Bob Roll, a 13-year veteran of professional cycling, now commentates pro cycling’s most renowned races: the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, the Tour of California—and, of course, next month’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. When he’s not following the buzz of the peloton in Europe’s peaks and valleys, he heads home to Durango, where he’s lived for more than 25 years.
Name: Bob “Bobke” Roll
Occupation: Announcer for NBC Sports Network’s coverage of professional cycling races.
Trivia: In 1986, Roll raced on the 7-Eleven Cycling Team, the first American cycling team to enter the Tour de France, and placed 63rd of 210 riders.
How’d you get involved in cycling?
I grew up in Oakland, California; the gridlock was absolute murder on my psyche. Riding my bike was the perfect antivenom for a very poisonous community. The car is still killing the Bay Area and the rest of the world. To have some autonomy and freedom of movement in my late teens and early 20s made a huge difference in the quality of my life.
Is there a checklist of things a pro cyclist needs in order to be successful?
They need an efficient aerobic engine and an enviable power-to-weight ratio. Lighter riders with more power are more capable of scaling mountains. Once you get to the top 0.1 percent of the top one percent, then emotional endurance is a big part of being a champion bike racer. Having a calm and optimistic outlook is essential.
Have professional riders’ diets changed much over the years?
Today, guys try to eat a lot less. I think you should eat as much as you want and ride as much as you can. To be hungry all the time and racing your bike five hours a day is just how it goes.
Did your racing career leave you with any lingering health problems?
I raced clean and never used any prohibited substances. I took care of myself. I took my vitamins and ate all the food I wanted. I feel fantastic.
When you’re calling a race, what clues do you look for to tell how a rider is feeling?
The pedaling motion is the most easily noticed. Once the smooth circles turn into karate chops, you know the dude is in trouble. You can also tell a guy is struggling if he starts laboring in the upper body—his shoulders rocking side to side; pulling on the bars and not getting anywhere. You can’t really tell by the expression anymore because of the helmets and sunglasses.
How did you end up settling in Durango?
It was the farthest town from a freeway in the continental 48 states. A divided four-lane freeway is about five hours away in any direction. I thought, if that’s how far it is from a freeway, then it must be a pretty good town.
5280.com Exclusive: More from our Q&A with Bob Roll
What was the craziest act of competitiveness you saw while riding?
Do cyclists really enjoy the pain of a tough ride?
Cyclists are usually introverted and cerebral people. They use cycling to exercise their demons. There are a lot of stoic and self-possessed types of riders. Cycling is one of the very few endurance sports at which you can make a good living. If you are a good athlete, but not with the hand-eye coordination for baseball or basketball, but you have endurance-based physiology, cycling pays the highest wages. Some of the greatest athletes on Earth race bicycles. If they tried to shoot a free throw, they would probably fail miserably.
Can you explain the often misunderstood concept of a cycling team?
The team is everything. You are nine guys against the world. To speak about the Tour de France without the team is impossible. You need them for the camaraderie and the team has to do the work for the leader in the wind, so he stays out of trouble. It’s not just to benefit the leader, but also to benefit the workers. That paradox is what makes cycling special among endurance sports. In a marathon, you run as fast as you can for 26.2 miles and you’re done. They can have pacemakers, but because of the aerodynamics and the inertia of the peloton you have to have a team.