The Third Half
J. Andrew Lockwood
Senior Editor / Columnist
September 30, 2010
It was a footnote on my favorite cycling news site. It barely surfaced as a news story when ultra-endurance athlete Jure Robic died on September 24th in his home country of Slovenia, doing what he did best, riding his bicycle. Widely considered the best ultra-endurance athlete ever, Robic rewrote the record books in a wild and maddening fashion…literally.
The Slovenian army soldier was known for pushing his body to the point of extreme mental breakdowns. In fact, he still holds the 24 hour road record by cycling 518.70 miles. The 5 time Race-Across-America (RAAM) champion and 2 time Le Tour Direct/Ultime winner, Robic was cut of a different clothe. In 2004, he was reported to sleep only 8 hours over 8 days on his way to winning the RAAM event, a race spanning 2958.5 miles.
While we know about the exploits of other top endurance athletes, the Lance Armstrongs and Kenyan marathon runners, Robic took his sport to the next level. His mental breakdowns and ability to push through pain were first highlighted by a lengthy New York Times story in 2006. Entitled, “That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger,” highlighted his odd personal life, his Jekyll and Hyde personality during long events, and the marriage, which ultimately ended in divorce.
It’s an interesting read, especially for those unfamiliar with such long-endurance events. Quoting a Slovene television journalist in the article, Tomaz Kovsca says, “He pushes himself into madness. He pushes too far.” Another person on his race support crew mentioned, “What Jure does is frightening. Sometimes during races he gets off his bike and walks toward us in the follow car, very angry.”
The picture of who Jure Robic really is seems to be a muddled one. His calm and pleasant demeanor off the bike is balanced with the fact that he pushes himself so far that he hallucinates late in long events. The psychologists and support crew that worked with him had to delicately balance motivating him through mental breakdowns…while not pushing him too far.
New York Times reporter Daniel Coyle goes onto explain in his story that Robic would slowly sink into an alternate personality while on the bike. “Around Day 2 of a typical weeklong race, his speech goes staccato. By Day 3, he’s belligerent and sometimes paranoid. The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves, and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages,” he writes.
Another example of just how far Robic pushes himself occurred in 2009, when he pulled out of the RAAM at the final checkpoint to dispute a time penalty despite his huge lead. It was near the end of the race and he probably wasn’t exactly in his right mind. He vowed never to come back. And then he changed his mind in 2010 and won the event in dominant fashion.
Unfortunately, Robic’s life ended on a winding forest road near Jesenice. It was a car that pushed him over the edge, not himself. With his death, we lost one of the greatest athletes alive, one that will go down in legendary cycling history. He wasn’t quite understood alive and will probably never will be. But those that followed Robic will miss him. He was a legend.