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by Neal Rogers
November 22, 2016
Photography by Malcom Fearon; Tom Moran; Casey B. Gibson
NEWS & RACING BROUGHT TO YOU BY CHAPTER2 BIKES
Roland Green dominated the mountain bike world in 2001 and 2002, winning two world titles, the World Cup series overall, and the NORBA series title. After injury and suspension, he retired following the 2005 season and disappeared, seemingly cutting all ties from the cycling world. We set out to find where he is today, and why he completely stepped away from the sport he loved.
Roland Green answers the phone. It’s been 11 years since he’s done an interview. Back then, he scheduled media requests around his training and racing. Today, he scheduled it after his work shift, as a welder. As he contemplates his answers, the sound of children playing in the background fills the pauses.
During the 2001-2002 race seasons, Canadian Roland Green was the best mountain-bike racer on the planet. He was young. He was handsome. He wore rainbow stripes. He drove a Porsche 911. He was sponsored by Trek, at the same time the Wisconsin company was exploding due to Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victories; through that connection Green rode as a guest with the U.S. Postal Service team, with one eye fixed on a future career in road racing.
And then, in less than 36 months, he was gone for good.
Green’s career, which fulfilled and exceeded all expectations in a short period of time, ended abruptly in 2005, at the age of 31, following a severe concussion and a six-month suspension for prednisolone, a substance permitted with a Therapeutic Use Exemption, which Green had failed to submit. At his last race, the world cross-country championships in Livigno, Italy, he suffered two punctures and did not finish, an inauspicious end for a rider who had been poised to be Canada’s greatest cyclist.
Since then, Green has been completely off the radar. No celebrity fondos. No coaching business. No appearances at trade shows. No financial involvement in cycling. Nothing related to the sport whatsoever.
The last anyone had heard, Green was married, with two kids, living in Fernie, a small mountain town in the southeast corner of British Colombia, near the Idaho/Montana border. Stories had him starting a fishing business, managing properties in Victoria, or attending trade school to become a welder. A major accident, in 2011, nearly killed him, leaving him severely injured with another brain injury, further clouding the memory of a rider who was, 10 years earlier, quite literally on top of the world.
Here, in his first interview since 2005, Green opens up about his meteoric rise and his mysterious disappearance from the public eye, and reveals that he has struggled less with his place in cycling and more with the intense challenges that life has thrown at him over the last decade.
Roland Green, 2002 NORBA NCS event at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. Photo by Tom Moran.
Born into a blue-collar family and raised in Victoria, on the craggy southern end of Vancouver Island, Roland Green had a common sports background for a Canadian kid, first playing hockey and soccer. He started bike racing in junior high school, a muscular road racer whose coaches told him he’d never be able to climb with the sport’s best.
In 1992, at age 18, Green won the Tour de l’Abitibi, an international junior stage race in Quebec. The following year he headed to France, living in a shared apartment once inhabited by Sean Kelly. Green won the Canadian national time-trial championship in 1995, but his road dreams didn’t pan out, and in 1996 he switched over to mountain biking, signing with Kona, the fat-tire brand started in Vancouver.
Green’s breakthrough performance came at the 1996 under-23 world mountain-bike championship in Cairns, Australia, where he spent most of the race off the front, ahead of future stars Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez, until a puncture saw him drop off the podium, finishing fourth.
In 1997 Green finished seventh at the world cross-country championships in Switzerland, 5:57 behind Italian Hubert Pallhuber; his most promising result to date. Two years later, riding for GT, he won the NORBA NCS XC series final at Mount Snow, Vermont — a race given added notoriety due to Lance Armstrong’s participation, shortly after his first Tour de France victory. With the eyes of the national media watching, Green beat Armstrong by over four minutes.
A silver medal at the 2000 world championship, behind Miguel Martinez, was the surest sign that Green could truly compete on the elite international stage. Later that summer he placed 14th at the Sydney Games cross-country race, his sole Olympic appearance.
