Bob Gregorio has worked as a mechanic with the team since 2007 and helped our program grow from a small crit squad to a global contender. What a lot of people don’t know about Bob is that he was an early innovator in mountain biking or what they referred to it as in the 70s, “ballooning”. In the first part of his “Things With” interview, Bob explains how he went from turning heads on the bike to turning wrenches for the legendary 7-Eleven team.
I was fascinated with bicycles even before I was old enough to ride them. As soon as I was able, I started riding what was essentially the predecessor of the modern mountain bike. They were the only bikes available (I’m 64), with heavy-duty fat tires, coaster brakes, and very heavy frames – but they were trail worthy!
My buddies and I started riding trails and building jumps. To me, that was mountain biking, and there’s no difference now. Everything that was important to me as a child is the same fun you can have as an adult. There was never any change for me. Maybe I just stayed a child.
I picked up the nickname ‘Bicycle Bob’. I was born and raised in upstate New York, but it was after I moved to Durango, Colorado, in the 1970s that I became famous, or infamous, for riding my old cruisers. See, mountain biking hadn’t been invented yet, so I was quite an oddity with my fat tired, single-speed cruiser. I’d invite people to go out and ride trails with me and they’d look at me cross-eyed. They thought I was some kind of nut. But look at it now – mountain biking.
I called my bikes ‘ballooners’. Back in Durango, I’d tell people I was riding my ballooner, because that’s what the tires – a classic 26” x 2 1/8” tire – were referred to back in the day. Riding ballooners became mountain biking. The terminology changed, but the activity didn’t, until technology came into play of course, and I was part of that.
I felt like I was at the beginning of something special. I wouldn’t claim to be the only one of the originators, but in Durango, I was one of the guys that started the whole thing; our passion for riding a bicycle transferred into riding off-road. Tom Ritchey, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, they all started doing their thing in Marin County and it was the same in Colorado.
I feel humbled and proud whenever I’m in Durango. I live only 30 miles away in New Mexico so I’m still in the neighborhood. Every time I go back, there are literally thousands of mountain bikers and trails everywhere. It’s a fantastic community that celebrates this activity that I’ve loved my entire life.
I wound up racing mountain bikes on the Colorado scene. I raced with Greg Herbold and was a friend and early rival of Ned Overend. The mountain bike had taken me so far as a rider, but I was starting to play with mechanics.
We were all in awe of John Tomac when he burst onto the scene. We became friends and as my competitive career was winding down, I started working on his bike a bit, building his wheels on the side and helping him get set up when he switched to the road. Johnny cleaned up on the mountain bike, but this was before it was recognized by the UCI, so he took up the road in the late eighties.
My goal became to go to the Tour de France as a mechanic. I loved the mountain bike, but it was a very independent sport, there’s no on-trail assistance allowed, so I went and did the United States Cycling Federation (USCF) mechanics clinic in the late ’80s. That led me to travel internationally, using my lifelong passion to learn bike maintenance and the sport of road racing.
I was hired by 7-Eleven after a year with USCF. I was a late replacement for a long-time team mechanic who had quit unexpectedly, so I got on the next plane to Europe, where I’d never been before. I’m sure my old friend John Tomac, who was a 7-Eleven rider in 1990, was influential in me getting the job. I was on the road to achieving my goal and way ahead of schedule.
I hit the ground running as soon as I landed in Brussels. I was picked up straight off the plane, feeling a little doozy with jetlag which I’d never experienced before. We drove to the service course in Hulste where they handed me the keys to a Mercedes team car with instructions to pick up some frames from the Merckx factory: “Here’s a map, we’ll see you when you get back!”
One of the first people I met in Belgium was Eddy Merckx. I didn’t know that my all-time cycling hero lived on the premises of his cycling factory. Miraculously, I found the address through the winding roads and knocked on the first door I saw. Guess who answers the door? The Cannibal, Eddy Merckx. He was very gracious, he shook my hand and showed me around the factory where I met another idol of mine, Julian De Vries, who was there picking up frames for Greg LeMond.
The Merckx factory was still building bikes for rival teams back then. I suppose the same sort of thing might go on where riders have enough clout, but very few have that much weight anymore. Merckx himself would famously have Ugo De Rosa build all the frames he rode, even though they might have said Colnago or some other brand.
My first race with 7-Eleven was Paris-Nice. From there it was a long string of races in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and all the minor Classics that lead up to the Tour. Everyone’s heard of the Tour de France, but for a mechanic on a professional cycling team, the job’s just the same whether it’s a Belgian kermesse or the Tour de France. It was just another bike race.
Stay tuned for part two of our conversation with Bob. He just had so many stories to tell we couldn’t fit them all onto one webpage. In the meantime, you can visit the full collection of “Things With” interviews here.