LEGACY OF BOB COOK, CYCLIST: THERE ARE MOUNTAINS TO MOVE
The Mount Evans Hill Climb is an arduous 28-mile bicycle race that ends on the highest paved road in the United States – 14,264 feet above sea level. Bob Cook holds the record for the race: one hour 54 minutes 27 seconds. He won it the last six times, a feat easily comparable to the three consecutive Boston Marathons won by Bill Rodgers.
A member of the 1980 United States Olympic cycling team, Cook will not defend his Hill Climb crown July 11. He died March 11 at the age of 23, having suffered the effects of brain tumors for three months.
Ellen Cook said she never told her son that there was no hope after doctors diagnosed his problem as metastatic melanoma. ”Bob tried to hide the pain,” said John Beveridge, an alfalfa and bean sprouts grower who sponsored Cook’s racing team. ”I visited one day and asked him to do something. He was in bed and said, ‘I’ll have to think about that John.’ And then he pulled the covers over his head and said, ‘I do my best thinking under here.’ In fact, I think he pulled up the covers because he was grimacing to hide pain.”
Cook’s view of his life – he once said, ”to some people, what they live for is to be important. To me, that’s not an obsession” – is evident in his nine years of diaries, perhaps the most thorough ever compiled by an athlete.
Besides normal training workouts, which sometimes reached 500 miles a week, Cook painstakingly recorded his daily diet, four pulse readings a day (36 to 50 beats a minute), weight, hours of sleep, tips from coaches and other riders, a list of races and prizes, and specific feelings.
He kept his diary even after he first entered the hospital Dec. 26 for tests to determine the cause of the headaches, loss of balance and numbness that began during his 25-mile rides to work at Martin Marietta, where he worked as an engineer in the space shuttle recovery program.
The last known notation in his diary, on Feb. 5, read as follows: ”I try not to think too much about my condition and what it might lead to. I may get better, but I may get worse. I may die. That’s unpleasant, but I have to face the possibility. I’m glad I don’t think too much about it. Just living each day the best I can keeps me in pretty good spirits.”
Cook lived with a discipline, determination and dedication that often amazed other members of his family and friends. ”I just thought he was a little fanatical and let it go at that,” his older brother, Joe, 26, a certified public accountant, recalled, fondly. ”He just liked to be in shape.”
”It’s difficult to believe he could climb Mount Evans in less than two hours when it took me six hours,” Jan Woellhaf of Wheatridge, Colo., wrote in a March 15 condolence letter to the Cook family.
The appetites of cyclists are as legendary as their long training routines or distaste for automobiles and junk food. Cook weighed 140 pounds with almost no fat on his 6-foot-1-inch frame.
It was not uncommon, his brother said, for Cook to get up at 4 in the morning, eat breakfast, go out for a workout, return and then eat again at 7.
His cycling ability on mountainous terrain may be Cook’s legacy to the sport. Few spectators follow athletes pedaling for hours at 12,000 feet above sea level, so he was appreciated more by peers than the public.
Steve Tesich, a former amateur cyclist who wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed movie ”Breaking Away,” once made the straight uphill climb from the tiny Colorado town of Idaho Springs (7,000 feet) to the snow-capped summit of Mount Evans. ”Agony,” Tesich said last week, describing the three-hour trek that began in 90-degree heat and ended in sub-freezing tempertures.
”From 10,000 to 14,000 is like no-man’s zone,” said Alexi Grewal, a 20-year-old member of the United States national team from Aspen, Colo. ”Bob owned that territory.”
”As an amateur, Bob ranked with the top climbers in the world,” said Wayne Stetina of Schererville, Ind., a three-time Olympian. ”Bob was our best chance at Moscow because of the hilly course there,” said Michael Aisner, director of the nine-day, 600-mile Coors International Bicycle Classic. Aisner had seen Cook win several stages of the Coors race in 1978 and 1979.
Road racing is far removed, in substance and style, from cycling events that are contested at shorter distances and on prescribed courses or tracks.