Green was the eldest member of what became known on the mountain-bike circuit as the “Canadian Mafia,” a group of professional mountain bikers from British Columbia who trained together during the off-season. The others included Seamus McGrath, Chris Sheppard, and Ryder Hesjedal, the youngest of the group, whom Green took under his wing.
All four members of the Canadian Mafia would ultimately serve suspensions or admit to doping during their careers; Green was the only one of the four never implicated for EPO use.
“I came up with Roland, we spent a lot of time together in Victoria, training,” says McGrath, who manages Hesjedal’s annual Tour de Victoria. “He struck me as not the most social kind of guy. He enjoyed cycling, it was a passion, and he was willing to do the work, to put in the hours and the miles. You have to enjoy it to some degree, and it was always fun riding with him.”
Hesjedal and Sheppard did not return correspondence seeking comment for this story.
Roland Green, winner of the 2002 World Mountain Bike Championship in Kaprun, Austria. Photo: Tom Moran.
In 2001, riding for new team Trek-Volkswagen, Green was unstoppable. He won the World Cup series, the NORBA NCS XC Series, the Canadian national championship, and the world championship in Vail, Colorado, just days after the 9/11 terror attacks, becoming the first (and still the only) Canadian man to take the world cross-country title. Green shared the podium with Swiss riders Thomas Frischknecht and Christoph Sauser, well ahead of future road stars Cadel Evans and Michael Rasmussen.
After winning in Vail, as reported in an April 2002 VeloNews cover story, Green partied all night, drove to Nevada, bought a Porsche 911 Turbo, drove it home to Victoria, celebrated some more, and then bought a new house. By winning the World Cup and world championship, he’d grabbed the brass ring, nailing the most lucrative bonus clauses laid out in his contract. He was earning deep into six figures. Life was good.
“Roland came from kind of a poor upbringing — it was the typical, almost the Flandrien style ‘up from your boot straps, become a farmer or bike racer’ story,” says former Trek-Volkswagen manager Eric Wallace. “He had a less-fortunate upbringing, but he was good at racing his bike. And he made good money doing it, so he had to embrace the popularity that came along with it, to some extent.
“But there was also an uncomfortable feeling to it. He was almost an accidental superstar. He was a little shy in the spotlight, his head was always somewhere else, but he was a really good bike racer. He loved to train, and he was a gracious world champion, signing autographs and being available to the fans, but he never quite embraced being popular.”
The following year Green dominated the NORBA NCS XC Series and won the first Commonwealth Games mountain-bike race, in the rainbow jersey, on his 28th birthday. Later that year he took a second consecutive world title, in mud-soaked conditions in Kaprun, Austria, just a few months after Armstrong had won his fourth Tour. Green calls it the best day of his career.
“In Vail [2001 worlds], people were saying that 9/11 had just happened, there were travel issues, some of the Euros didn’t have their best equipment,” Green says. “I heard all kinds of things. In 2002, I couldn’t hold the form I’d had in 2001, that was just an unbelievable year. In 2002 I was not as strong, but to win it again, and on European soil, in those muddy conditions… that was the best day of my career. It was very satisfying.”
For the second year in a row, Trek Bicycles had the world’s best road rider and mountain-bike rider on their equipment — one famous for wearing yellow, the other becoming ubiquitous in rainbow stripes.
Roland Green (center) leads Saturn teammates Tom Danielson, Chris Horner, and Nathan O’Neill on Stage 8 of the 2003 Tour de Langkawi. Photo: Marketa Eng/Cor Vos
Following in the footsteps of mountain bikers such as Evans and Michael Rasmussen, Green began the 2003 season with one eye on the road, riding for the Canadian national team at the Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia, and for the U.S. Postal Service team at the Tour de Georgia. The money that had infused the mountain-bike circuit in the 1990s was drying up. The long term plan, for both Green and Hesjedal, was to focus on the mountain bike through the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, and then switch over to road racing full time.
