In the last 20 years of his life, Bobby Mac rode his bike nearly every day of summer and most days in winter, though he could see little more than a blur of colors. Early-onset macular degeneration had stolen most of his central vision and continued to claim pieces daily. No one could understand quite how he managed it. But we knew there was no telling him otherwise; Bobby was riding that bike.
Bobby Mac was actually Robert McMurray, the least likely bike guru there was. He began biking in his 50s after a doctor read him the riot act. At 300 pounds, he was “a gawnah,” he’d say in his thick North Shore accent — the famous first words of his “Fat Bobby” story. When a bike path was built through Arlington, Bobby had started riding an old knobby-tired bike back and forth, and kept at it as he met people to ride with. “I’m telling you, anyone can do this . . .” It was a story that got hundreds of people off the couch over the years, one that got me riding, too.
In the late ’90s, I heard Bobby speak at an information session for the Boston-to-New York AIDS ride. Over the years, he rode in dozens of charity rides like this one and inspired scores of people to do the same. He made his recruits feel as if they’d walked into the right place. Whoever you were, you had just what this team needed.
The thing is, it wasn’t generic. Once you joined the team, Bobby got to know you. People became the “Amazing” so-and-so or the “World-Renowned” whoever-you-were. For me, I became “The Lovely Cara.” Which got shortened to LC, which eventually just became the name Elsie. And that’s what he called me for 15 years.
I rode two charity rides with him and trained with him for several summers, but, really, that’s only half the story. What began as a mentorship eventually became a treasured friendship — despite a three-decade age difference. Over the years, I heard many tales from The Great Bobby Mac, the leader who buoyed riders with bawdy jokes and well-timed songs to power up hills. But eventually I heard some of the more private Robert McMurray stories — the terror of losing his eyesight among them. A few years ago, when I made a short film about blind woodworkers — who’d lost their sight and then learned to use hammers and power saws — Bobby sat in the front row for the screening at a Boston film festival. The next day he e-mailed me: “Your film changes everything. If they can do that, I can do this. You have no idea.”
We had frank discussions after that about what it would be like to lose your sight — and I had the chance to reflect back what he’d given me. My response could have been written by anyone who knew him: “Bobby, you changed everything for me. If you can do that, I can do this. You have no idea.”
I think we all feared Bobby’s near-blind riding would kill him . . . the road littered with unseen hazards. Instead, it was pancreatic cancer that stole him swiftly this past March. Before he died, I decided that this summer I’d bike one of his favorite charity rides along the coast of Maine. Only my real life took over and I never managed to train for it.
So instead of riding in the July event, I became a volunteer — wearing a T-shirt with his picture on it and handing out orange slices and water at one of the ride’s pit stops. It wasn’t the way I planned to honor him. But with Bobby, whatever you were good at, whatever your gift was, you had something to offer. That was his real talent: getting people to come as they were, yet to see themselves as they could be.
Cara Feinberg is a freelance writer for print and documentary television. Send comments to email@example.com.