Bob Barabe gives a thumbs up at the 2012 Friendly Century in Greenwood, Wisconsin.
Bob Barabe gives a thumbs up at the 2012 Friendly Century in Greenwood, Wisconsin.
The Big Ring Flyers, a Hudson, Wisconsin-based cycling team, is remembering teammate Bob Barabe, who passed away last summer. At five-foot-seven or so, Bob Barabe was a giant in Wisconsin cycling, a gentle giant. 
Bob was a loving husband, father and career guidance counselor. But he also harbored a passion to ride free and race hard. He taught everyone he touched the joy of cycling. 

The Big Ring Flyers renamed its annual time trial, held on May 17, after Bob. It’s a great race, not only for veterans, but also for more casual riders who would like to explore racing in a setting where the only competition is oneself. 

Sometime in the late 1980s, bike shop owner Art Doyle or former pro rider Dag Selander or the both of them started the Willow River Cycling Club. We had white jerseys. It started as a social riding club with some members getting into racing. Eventually, the Willow River Club flamed out, but from the ashes arose the Big Ring Flyers, attracting riders not just from Hudson but from all over the state, as well as Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. The Big Ring Fyers was a pure racing club.  

I didn’t know any racers even though I showed up for a race once in a while. I was in the twilight zone of competition, what a teammate once labeled “beatnik riding.” Who was I to hang with real racers? So I rode alone.

Meeting Bob
After a race in Shell Lake I noticed a diminutive rider with Popeye arms regaling teammates with his version of the finishing sprint. That racer was Bob and I was soon introduced to him.

At the time, I was a school superintendent and Bob was a member of the treachers’ union. The idea of dragging a superintendent over to the tailgate of a Wisconsin Eduation Association member’s pickup truck for a beer struck me as intrusive, but I went. Bob stuck out his hand and welcomed me aboard. In 25 years, I never saw Bob fail to give a person a chance or a second chance.

We became friends and started riding together. The BRF rides were hard then, but we were all stronger. I remember being in a pace line up near Somerset when I popped. Bob told the group to hold up.

“I think I’ve had enough. Let’s back off,” he said for my benefit. He was in his prime and there was no way he was tired, but that was a philosophy of Bob’s: Leave no rider behind. 

Any of us who rode with Bob can attest that if someone experienced a flat and the group split, he would always be the one to stay back. Not only would he wait and help, he never got exasperated, even when someone showed up with threadbare tires and then got three flats within 10 miles. 

One night another rider and I had a puncture fest. The rest of the group headed back to Hudson. But Bob stuck around. Once we were rolling again, Bob punished us by leading us over to Roseville or someplace, laughing the whole time and doubling the mileage. 

Was it Bob’s idea to include the slogan “one for all and all for one” on the Big Ring Flyer jerseys? It wouldn’t surprise me if he did. He lived it. 

It’s a special gift when you can say that you never had a bad ride with a friend. And I never had a bad ride with Bob. Sometimes we went too fast, though. I remember a pre ride in Osceola that turned into a leg crushing race.

Sometimes we went too slow. There was the time I insisted on multiple coffee breaks on a century training ride. Nothing changed the ending. From Bob I aleways got a grin and “Good ride, good ride.”

In retirement
When we retired, we became closer, working out almost every day in the winter at the Y. He was a favorite in the spinning room. He’d be in there, wearing his little doo-rag, working up to speed, watching the clock, checking his cadence and soon he’d be hollering and standing up, rocking the bike and riling up the whole room.

He made people think they could be better than they were and do more than they thought they could do. Then he would go upstairs to the weights and show the big boys how to do it. you should have heard that room shake when Bob moved the entire stack on the leg press machine. Crazy.

Afterward we would go have coffee and talk about politics or books. He loved dark Scandinavian mysteries and anything by John Sandford. Bob was well read.

If it was a halfway warm winter day, we would go out and ride between the snow banks. He broke his thigh a few years ago. I was not shocked that he was rehabbed by spring. But I was surprised when he came down to River Falls in early April for a snow ride. Going up Happy Valley Hill, he hit some ice in the shade and beefed it good, right on his titanium thigh. We were all concerned, but he was back up pedaling before we could ask if he was all right.
The club has a few good leaders who have stepped up t fill Bob’s shoes, but the Tuesday night workout rides will never be the same without him. Who else could lead us on such serpentine paths out of town, knowing shortcuts in every subdivision in St. Croix County? He showed us the artesian well outside of Marine, Minnesota, and the hand pump near the old Kinnikinnic garage on Highway J, the shortcut from Badlands Road to Highway 12 and other secret routes that I can’t disclose or I’d have to kill you.

Bob’s last medal 
He was the consummate teammate. A little more than seven months ago, I took a picture of Bob getting his last medal in Mellen, just four days before he died. Having grown up in Melen, where he was a helluva baseball and basketball player, he had come full circle.

Besides his athleticism, Bob had had maintained his sense of good sportsmanship. After the Mellen bike race, Bob lingered at the judges’ table. “I think they shorted Dave some points,” he said before arguing the case for his main rival in the WiSport points championship. 

Then we went downtown for a beer. (It was one Corona Light only for Bob), and I toasted him and his medal-winning performance that day. Five days later, I learned of Bob’s passing via Facebook. 

The night of of the funeral service, club members met at Dag Selander’s house, the starting point of our rides, and rode through downtown Hudson wearing the Big Ring Flyers’ colors. Bob was thought so highly of that a squad car led us as we made our way in a double line to the funeral home. 

Everyone had their best race kits on but me. I lost mine at the race in Mellen. When it happened, Bob laughed. He knew I’d get over it. I did get over the loss of my BRF jersey. But I can’t get over losing my friend.

Dan Woll is a former public school teacher, principal and superintendent. A former rock climber, Woll contiues to be a competitive cyclist. He lives in River Falls, Wisconsin with his wife, Beth. They have three grown daughters. He is the author of North of Highway 8 and other works.