Green was also targeting the 2003 world time-trial championship, held on home soil in Hamilton, Ontario. No slouch against the clock, he’d won the 1995 Canadian TT title, and in 2001 he’d placed 14th at the world TT championship in Portugal, 2:17 behind winner Jan Ullrich. That result came just weeks after driving his new Porsche from Nevada to Victoria, with minimal time spent on a TT bike or focusing on aerodynamics. Green always felt he should have been inside the top 10 in Lisbon, and believed he could do even better in Hamilton.
His season started well in Langkawi — he finished third on the 25km Genting Highlands climb, and fourth overall behind winner Tom Danielson, taking the KOM jersey. Again, a puncture kept him from the podium, this time he lost 90 seconds on Stage 6 of the ten-day race. He headed to the Redlands Classic, which, like Langkawi, would be dominated by the Saturn trio of Danielson, Nathan O’Neill, and Chris Horner. Green finished third on the Oak Glen summit finish — a stage where he’d soloed to victory one year earlier — but he abandoned while sitting fourth overall due to flu symptoms.
In April, Green donned the U.S. Postal Service kit, racing alongside Dave Zabriskie and Michael Barry at the inaugural Tour de Georgia. On the final stage, a circuit race in Atlanta, Green was sitting third overall behind Horner and O’Neill when he struck a crack in the asphalt and crashed heavily on his face, resulting in a severe concussion.
It was an accident that would derail his 2003 season, and impact the rest of his career. Green said he feels it wasn’t just the crash, but also the mistakes he made in the days that followed, that changed him as an athlete.
Roland Green during Stage 3 of the 2003 Tour de Georgia. Photo: Casey B. Gibson.
“It was one of those things, you can’t put finger on. When you have a head injury, stuff happens in your body, I don’t think they really, fully understand it,” Green says. “For whatever reasons, after that head injury, it didn’t seem like I had the same motor, the same capacity. It was odd. A lot of it was my fault, after the accident I did everything I could possibly do wrong.
“That night in Georgia I had a few drinks after the crash, which was a really bad idea, it thins your blood. The next day I hopped on a plane, with that reduced pressure in the cabin. That week I was at home, trying to train as if everything was normal, but it wasn’t, and I had a hard time completing a training ride, with vertigo and all that. And then the next weekend I went to Big Bear, with the high altitude, and I DNF’d. So I think I probably did a lot of damage in the week after the crash when I should have been resting. I probably needed someone to step in, like a health professional, and say hold on a second, you need to slow down.”
Though he didn’t know it at the time, there would be no more world championships, no more titles, no more bonuses, and no more talk of one day riding with U.S. Postal Service at the Tour de France. Within two years, Green would leave the sport, at age 31.
To put that into context: In October, Peter Sagan won his second consecutive world title, at age 26. Imagine Sagan retiring three years from now, at age 29, after a head injury and a six-month suspension, and then disappearing completely from the public eye.
“Roland was never the same after that accident,” says Wallace. “Everything changed. He had short-term memory loss. I sat with him in the hospital, and he looked at me and didn’t know who I was, even though we’d had dinner together the night before. He had been on a roll, having good results, and after that bad crash, he was never the same. I think he lost some of his motivation. He couldn’t remember things the same way, he couldn’t do things the same way. I 100% blame that crash on his retirement, and why he disappeared afterward.”
From left: Geoff Kabush, Roland Green, Ryder Hesjedal, 2003 Sea Otter Classic. Photo: Tom Moran.
When looking back at Green’s career, it’s impossible to separate his results from the culture within the sport during that era. Quite simply, he was the top mountain-bike racer in the world during a period when EPO use was rampant in professional cycling.
Off road Green beat Hesjedal, Rasmussen, and Filip Meirhaeghe, all whom would later admit to doping. On the road, he was competitive with Danielson and O’Neill, who also served suspensions and either admitted or were implicated in EPO use. Doping practices within the USPS team, where Green briefly guest rode in 2003, are well documented.
