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The Group Mentality and Bobby J. Rising
By Staff
Date: 3/29/2004
The Group Mentality and Bobby J. Rising

By Charlie Melk

Those of you who have read any of my previous articles at the Daily Peloton the past few months know that I have been getting pretty fed up with the extended frigidity that most often comes with trying to get in shape in the northern Midwestern US during February and March. It happens every year, but I never get used to it. Well, I’m happy to report that we have had an entire week in a row now of actual spring-like temperatures and even some clear skies to complement the warmth. This might not sound like much to those of you in the Sun Belt, but I finally got in my first 200 mile week this season, and it feels great!

A good portion of those 200 miles happened yesterday morning, when fifteen of us got together at 9am for the first real group ride of 2004. The plan, I thought, was to go out and ride a nice and easy 60-70 miles. That’s what “they” said it was going to be. I’m sure you all know who “they” are. Now, for me “nice and easy” equals “FLAT and SLOW,” because this is very close to my actual condition at the moment—FAT and SLOW.

Well, as so often happens, it all started off nice and easy, but ten miles into the ride some over-achiever at the front (yes, I was wheel-sucking at the back) turned off of the nice flat road right along the Mississippi River and into the bluffs—Mohawk Valley Road to be exact—doesn’t exactly sound nice and easy anymore, does it? I think my exact quote when I saw us turning onto “that road” was, “Oh, I don’t like the looks of this at all.” Unbeknownst to me at this point, Mohawk Valley Road would be climb number one of four for the day.

So, I slogged my wheezing carcass up number one with all the grace of an obese elephant riding a unicycle (only a very slight exaggeration). Number two was better for me—a consistent mellow grade with a bit of a tailwind. I actually started feeling good. Number three, also known as “The Elevator Shaft,” wasn’t even too horrible, even when one of my friends, whose computer has a gradient function, told me that it was pretty much 15% all the way up for a little bit more than a mile. Keep in mind that he told me this at the top of the climb! Number four was long and steep, and it was one of those dastardly climbs that has two or three trick endings. But if you keep pedaling, eventually you will reach the top, right? And, small victory, I wasn’t even the last person to get there. Last of all—surprise of surprises—I didn’t even bonk, which was my secret fear all day—bonus.

That first group ride of the year is always telling—and this year it told me that I’m farther along than I thought I was. It’s good to be pleasantly surprised. It’s also nice to be able to compare the kind of riding I do, as a mere mortal, to the kind of riding that is going on in the professional peloton right now, even inspirational—all of us probably do it to some extent—maybe because there are more similarities than differences.

The first “in-person” confluence of these two worlds in my own life occurred over 13 years ago at the 1990 National Cyclocross Championships, which were held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had always gazed in wonder at the pictures of Roland Liboton and Adri Van Der Poel in Winning Magazine, duking it out in the mud and snow of Holland and Belgium, and thought that it wasn’t so different from the mud and snow of Wisconsin. Whereas the Tour de France seemed so distant and otherworldly, cyclocross was something that I thought I might be able to understand right away—it seemed like part of my world. So when I heard that the national championships were going to be held so close to home, I knew that I had to be there.

The thing that most stuck in my mind from that experience was watching Bobby Julich thrash the junior field thoroughly and completely. I was standing just past the mud bog and service area and just before the stairs that the riders had to run up the side of a steep hill every lap. Let me tell you—no one that day, whether junior or senior, made running up those stairs or plowing through that mud look any easier than Bobby J. did.

Bobby Julich. Courtesy Bobby

Not much later in his career, he would go on to improve vastly on that result, and a host of other prestigious junior wins, by compiling a résumé that led a lot of us to believe that he was the next great stage race hope to emerge from the U.S. since Andy Hampsten and Greg Lemond, including a 5th on GC at the Tour Dupont as a first year senior in 1991 and 7th overall a few years later, a win at Criterium International in 1998, 9th overall at the Vuelta a España, and the crowning jewel—his 3rd overall at the Tour de France in 1998, when he was always at the front on every critical mountain stage and time trialed like a man possessed.

But in a career of ups and downs, Bobby seemed to lose the plot, and he never seemed to get back to his former level after the 1998 Tour. It was frustrating to watch his results from week to week and year to year. The guy was always between 20th and 30th, which showed that the legs were there, but he never seemed to be able to get back the winning mentality—he’d lost his edge.

I read his journals, and he talked about morale a lot. He talked about having “great morale” a lot, but when you talk about it as much as he did without any results to back it up, it sounds a lot more like someone trying to talk himself into feeling confident rather than someone who actually feels that way. Thinking and talking about morale is good to a point, but it makes you wonder which action predicates the other. All other things being equal, as the head goes so do the legs.

Well, it may be hasty to declare this folks, but I do believe that Bobby J. has found his groove again, with both his head and his legs seemingly in perfect synch. It has been a long and uncertain road, but the move to CSC this year has apparently been very good for him, as his 4th overall at Critérium International, 3rd overall at Paris-Nice, and 8th overall at the Tour Méditerranéen, suggests. In his own words:

“Since my arrival at CSC, I honestly felt like I had found something special. After the first training camp, I figured that it couldn't get better from there, but the truth is that each day it does get better. All the members of the team do their job with passion and that makes it a real pleasure to be part of this team. Things are going well right now and I am really looking forward to the rest of the season.”

It makes me think that we might be seeing quite a bit more of Mr. Julich come April in the Dodge Tour de Georgia; in June, at the Wachovia Series; and hopefully in July, at the Tour de France. It also makes me think that Chris Horner won’t find winning quite so easy next month. Is anyone else as happy about that as I am?

Welcome back, Bobby. You’ve got a lot of us wondering how much better it can get now too.

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