In the last hours of the Tour on Sunday, I thought of the friend who taught me to love the sport.
So I went upstairs to get Roby’s old tricolor national-team jersey he gave to me after the Tour we shared in 1982.
I hung the jersey by the television as I watched the riders make the normally ceremonial journey into Paris. I wear it only for special occasions – maybe a softball game or the five- mile Turkey Trot I used to run. I want the jersey to last.
Roby Oubron was a four-time world cyclocross champion in 1937, 1938, 1941 and 1942, who was helping the Jonathan Boyer team during the 1982 Tour. Boyer had been the first American to race the Tour in 1981 – a forerunner to the Yanks who would later win the Tour.
Roby was driving the car for Boyer’s manager Rob and photographer William and a Belgian camera crew (three guys known as Vandy). I was allowed to squeeze in for five days and immediately bonded with Roby who was squat and powerful and looked like Picasso.
Although he had never ridden in the three-week road race that is the Tour, he had coached and mentored generations of French, Czech and blind cyclists – and was tight with Bernard Hinault, the Breton who would win the Tour that year.
The car had access to the heart of the Tour. If I asked why Hinault was making a breakaway, Roby would gun the car alongside Hinault and chat with his pal, and then would report back to us in French simple enough for me to understand.
Roby knew where to stop for a quick omelet during a long stage. He knew all the good bars for a quick beer in Bordeaux or the Pyrenees. He was at home with millionaire sponsors and rugged motorcycle messengers. He was one of the warmest, funniest, most communicative people I ever met.
Roby had fought in World War Two, and had been injured and pulled off the battlefield by an American soldier.
A few months after the 1982 Tour, Roby accompanied some Tour riders to a new race across Virginia – his first visit to the United States. I was in a car with him when we saw the Washington Monument, and I saw tears roll down his cheeks.
“J’adore l’Amérique,” he said.
He became my adopted uncle figure; he and his lovely wife Simone watched over our daughter when she was working in Paris; he gave me a jersey that had been worn by French cyclists; and we met every so often in New York or Paris.
“Tu es un champion du monde,” I would sometimes utter in dramatic fashion, and he would chuckle.
Roby passed in the late 80’s; I never got to say goodbye. But every year when the Tour comes around, I think of the old cyclocross champion who never rode the Tour, but helped me love it.
* * *
On Sunday Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour and also dug up a great finishing kick to launch his countryman Mark Cavendish to win the stage -- a gripping end to this year's Tour. I celebrated the riders, the country, and Roby by putting on his jersey and hopping on my old-guy bike, and going for a spin.
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)