In 2013, upon publication of Rasmussen’s autobiography, Yellow Fever, Hesjedal and McGrath admitted to using EPO ten years earlier, while preparing for the 2003 world cross-country championship. Rasmussen revealed that Hesjedal, McGrath, and Sheppard stayed in his basement in Italy for two weeks while training, and that he taught them how to use EPO. At that world championship, Hesjedal won a silver medal behind Meirhaeghe, who would test positive the following year.
Guilt by association is, of course, problematic; it is not proof of wrongdoing. Rasmussen did not implicate Green; neither did Hesjedal, nor McGrath. There is no evidence that Green ever cheated. Other riders from that era — Evans, Absalon, Sauser, and Frischknecht — won major international races and were never implicated in any wrongdoing. However, as with any champion from that era, speculation is warranted.
Though he was also a cross-country racer from British Columbia, Canadian Geoff Kabush — younger than Green and McGrath, but older than Hesjedal — was on the outside of the Canadian Mafia inner circle. Spanning a 20-year career that has included over a dozen national titles in cross-country and cyclocross, top-10 finishes at the 2000 and 2012 Olympic Games, and a World Cup race win in 2009, Kabush has been consistently staunch in his stance against doping, having helped develop and launch the “Race Clean, Own Your Victory” initiative with Cycling Canada Cyclisme. He has also been consistently skeptical of the enormous leap Hesjedal and Green made in 2001.
“We came up in the late 90s, and there was a strong training group in Victoria at that time,” Kabush says. “I was training hard, and I could hang with them, but it came to a point, we were doing these group rides in the winter, and it started to get insane. There’s this big climb up and over to Duncan, it’s a 20-minute climb, and we were hitting it at race pace. These guys [Green, Hesjedal, and McGrath] were trying to see how fast we could do these rides, trying to average 40kph for five or six hours. I could barely hang on the back, they were just insanely hard.
“I started to question, ‘how are these guys doing it?’ I was a bit naive, I guess. And I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to do this.’ At a certain point I had to stop training with them. I think it was in 2000 that I decided to go my way in training, it was just too insane, riding with those guys. Fortunately for me, I had friend who knew what was really going on. She explained that there was a reason I couldn’t hang with them any more. Mentally, it was a tough time.”
Roland Green and Thomas Frischknecht, 2002 World Mountain Bike Championships, in Kaprun, Austria. Photo by Tom Moran.
Green’s 2004 was plagued with injury and illness. Instead of racing in Athens at the Olympics, he was sidelined for a doping infraction; he tested positive in May 2004 for prednisolone, a synthetic corticosteroid that is permitted with a Therapeutic Use Exemption, which he had not filed. Green accepted fault, saying it had come from his asthma inhaler, and that he had not filed his paperwork with the UCI.
“It was a bogus, frustrating ban,” Green told Cyclingnews in 2005. “I take full responsibility for it, but they threw the book at me.”
The Canadian Cycling Association pointed to Green’s “documented history of exercise-induced asthma,” a point that Wallace confirmed with CyclingTips.
“I’d bet in my filing cabinet I still have his TUEs from my time working with him,” Wallace says. “I know he had that all along.”
Green’s contract with Trek was not renewed after the 2004 season, and he returned to competition in 2005 with Kona, the brand he’d started his career with in 1996. But his results were subpar, and he retired following the world championships, just a few months after Sheppard tested positive for EPO.
In a 2005 retirement interview with CanadianCyclist.com editor Rob Jones, Green was asked about the problems of doping in cycling. His answer was less a condemnation, and more an explanation of the power dynamics within the sport’s governance.
“Cycling has always been a victim of drugs,” Green said. “The press will always focus on drugs in cycling, I think. Drugs are just as prevalent in other sports, but there is a lot more money involved in those sports, so they won’t focus on it.
