting kicked that afternoon was Rogers’ at the hands of America’s finest amateurs, eager to pummel someone fresh off a 6th place finish in Los Angeles’ Olympic road race and spoil his bid for three gold medals. And what ever happened to Rogers? History suggests his psyche never quite recovered from the unceremonious ribbing in Sunapee. Over the winter of 1985, Thurlow Rogers signed a contract with uber-team La Vie Claire, joining Greg LeMond and turning pro along with fellow Americans Roy Knickman and Andy Hampsten for the 1986 season. Undoubtedly still hearing “Tur-bo, Tur-bo, Tur-bo” ringing in his ears, Rogers cracked right before Paris-Roubaix and fled Europe in the middle of the night without telling anybody for the comfy confines of America.
My friend Edmund, immensely talented on the bike when he actually took the time to train, continued to disappear and then re-emerge out of the blue over the next several years. I can still recall an image of his sweet, Duke-blue Peter Mooney machine, usually sporting bar tape in various degrees of unravelling plus the grimiest drivetrain on the planet. I remember his cryptic salutation amidst a torrential downpour during a NY district road race, “Peter…you’re looking mighty thin and wily today“. But what I most vividly remember was probably the last time I ever saw Edmund, and particularly the circumstances: live, national television. It must have been the late 1980s, probably 1989, and I was watching a New England Patriots game on television while home from college on a savagely snowy winter afternoon. In Cooperstown the sky was grimly grey, the wind was howling, and the snow kept piling up several feet in depth. The same storm was pounding Boston, and the Patriots were playing that very afternoon in the midst of a blizzard. I’ve never really cared too much about football, but when you’re housebound with only 1 television channel at your disposal, one’s options for mindless entertainment are rather slim. Near the end of the first half the camera panned through the crowd and halted at the spectacle of several men whooping it up in the midst of the snowstorm, wearing only Speedos, sporting frighteningly bright red skin, and double fisting beers. The announcers immediately chimed in with something like “Oh dear me. Look at those fools. They’re going to need hospitalization immediately. What a disgrace.” And just as one announcer uttered, “What an embarrassment to their parents” the camera really zoomed in and the totally blottoed face on my television was none other than Edmund’s. Too funny. I believe Edmund survived that wintry afternoon, but I’m not sure what’s happened to him since.