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From the June 17, 2002 issue of VeloNews
By Bryan Jew, VeloNews Senior Writer
Spend any time around the European pro road scene, and chances are, it’ll get into your system. The parade of team cars crowding into a town center for the race, the blaring voice of the announcer at sign-in, the wild crowds along the sides of the roads, the media crush at the finish of a big race: This is big-time sport, with the huge buzz that goes along with it. Euro’ bike racing gets in the blood, and right now, it is coursing through the veins of Kirk O’Bee.
Sitting in a Danbury, Connecticut, hotel room on the morning of theHousatonic Valley Classic in late May, the 25-year-old O’Bee is just aweek removed from his Navigators team’s spring European campaign, whichstretched from Italy’s Settimana Cyclista Internazionale at the end ofMarch to France’s Four Days of Dunkirk in the middle of May, with only a brief return to the States in between.
For O’Bee, the racing began with the one-day Paris-Camembert on April 2, and the atmosphere at the French race immediately began to rekindle his European passion, which grew from a full year of amateur racing inBelgium and France in 1999 and a year as a neo-pro with U.S. Postal Servicein 2000.
“I was super motivated even after we did that first race,” says O’Beeof Paris-Camembert. “After the race started, I was, ‘Oh man, I miss thisracing sooo much.’ It was cool to be doing that big a race, in Europe,with all the other teams. The way everyone gets excited for the races,how big they are, is what really gets me motivated to race.”
There was plenty more to come for O’Bee. Over the next 10 days he woulddeliver two big wins for his Navigators team, the first coming April 7 at the Grand Prix de Rennes in France.
“For Rennes, as a team, we were just planning on a field sprint, whichis usually what it is,” O’Bee recalls. “It just happened I just put myself in the right position [in the winning breakaway]. That whole time I was in that break, I didn’t think it was going to work.”
O’Bee attacked the break on the technical finishing circuits in Rennes,while behind, his entire Navigators team was massed at the front of themain field.
“That whole last lap I was like, ‘Now I know my team’s chasing me down,’”he says with a laugh. “Actually they didn’t, they were helping me out,blocking through the turns. All the Euro’s didn’t know what to think, ’causeI don’t know if they knew exactly if I was [still] up there, and the wholeteam went to the front and [the other teams] probably thought they wereleading [Vassili Davidenko] out.
“It worked out really well. I was able to hang on in the end, and they were able to still do the leadout [for Davidenko, who was second], butI think it shocked everyone else in the race. It was a race that was goodfor us — it ended with a crit — and Euro’s don’t know how to take turnsthat well.”Just five days later, O’Bee took win No. 2, this time at the GP PinoCerami in Belgium. O’Bee was in the lead group when Lotto’s Dave Bruylandtsbegan to stir things up: “[Bruylandts] attacked a couple of times, andI went with him the second time and we just stayed away, and that was it.In the finish, I just took him in the sprint.“It was kind of a blur, it all happened so fast,” he says. “Afterward,it was like, ‘Whoa. I just won two races in Europe.’ I was still in a bitof shock, I guess.”For O’Bee, the wins were his first in Europe since he was an amateurin 1999. Toward the end of that season, he signed on as a stagiaire withMapei, and then joined Postal for the 2000 season.That season with Postal was a difficult one for O’Bee, though. A heavyschedule shuttling between the United States and Europe, plus just a feelingthat he wasn’t getting a chance to show his stuff, began to weigh on him.And then, toward the end of the year, he began to hear rumors that he wouldn’tbe back.“I found out kind of semi-officially through rumors first, and thenI asked the assistant director [Dirk Demol], ‘What’s going on? No one’ssaid anything to me, but I hear these rumors.’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, youdon’t know? You’re not going to be on the team.’“I then found out, [VeloNews] did a thing on who was going tobe going and staying [on Postal], and that’s when I officially found outin print I wasn’t going to be on the team. I mean, I knew at that point,but it was just frustrating.”During his 2002 spring campaign, O’Bee was reminded of something elseabout Europe: When it comes to bike racing, no one forgets.“In Belgium they do [still remember me],” he says. “I think they probablyrecognize my name; people don’t forget names there. They’ll remember someguy that got like 19th in a small amateur race.”So, when he won Rennes and then Pino Cerami, he got the inevitable questionsfrom the Belgian media about his racing past: “What happened with U.S. Postal?” they asked.“I don’t know.”“Why didn’t you ride with them again?”“I don’t know.”“They didn’t tell you?” pressed the journalists.“No, I don’t know why. No one said anything.”