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DARMSTADT, Germany — Back in the 1970s, the town of Ashtabula, Ohio, was home to a factory of the same name. It cranked out steel cranks, stems and bladed forks used on the much-abused Schwinn and Mongoose BMX bikes that kids launched off dirt piles.

At that time, in that town, Roy Rocco was a boy.

He couldn’t have known it, but this was sort of a prophecy.

Rocco is now first sergeant for the 233rd Base Support Battalion in Darmstadt, Germany. He’s also a mountain bike maniac who’s making a comeback of sorts. In years past, he and his wife even sponsored a team and a race series of their own. Then, due to everything from pneumonia to a tour in South Korea to just getting out of the habit, Rocco took a five-year breather from mountain bikes.

This year, the break ended. Rocco rode in five of seven of the races in the 2003 Chrysler U.S. Forces Europe Mountain Bike Championship Series, and placed fourth in points in the senior division. Next year, Rocco hopes to make every race and place first or second.

“Biking’s great,” says Rocco, 34. “I love it. It’s a great exercise. It gives you something to do.

“And the silence. I was riding on a trail once and I looked beside me, and there was a deer running beside me. It’s just peaceful. You’d never see that on the road or in a gym.”

There aren’t any deer in his office, but it’s fairly easy to deduce Rocco’s hobby. Along with an old typewriter and a few rucksacks there is displayed a mountain bike, trophies, a jersey and, slung on the wall, a banner reading “Team Rocco.”

Despite growing up in a town of such historic import to the knobby-tire set, Rocco didn’t get dirty as a biker until 1995. And it was a fluke. A runner, he had decided to enter a local mountain bike race in Honduras while on temporary assignment there.

“I ended up second,” Rocco remembers. “That’s what got me interested.”

Good call, turns out. In 1996, he took third in the military championships in Big Bear, Calif. That same year, he won the Ohio Dirt Criterium Series. While stationed in Kentucky in 1997, his wife promoted a race series to help pay for the fledgling Team Rocco, five riders strong and with a dozen sponsors. She recruited the sponsors who anted up parts or sold them at cost in exchange for advertising with the team.

“The reason we started the team and the race series is that mountain biking tends to be a somewhat expensive hobby,” says wife Divina. “The bikes aren’t cheap. The parts aren’t cheap.”

She occasionally rides, too, but has decided to stay on the business side when it comes race time.

“I’ve spent more time under the bike than on top of it,” she says, laughing. She’s referring to a particularly epic splat in Tennessee, where she did a nose dive and crashed upside-down into a tree.

“I got applause for my wreck,” she said.

Neither Rocco is a wreck in the minds of the soldier’s colleagues.

“We’re really proud of Sergeant Rocco,” says Capt. T.L. Kreuser, Rocco’s commanding officer.

“There’s a story behind the man, too, in that he has a really excellent spouse, Divina. ... If it wasn’t for her input into his career, I don’t know if he’d be where he is.”

As for Rocco himself, Kreuser says the sergeant has really helped raise the bar when it comes to soldier fitness. With many of his soldiers being members of the military police, that’s important.

And apparently there’s more to the first sergeant than brawn. One soldier also calls Rocco a boss who listens.

“He’s well-known within the unit …,” says Spc. Wendell Dowers, an administrative assistant with the battalion. “He’s someone you can talk to.”

Dowers says Rocco and his bike are a common sight, but the specialist didn’t know about Rocco’s racing history.

Battalion leaders believe Rocco’s athleticism has paid off nonetheless.

Rocco led his unit to place fourth in U.S. Army Europe’s Combat Cross Country Championships last month at Babenhausen, Germany, despite the fact that his troops aren’t even a combat unit.

“I think anytime an NCO excels at a sport, he or she sets the example for the younger soldiers,” says Bob Robb, battalion director of logistics who worked with Rocco during the sergeant’s time as his noncommissioned officer in charge.

“Today’s Army is all about fitness, and you have to be fit to be pedalin’ up and down the mountains.”

Even if you are from Ashtabula.

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