“Why cycling? There are a lot of great athletes, making next to no money. There are positive drug tests going back to Merckx and Hinault’s times. Why don’t you hear more about the [top] riders’ positives? Money. In other sports, where the athletes get paid $10 million, they have the lawyers to fight for them, the system can’t afford to have them [be sanctioned]. The advantage just keeps passing to the riders with the most money. It is the small guys like Shep [Chris Sheppard] who get crucified.”
Trevor Connor, who lived and trained at Canadian Cycling’s PacificSport National Cycling Centre in Victoria the same time as Green and now works as a cycling coach, said that in his estimation it would have been very difficult, but not impossible, to compete at the highest level against mountain-bike racers who were using EPO.
“[Suspicion] is something every cyclist from that era is going to have to deal with,” Connor says. “You look at the numbers that were being put out, you look at how doped up the guys at the top were, there’s a lot of physiologists out there that will say, plain and simply, you couldn’t win the biggest events back then clean. So anyone who won the biggest events back then is going to have that on their back. And then you look at the people Green was beating at the world championships, and how many of them got busted.
“I will say, with mountain biking, there is such a skill component to it,” Connor continues. “Back then, a clean athlete had a better chance at performing at the top level in mountain biking than they did in road cycling.”
Roland Green, winner of the NORBA NCS XC event at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, June 2002. Photo: Tom Moran.
Rasmussen was more succinct in his assessment. “It is possible that Roland was the most talented clean mountain-bike rider in those years. Effectively he must have been, if he beat super-talented doped riders.”
Wallace says he understands the questions surrounding Green’s career, but said that after spending several years working closely with him, he never saw anything suspicious.
“From the outside looking in, you can see that Roland was in that group, with Hesjedal, and Seamus, and Sheppard, the Canadian Mafia,” Wallace said. “But in my experiences with Roland, we’d be at anti-doping, after a race, and he’d say, ‘I forgot to pack my podium hat,’ and I’d run back to the hotel and dig through all of his personal belongings, with no questions. If there was something there, I would have seen it. There was never any question, he never gave me any indications anything was going on. Obviously there will be speculation, but I never thought there was anything messy going on with him.”
As for Green, he maintains that he won clean, pointing to the different demands between road and mountain-bike racing, as well as his talent, which was demonstrated at a young age.
“To be fair, when you compare mountain biking and road, the demands put on your body on the road are super human,” Green says. “I think with mountain biking… I know it’s possible to win big mountain-bike races clean, and I think it does boil down to all-around physical talent, and bike handling. The duration of the events is not as long, it’s not day after day. Physiologically you are asking two different things of the human body.
“I’ve been contacted by friends that I raced with, and know from racing days, and they say, ‘they are saying this and that about you.’ What am I supposed to do, jump back in the media and defend myself from someone trying to point the finger at me? People are going to think what they want. They’re going to make assumptions.
“To the people who question me, and my abilities, I can look back at 1992. I had never raced outside of Canada. I was just in high school, just out of Grade 12. I went and did the Tour of Abitibi, in Quebec, it’s a big international junior stage race, all of these European teams, national teams are there, and I ended up winning that race. I had those kinds of results all throughout my cycling career. I think I’ve proven from day one that I have a motor. Yeah, I was inconsistent. Yeah, I’ve run my body into the ground to the point where I was so overtrained, and so depleted, that I couldn’t perform. But I always bounced back. And in 1999 I started bringing it back together, figuring it all out — diet, exercise, rest, and getting the body consistent.”
At the time, the reasons behind Green’s retirement were not fully clear. Only three years had passed between his second world title and his retirement. In that time, he’d had a head injury and served a suspension. His results had dipped, significantly.
Speaking with Jones in 2005, Green discussed his decision to retire at age 31. “I was at the high level for a few years, and could maintain my form, but when I started to slide, no matter the training, it was very frustrating. When you are used to being in the top results, it’s not the same to keep racing.”
Roland Green and family, March 2016.
