Ojai Valley News: “It’s My Job”
It’s late, and dark outside. From the patio by Rainbow Bridge, Robert Coble looks at his watch, and mentions that his phone will be ringing all night long, so he won’t be getting much sleep. Coble, who designs and builds custom bikes, many for Olympic riders, is operating in high gear.
“It’s riders’ signing season, and since it’s a world-wide sport, people are looking for teams. As a director of three pro teams, people call me from all over the world looking for players, or a new team. Just when we’re finishing up here, Australia is waking up, and then New Zealand, and after that, Europe, and South America, and they’ll call me at 2:00 a.m.”
Coble, owner of Bicycles of Ojai, personifies the proverbial Renaissance man. While this paper went to press, the co-designer of the first home computer with a keyboard didn’t sleep. Instead, the self-taught computer engineer is now busy in Colorado, prepping gear for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the biggest race in the country, where Coble currently dons the cap as directeur sportif (sporting director), for the Columbian racing team, EPM-UNE.
When asked how the team chose Coble to act as its director for the race, he responds, “By reputation.” Among the numerous careers Coble holds under his belt, working as a free-lance directeur sportif is a job that keeps him on the road an average of 180 days a year.
As directeur sportif, Coble follows his cycling team in a car, communicating with both riders and race officials via radio. Given the sport’s Gallic origin, French is the official language of all pro-cycling events, requiring fluency among all directors – a language Coble mastered through independent study, along with Spanish and German – despite the fact he grew up in an English speaking household with no exposure to foreign languages.
“It’s weird, because I’m listening to my riders in one ear, and on another channel I’m getting information about the race in French from officials, while watching a TV screen in the car broadcasting the race,” Coble explains. It’s multi-tasking pushed to the limits.
“During one race, I got over 750 texts in five days,” and he laughs.
In addition to linguistic skills, Coble is responsible for assisting riders in case of emergency. His car is equipped with alternate bikes, spare wheels, food, water, and medical equipment when accidents or injuries occur during a race. Coble, who raced professionally before becoming a directeur sportif, describes the skill set necessary to do the job: “You need to know how to intervene and stop accidents before they happen. Just last month I had to use my car to push another car off the road because it was about to impact the riders.”
While professional bike racing is Coble’s dominant passion, his career history is a proven testament to his intellectual diversification and creativity. Raised in Ann Arbor Michigan, the eldest of three children, Coble was a self-declared computer geek who obtained a job as a computer engineer during his junior year in high school. It was an endeavor that catapulted him to the helm among inventors of the first home computer. “I just saw one of my computers for sale on eBay for $8000.” Coble laughs as he does the math that spans decades from when his invention unfolded.
After graduating from high school, he was recruited to work on The Landsat Satellites Project, the first mapping satellites of the globe. “I helped design the graphics computer to process information coming back from the satellites.”
Like a tumbling snowball, more opportunities unfolded, leading to a position teaching engineering at the University of Michigan, and later chemistry in local high schools, despite the fact Coble had never obtained a college degree. Dedicated to diversity and creative enterprise, Coble later found his way to the National School of Music, in Interlaken, where he studied “all of the wind instruments.”
“As an engineer and an artist, I can look at the music and the instrument and figure out how it’s supposed to work.” It’s a skill he applies to his day-to-day experiences, especially when traveling abroad during international bike racing tours.
“Sometimes I throw a hat down on the sidewalk and play the flute when I’m in a foreign country, just to see how many ways I can make money when I’m traveling around the world. It’s easy to make a flute, but it’s hard to place the holes so it’s perfectly in tune. ”
An unstructured life-style allowed Coble to explore his other innate talents. In between bike races, he created a company specializing in lighting and set design, which sent him all over the globe designing sets for international music tours, as well as a solid career designing sets for theater companies. “I’ve done a lot of things, and I’ll usually stick with something until it gets boring, then I do something else.” Coble says.
The mystery behind his continuous quest for adventure and variety in his life experience might be rooted in his family tree. Most of his relatives have advanced degrees, and one of his aunts obtained her third PhD at age 88. “Another one of my relatives has a 12 PhDs.”
Coble’s parents contributed to the adventure strain by taking the family on summer adventures with the requirement that the location, according to Cobles parents, “had to be farther than 1000 miles from the nearest human being.” And when, perhaps more importantly, as a child Coble asked his mother or father for a new toy, or tool, the response was usually “Just make it. Figure it out for yourself.”