It’s not necessarily surprising that I am a week late on the news that Slovenian ultra-endurance cyclist Jure Robic was killed — on his bike, aptly enough, after being hit by a car. It’s not surprising because I’m years late on knowing that Robic even existed. Which, in this case, was my loss. Robic, whom The Independent’s Simon Usborne described as “an insane man you probably haven™t heard of but who was, by many accounts, the world™s greatest endurance athlete,” sounds like about as strange and about as fascinating a competitor as anyone in any sport, anywhere.

Robic was crazy in a way that transcended even the you-must-be-crazy-to-do-this baseline for ultra-endurance athletes. That probably helped him push his body to the mind-boggling limits required by his sport — for instance, by riding enough miles every year to circumnavigate the globe — but it also meant that he essentially exerted himself into actual, frightening, very literal insanity with jarring regularity. Robic was the subject of a terrific 2006 profile/think piece on the limits of the human body, by Daniel Coyle in the much-missed New York Times sports magazine Play. It will almost certainly be the most interesting thing you read about sports today:

Rajko Petek, a 35-year-old fellow soldier and friend who is on Robic™s support crew, says: ˜˜What Jure does is frightening. Sometimes during races he gets off his bike and walks toward us in the follow car, very angry.™™

What do you do then?

Petek glances carefully at Robic, standing a few yards off. ˜˜We lock the doors,™™ he whispers.

When he overhears, Robic heartily dismisses their unease. ˜˜They are joking!™™ he shouts. ˜˜Joking!™™ But in quieter moments, he acknowledges their concern, even empathizes with it ” though he™s quick to assert that nothing can be done to fix the problem. Robic seems to regard his racetime bouts with mental instability as one might regard a beloved but unruly pet: awkward and embarrassing at times, but impossible to live without. ˜˜During race, I am going crazy, definitely,™™ he says, smiling in bemused despair. ˜˜I cannot explain why is that, but it is true.™™

The craziness is methodical, however, and Robic and his crew know its pattern by heart. Around Day 2 of a typical weeklong race, his speech goes staccato. By Day 3, he is belligerent and sometimes paranoid. His short-term memory vanishes, and he weeps uncontrollably. The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages. Occasionally, Robic leaps from his bike to square off with shadowy figures that turn out to be mailboxes. In a 2004 race, he turned to see himself pursued by a howling band of black-bearded men on horseback. ˜˜Mujahedeen, shooting at me,™™ he explains. ˜˜So I ride faster.™™

Thanks to Sam Frank for the link.