”When you become as good as Bob was,” Tesich said, ”it’s that ability to do things alone, to suffer alone, to come through alone, that stands out. You get formed by it or you drop off. It’s so much easier to go on a football field with 40 guys and get a group feeling to pump you up. There’s something very fitting about the West, the mountains and being alone. It’s a quiet form of heroism, and Bob symbolized that.”
”You’ve got to be your own audience,” Becky Tesich said, recalling her husband’s passion for the sport. ”That’s where the legends begin,” Steve Tesich said. ”The first time I met Bob, he was going around Washington Park on a rotten old Schwinn and came back the next day. It took about a summer, and then I was chasing him and telling him to slow down.’
Cook was not a cycling legend in the mold of an Eddy Merckx, the Belgian professional who won the Tour de France five times before retiring in 1978 at the age of 33. Nor did Cook generate the public enthusiasm of Winter Olympic medalists Eric and Beth Heiden, the American speed-skating siblings who are also world-class cyclists.
”He was a soft-spoken, gentle person,” Tesich said. ”When you get good as a cyclist, there’s a tendency to become arrogant. He was one of the few people who didn’t. If you were sitting there before a race picking a winner, you wouldn’t pick him.”
”He was not overly intellectual or contemplative,” Aisner said. ”But on the bike, he had the killer instinct. Bob was the kind of person other riders wanted to be.”
How Cook managed to train so intensely and still compile a 3.9 grade-point average (of a possible 4.0) as an engineering major at the University of Arizona remains as much a mystery to his friends as his dominance of some cycling events. In 1978 Cook’s training mileage was 13,079, more than some cars are driven in a year. In 1979, the year he received his diploma with the blue Highest Distinction ribbon on it, his training mileage was 11,309.
Cook finished finished seventh on the road test in the 1980 United States Olympic trials and sixth in the time trials; eight cyclists qualified for the team . But last summer, when the boycott kept the United States out of the Olympics, Cook retired – ”to get on with other forms of life,” he told his friends. But as late as December, Jacques Boyer, an American who will compete in the Tour de France this year but who lost to Cook in the Mount Evans Hill Climb, was still trying to talk him into accepting a pro contract with a European sponsor.
Other aspects of Cook’s life continue to mystify friends. Like the time last summer that one of Cook’s former girlfriends said he told her, after winning the Mount Evans Hill Climb, ”I want that race to be the Bob Cook Memorial.” Did Cook know something was wrong then? Or was he just echoing a fatalistic theme that saw him survive several crashes, once while running second in the 1980 Coors race on the next-to-last day, with victory in sight?
Tesich said the first thing that flashed through his mind when he heard about Cook’s death was a short story that Cook had written for the Colorado Racing Express, a cycling newsletter, four years ago.
The title of the story was ”The Terror of the Road.” Cook’s fictional hero, a French cyclist named Eddy, frustrated by the loss of his girlfriend to a rival racer, finds himself caught up in a furious duel through the Alps with his tormentor. ”They started the descent,” Cook wrote in his climactic scene. ”They quickly reached 50 miles per hour. Eddy cranked hard, now with his eyes closed. All he could think of was to go faster, faster. The pack approached the first hairpin. There was a squeal of brakes as they made a sharp left turn. Everyone except Eddy. He went straight, over the cliff.”
Last week, sitting in the den of the home of Joe and Ellen Cook, Tesich said, ”In one of the early drafts of ‘Breaking Away’, ”I had my hero doing that too.”
Frequent visits from friends and touching correspondence have provided a pyschological cushion for Cook’s parents, who supported his cycling interests as far back as age 9, when he would pedal to his aunt’s house, a 45-mile journey. Cook’s grandfather was a judge, and his father is a lawyer with a prominent Denver firm.
The depth of feeling for Cook may have been best captured in the letter that arrived March 10 from a woman in France. It was written in French and included an autographed picture of Eddy Merckx in uniform on a bicycle. Merckx was Cook’s boyhood idol.
Cook’s parents wanted to show the letter to their son, who was in a semi-coma in the hospital. During their evening visit, Cook came out of the coma briefly. Ellen Cook showed him the picture, he smiled and touched it. Three hours later, Cook died.
Another great article about Bob Cook: