Legendary Belgian motocrosser, Joel Robert (pronounced “Ro-Bear”), a 6-time World Champion, was part of the European invasion that introduced motocross to America in the late 60s and early 70s.
The man was the quintessential spokesperson for the sport; a powerful European with a strong accent and a penchant for going extremely fast, possessing a seemingly magical smoothness that defied logic.
Regardless of track, weather, or jet lag, Robert put on displays of mastery that inspired an entire generation of motocrossers. Yet despite the Belgian’s affable nature and his requisite European charm, the man had a colossally mischievous side.
In his day Robert was the equivalent to Valentino Rossi with regard to mind games. Robert messed with his competitor’s heads in lavish displays of bravado that brought his competitors to their mental knees.
One of his most amazing and legendary displays of cockiness came one year during his home GP in Belgium where Robert had extended a tremendous lead over second place.
Toward the end of the moto he pulled over, got off his bike, hopped the snow fence and dashed over to the beer vendor. He ordered a beer and chugged it down, then got back on his bike and went on to win the moto.
It was these types of riding antics that blew his competitor’s confidence and thrilled crowds. The fact that Robert could often be spotted between motos smoking a cigarette and drinking a Coors (he grew fond of the American brew on his previous trips to the States) only added to the enigma. Cycle News once suggested the Belgian was a robot, as no human could possibly do these things.
In later years, after retirement, Robert admitted to some less then scrupulous activities in his early years of racing. In the days before starting gates riders where required to put their left hand on their helmet as they waited for the flag to drop.
Robert, riding a CZ, discovered that he could pull in the clutch, put the bike in gear, then jam his boot against the clutch actuating arm atop the gearbox to keep the tranny disengaged.
That way, when the flagman dropped the flag, young Joel would simply remove his boot, engaging the engine, and tear off in one of his patented holeshots. Truth be told, Robert was gifted enough that he could have been docked a lap and probably would have won anyway.
One story that made the rounds, which remains beautifully unsubstantiated (I say beautifully because nothing quite ruins a good story like an eye-witness) is one that unfolded at a GP in Europe in the 70s when Robert was riding the prototype titanium Suzuki works machine.
The morning of the motocross GP, Robert’s mechanics were milling about the pits with concerned looks. They didn’t know where the Belgian champion was. Evidently they had last seen Joel the previous night at the hotel bar where he was getting friendly with two pretty young females.
A short while later, just before practice started, a taxi came barreling into the pits. When it stopped at the Suzuki pit, a very hung over and despondent Robert was pulled from the back seat by his mechanics and dragged to the team van.
A short time later, dressed in his riding gear, he was literally carried to his waiting bike, a mechanic under each arm supporting his weight. They sat him on the bike, balancing it for him, started it, and Robert proceeded to go out and set the fastest time.
The entire field of international stars was understandably shaken, their confidences thoroughly dowsed. Robert followed up the dauntingly surreal practice session with a pair of moto wins for the day.
Years later, it was reported, one of the mechanics finally caved in and admitted the entire incident had been carefully orchestrated by Robert. In reality Robert had been comfortably tucked into bed by early evening, rising fully rested and ready for the escapade.
The mechanic also went as far as to say that although Robert often had a beer in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, if you watched him carefully, he rarely touched either one. Joel Robert. What a motocross talent. What a showman. And, evidently, what an actor.