“Oh, so is this revenge for you?”On this last topic, O’Bee will allow this much: “It was a bit of redemption.”But in response to the European press, he would only say to them: “No,I’m here racing for myself and my team. I’m not here to revenge U.S. Postal.They did what they did, and I’m happy I’m not racing for them now.”“It was just kind of funny,” he says looking back. “Then one of thereporters said, ‘Do you want to be like a George Hincapie?’ because I thinkI had mentioned that I really enjoyed racing in Belgium and wanted to dothe spring classics. I said, ‘No, I’m not George Hincapie, I’m Kirk O’Bee.”As O’Bee began to carve out his post-Postal identity last year, he startedin an unlikely place, Downer’s Grove, Illinois, where he claimed the stars-and-stripesUSPRO criterium jersey last year, finishing second in the race to Saturn’sDutch rider Harm Jansen.“It’s extremely ironic,” says the blond Michigan native, who this morningwears a sponsor’s baseball cap pulled tightly over his head. “Honestly,I don’t enjoy criteriums that much anymore. It’s too hairy for me, andit doesn’t suit what I’m training for.”No, as he clearly demonstrated this spring, it’s the long, hard Europeanone-days that better suit his talents. And over there, O’Bee’s title causesa fair share of confusion.“It’s funny, because over in Europe, all my trading cards have the jerseyon it, and no one knew who I was because I’m not wearing it, and guys arelike, ‘Uh, are you amateur champion?’ They don’t understand because we’reone of the only countries that has a criterium national championship, soit’s kind of funny trying to explain to them when they’re like, ‘Where’sFred Rodriguez?’“But it’s good. It’s extra exposure, so you can never complain aboutthat. It’s good for U.S. racing. It helps too that I get to start in frontof crits.”While O’Bee makes no secrets about his racing preferences, he admitsthat he is looking forward to the day’s Housatonic Valley Classic. “That’sthe thing, this race is more like a European race, but there’s not thatmany of them in the U.S. At the same time, it’s the whole dynamics of racingin Europe compared to the U.S., where there’s only a handful of pro teamsthat have a strong team, and in Europe there’s 12 or 15 that can make astatement in the race,” he says. “That just changes the whole style ofracing in terms of breaking away, or sitting in. You get in a break inEurope and everyone wants to work. No one’s too worried about it, and ifyou have a teammate up there, some other team’s going to have to chaseit down if they’re not up there.”Still, O’Bee admits, coming back to race in the United States wasn’tas easy as he thought it would be. After getting dropped by Postal, hescrambled for a team at the end of the 2000 season. It was too late fora neo-pro to hook on with a European program, and O’Bee found he had onlyone option.“Navigators was the only team that called me back of all the Americanteams,” he says. “I was desperate. I needed a job. So I just had to changemy whole frame of mind and thinking for my goals for that next year. Andit was harder than I thought it was going to be, that’s for sure.“Racing in America isn’t easy. It’s just as fast, and just as hard asEurope. It’s not like Europe’s the harder racing — there may be longerraces, but it’s just as fast here. Euro’s come over here and they get theirbutts spanked, because they think it’s going to be easy, and it’s not.”“I thought it would come a lot easier,” he admits. “It finally camearound at the end of the year.”Indeed, by the end of last season, O’Bee had justified the faith thatNavigators had shown in picking him up. Team director Ed Beamon said hehad kept an eye on O’Bee for a long time, ever since the Michigan ridersent him a résumé in his first year as a senior in the mid-1990s.“What stuck in my mind and really impressed me about his résuméwas not the results, but what it said about him and his approach to thesport,” says Beamon. “He wasn’t looking for a job. He was just gettinghis name across my desk.”So, when Postal dropped O’Bee at the end of the 2000 season, Beamonwasted little time picking him up.“I really felt that Postal made a huge mistake in letting him go,” saysBeamon. “That surprised me, that they didn’t give him two years. When wesigned him, I felt we were getting a guy ripe to have a good season.”Now, though, as O’Bee is in the midst of an even better season, Beamonknows that he’ll have a lot of work to do to keep the young star happyand to re-sign him for 2003.“We’re gonna do our best to keep him,” Beamon says. “I think it’s agood program for him. If things keep going the way they are, I think weoffer the best of both worlds. It gives a guy an opportunity to race inthe big arena but at the same time stay close to home.“I think he’s happy here, but he loves European racing.”Of that last point, there is no doubt. And while the USPRO criteriumchampion is emerging as a star on the U.S. scene, it’s clear that his future,and his heart, lie in Europe. After all, it’s in his blood now.