The American cycling community lost an important member last week with the passing of longtime race announcer Brian Drebber. Drebber was the voice of the Red Zinger and the Coors Classic races between 1979 and 1988, and he also called numerous other professional and amateur cycling events.
Drebber died Thursday in a motorcycle crash near his home in Canton, Georgia. He was traveling to the airport, where he was set to fly to a MotoAmerica motorcycle race, when he hit a deer. Drebber was 68.
The most recognizable race announcer in the country for a decade or more, Drebber called races during a period of growth for the sport in the United States. Coors Classic race director Michael Aisner described him as a character with a big personality, who poured energy into making the sport accessible to roadside fans — and whom Aisner and others felt they could trust to be the face and the voice of their races.
Drebber even played his real-life role of race announcer in the 1985 film “American Flyers.” He transitioned into covering other sports later in his career, most notably motorsports.
Figures American cycling scene have shared their stories and tributes to Drebber over the course of the last week, reprinted here in his memory.
There are many [Drebber stories to tell]. One of them is the joy the that we had when the Soviets were in North Boulder park and had just won the team [classification] in the bike race. I remember the elation that Brian and I shared together that day of the way the American public, the Coors Classic spectators, greeted the Soviets after we had scorched them by not showing up at the ’80 Olympics in Moscow and then they end up coming to the Coors Classic. Greg LeMond ends up winning the bike race, the Soviets end up winning best team, which is what they’re after. It was a huge moment for Brian to be down there in the midst of all of this world TV focused on him. The two of us shared the moment of joy of seeing the way the Soviets had responded. We expected them to be stoic. We didn’t know what to think, they were like aliens; rarely did the United States and the Soviets compete in anything and here was the Olympic gold medal team. And the American public in that street, that day, was going absolutely crazy. There were a lot of moments that he and I had shared on that microphone.
One time the bike race was taken hostage in Grand Junction. The bike race was set up adjacent to the courthouse and there was a guy who went into the courthouse and took a judge hostage at gunpoint. The SWAT teams came in and cleared the start/finish area, which had music running and the timing was all set up, and the race was ready to start and go off to Colorado National Monument, which we called the “Tour of the Moon,” and the men and the women’s races were about to begin, and they cleared us out. Brian started the race on a bullhorn two blocks down and did it as professionally as he would have had he been on a microphone. He did a great job with it.
So Jack [Simes] and I were doing an Omni-Sports clinic in Richmond, Virginia in 1976. This loudmouth local cyclist came up to us, said he was a carpenter and could we use one in Trexlertown to help build things since we were just starting to operate the track. He showed up with his young daughter Robin, got a spare room with the ’76 Olympic team and took charge of remodeling the first infamous “Omnihouse.” And that’s when [Drebber] got the name ‘Ripsaw.’
Then one afternoon, I think it was during the 1977 season, Jack and I were in the infield talking about the program. I was announcing every Tuesday and Friday night at the time and I said to Jack that we should get a backup announcer, maybe someone to try on Tuesday nights and fill in on Fridays when I had to go to the Red Zinger later that summer. Ripsaw was banging away building the press box above the first turn and, as usual, straining to hear what we were talking about. Jack said something like, “We need some loudmouth who likes to talk.” We both looked up at Ripsaw … “Hey, Ripsaw, come down here.” And that’s how his announcing career began. It’s the truth.
Brian was THE voice of American cycling in our sport’s golden era. He helped shepherd a sport that had little public awareness through a period of growth through the 1980s with the rise of the Red Zinger/Coors Classic, the Tour of Texas, plus countless criteriums and road races. He was part of a mobile family that reconvened every weekend in a different location to set up the circus tent and perform.
Like many of us, as cycling entered uncertain times at the end of that decade, Brian reinvented himself into an announcer across all sports, and eventually a TV personality with a large standing in the motorsports world. I saw less and less of him but I always knew he was there. I could be flipping through channels and hear that voice announcing some motorsport and just stop with instant recognition — no visual required.
Above all, Brian was a great talker on and off the mic, a raconteur in the classic sense. This talent must have been acquired from his dad Rocky. I passed more than a few hours listening to Brian spin tales and never once complained when it was the same story with slightly different details from the previous telling, that only made it more delightful. He was a joy to be around and a professional who was a pleasure to work side by side with.
The early morning mist from the French Broad river settled over the grounds of the Biltmore estate in Asheville, NC. Off in the distance the throaty sound of a different kind of motorcycle could be faintly heard. Set up for the Biltmore Estate stage race was underway. Race promoter Ken Putnam strained to hear the sound. Who the heck could be out here at dawn on a private estate he drawled? And just as soon as the question dropped we saw the headlight heading at us. There was no skid of course as the bike downshifted and braked in front of the stage. Brian Drebber had made a characteristic entrance on his new motorcycle. The just released Honda V45 Interceptor was purchased the week before in Athens just before the 1983 Twilight Race. Apparently according to Ken, several otherwise tame deer on the estate had fled in terror that morning and at least one died running out of his way. The arc of life is long and loops around. The motorcycle was special and the various permutations of it stayed with him. We both carried our motorcycles everywhere in the back of the Event Services Big White Whale stage truck. Neither of us owned cars back then. The motorcycle of course had to be customized, and during the 1985-1987 Wheat Thins series there was always some piece of Brian’s “project” to move, trip over, and you get the idea. Italian brazed frame, wheels, detours to some out of the way shop to get parts.
Brian Drebber was one of those larger than life personalities that everyone needs to spend time with. Never afraid to wade into any situation. Clad in the thickest skin of anyone I ever met. No was never no. Whoever said it must have been referring to another Brian.
He had that rare quality as an announcer to be able to transport the audience directly in into the race. Uncanny sometimes to step back and listen as he wove a tale of adventure and excitement. He always encouraged the spectators to take a walk around the course in the opposite direction so they could see the action coming towards them. He understood that people came to watch the race, not to listen to him
Perhaps the best anecdote for Brian was the 1989 UCI World Road Racing Championship.
Greg LeMond had just won his legendary 1989 comeback Tour de France with the smallest margin of victory over second place, Laurent Fignon.
Although Brian was primarily an announcer, he took the initiative to see if ESPN would be interested in airing the world road championship that year, which was taking place in the French Alpine city of Chambery.
Despite very long odds, Brian was successful and ESPN even paid us a production fee as well as a modest sum for rights, which Brian and I paid to the French network that was producing the world feed.
To my knowledge, this was the last time ESPN ever paid for a cycling production.
Of course, LeMond ended up winning with a magnificent solo breakaway, one of the very few Tour de France-world championships doubles in cycling history.
Immediately after the race, Brian and I flew to London where I edited and Brian narrated the one-hour ESPN program.
It was one of the greatest moments of my producing career and I owe it to Brian’s dedication and passion.
May he rest in peace.