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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  9/1/2007

Our Man in Briancon

I'd have been the first to know. If only I were one of those net junkies who's online 24/7, I'd have gotten the word right away. The email I'd missed in the early hours of July 24 was a personal message from Bruce Hildenbrand. He's the one Tour de France blogger I'd been following faithfully all month. The last line read:
>> Oops! It looks like Vino has just tested positive. Gotta run!

Darn! The word had already sped around the world and everyone I knew was already clued in to the downfall of Alexandre Vinokourov.

If you're into the hard-core racing aspects of the Euro racing scene, you could rely on Bruce to be your watchful eye on the peloton. He endures transatlantic flights, bad hotels and Alpine post-stage traffic jams to bring us the inside scoop.

Bruce lives in Mountain View but his presence in the cycling community spreads far and wide. On the racing circuit everyone knows his name. He's been hobnobbing with elite racers, behind-the-scenes power brokers and everyday recreational cyclists for over a quarter of a century.

Witness to history
Back in the days when U.S. riders first got bitten by the bike racing bug, Bruce raced with the crowd that formed the nucleus of the 7-11 team. "Those were my contemporaries," he told me. Well, 7-11 morphed into Motorola, which morphed into U.S. Postal Service, which became Discovery Channel. Bruce has been hanging out with the major players all along the way, from Davis to Lance to Levi.

Those early times were the same as the Internet's infancy, when Bruce helped start CyclingNews with Bill Mitchell, an economics professor from Australia. "I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Dave Menges and I were moderating net.bicycles on the old ARPANET. We were the first to post Tour de France results," he remembers. Net.bicycles eventually became the rec.bicycles newsgroup and Bruce went on to graduate from UW with a Master's in Computer Science.

In 1980 he covered the first Coors Classic for the original VeloNews newsletter. Andy Hampsten, then 16, was his "assistant."

Meanwhile, Bruce found gainful employment with Bell Labs for six years, then came to Silicon Valley to work for Sun Microsystems. Six years ago he retired from the computer industry and began to devote more time to being an elite racing watchdog.

He's been reporting on the Tour since 1988, spending time at team camps, races, trade shows. He got to know some of the most colorful people involved. They all warmed to him because "I tell a zillion stories," he says.

Here's a typical Bruce story:
In the 1980 Wisconsin Milk Race, Davis Phinney was in second place when he crashed and destroyed his bike. Although Bruce was racing for a different team, he gave Davis his bike to help him keep his lead. "All the international teams were there," Bruce recalls. "I couldn't let Davis fall back."

"I'm constantly amazed who I run into" these days, he says. For instance, covering the Euro racing scene he'd hung out with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen for years. At the start of the first Alpine stage this year he "simply ran into them and it was like old times." Yes, that was Bruce doing rider interviews with Phil and Paul for the official 2007 Tour of California DVD.

Nowadays Bruce also writes for Bicycling , CycleSport, Outside. In fact, Outside turned to him for pre-Tour profiles of the racers.

Locally he provides bike racing commentary for KNBR 680 AM Sports Talk Radio on the Fitz and Brooks and Razor and Mr. T shows. And Outside magazine frequently calls on him to be the cycling "expert" for other media interviews.

The riders' writer
When Active.com came calling, they'd already signed a "background" reporter to do a blog on the "big picture" of the tour. From Bruce they were looking for "inside knowledge, what's going on inside the peloton."

As "a rider's writer," he felt free to make some predictions. As the Tour unfolded, eliminating favorites and catapulting a rookie to the top, Bruce wrote: "BTW, a lot of journalists are saying that Contador is an unlikely winner. If you read my pre-Tour prediction article you will notice that I predicted that Contador was a lock for the white jersey, and that even though he might have to work for Levi, he was also a contender for the overall. Hey, that's why they pay me the big bucks.

"Only 24, Contador would ordinarily have been a super-domestique for team leader Levi Leipheimer, but Directeur Sportif Johan Bruyneel gave him a green light to go for stage wins."

Now Contador's reputation is on the line, and Bruce, like so many of us, is feeling the pain. "We're dulled by all the denial, followed by all the admitting. Riders need to work on their credibility. It's difficult to hear the same story over and over again. When Contador denies he's doped, it doesn't move me either way.

"I've been to way too many press conferences where inexperienced reporters ask the same dumb questions. The first time someone asks, 'Have you doped?' the press conference is canceled."

Instead of bearing up under all the media hype and degradation, Bruce's hopes are raised when he sees the younger generation coming up. Grabbing a between-blogs ride in the Pyrenees, he met Iniki, "a 16-year-old bike racer from Pamplona--you know, where they run the bulls. He was so full of enthusiasm and energy, he put me back in a good mood. As two race aficionados do, we chatted about pro racing. . . . Iniki told me that he had just finished a four-day stage race around Pamplona. He knew, compared to the Tour that it was nothing special, but it was his first-ever stage race and he felt he finished well."

"Ever upward"
When it was time for Iniki to mount his Cervelo and head for the hills, Bruce wished him an enjoyable ride up Plateau de Beille, "with all fanfare of a stage finish and the hope that his enthusiasm for the sport never weakens!"

That hope came out more than once on Bruce's blog: "Hey, don't give up hope," he wrote on July 30. "The Tour has been around for 100-plus years. It has survived two world wars and a 20-plus-year drought of no French victory so it will survive. I haven't given up hope and neither should you!"

On nearly every blog entry Bruce signs off with "Ever upward," and he's not just referring to the cols.

It's a good thing Bruce funded his retirement in high-tech. "You can't make a living at this," he told me. (Yeah, don't I know it.) "You can't count on the work. Everyone benefited during the Lance years. Lots of people got expense-paid trips to France." Those heady days are over.

But Bruce says he'll keep working as long as it's "interesting." He loves sharing his passion with others this way (that too sounds familiar!). Latest cycling passion: riding road bikes on dirt, like he did every chance he could in the Alps. Look for a future article on some of his recent adventures Bicycling

Our man in Briancon recently got back from rock climbing in Yosemite, the one avocation he hasn't published yet. He rarely misses a work session at the Mountain View Bicycle Exchange refurbishing old bikes for disadvantaged kids. And surely he's been keeping his ear to the ground for us throughout the Vuelta. But best of all, if you're following the Tour of California next February, look for our man in Palo Alto. Hey, it's just a couple miles from home!


Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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