Upon retirement, Green swiftly disappeared. He and his wife, Amanda, had two children, first a son and then a daughter. Following the financial crisis of 2008, a failed investment into a real-estate development wiped away much of Green’s earnings from cycling. They moved to the eastern province of Newfoundland for a few years, and moved back to Fernie in 2009, where Green built their home.
“I was doing some real-estate stuff, but unfortunately with that big crash in 2008-2009, the bulk of the real estate I was in took a pretty bad hit,” Green says. “It didn’t really pan out like I was hoping. It was just bad timing, investing in the wrong stuff at the wrong time. But we’re quite happy, here in Fernie. We’ve got a nice little acreage.”
Today, Green is 42, and owns a metal fabrication shop, Ironspawn Welding.
“I wanted to do something completely different,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed building stuff, and using my hands. A while ago, I saw something on TIG welding, I think it was actually about bike components, welding titanium, and I thought it was really fascinating. So I went back to school — at 37 years old, there I was back at school. I just kept doing it, and now I’ve got my own business, and I love it. I really enjoy it. I do a lot of residential construction, a lot of custom work. The interior of houses, when they want some metal work done. I’ll get that creative freedom to make whatever I think would look good. I really like that part of it.”
In the summer of 2012, Green had an accident on his property, when his Argo Centaur utility vehicle lost power on a steep decline. His wife saw the crash, and found him unconscious and bleeding heavily, the vehicle at rest, smashed into a tree. He was airlifted by helicopter to a Calgary hospital with facial injuries, broken legs, and a brain injury — requiring a prolonged stay in intensive care.
“We live on a very steep hillside, and our driveway is closed in the wintertime. So I bought this off-road vehicle, an Argo, and on the first trip when I got home, I went down the driveway, and the engine cut out on me. It’s a hydrostatic steerer, the way it’s designed, if you lose the engine, you lose your hydraulics. So I went over the side of the driveway, and the next thing I knew I was being airlifted to Calgary. I was lucky to live, really. My wife just happened to be looking out the window the time I went over the side of the hill. She came and found me on the hillside, and Search and Rescue came and got me.
“It was bad. I broke my neck, smashed my face in, I’ve got all false teeth, titanium screwed into the bone. I displaced both of my femurs, drove them into the dash of this thing that hard. I split my face open, I had 117 stitches. And then it was quite a serious head injury; I keep beating myself up in the head. I’ve recovered quite well since then. That was summer of 2012, and I’ve pretty much had a full recovery. Going back to school was a good test for me, for my brain, and that was fine.”
Green doesn’t pay much attention to professional cycling these days. Like many casual fans, he watches the Tour de France, and says he is always watching for Canadian riders who are doing well. He’s taken up snowmobiling, but no longer rides a bike.
“I’ve tried riding my bike since then, but it kind of does open up a can of worms for me,” he says. “I didn’t retire on my own terms. I didn’t retire when I wanted to. Getting back on the bike is kind of a reminder of what I did and how I did it. And now you try to ride, and you are out of shape, and kind of overweight, it’s not really stimulating. A lot of people don’t understand, and they ask me ‘why don’t you still ride?’ But once you’ve done it at a certain level, and I live in such a great place, there are so many other things to do that are pretty stimulating. I’m on a sled [snowmobile], going through that curve of learning like I did with mountain biking, it’s all very new and exciting — you can be out of shape and still do quite well.”
Video: 2011 induction of Roland Green into the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame.
The last time McGrath saw Green was in 2012, at a Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame gala, which honored the former world champion. At that point Green had a significant scar down the center of his face, McGrath said, and was still suffering from post-concussion symptoms. That was four years ago; no one contacted for this story had spoken with him since.
“It does seem odd that he isn’t part of cycling at all,” McGrath says. “I think he was really results oriented, and probably not the best guy to be the self-promoting type. If you want longevity after your prime, you have to do that. I think it was a case where he earned good money from the sport he loved, and then maybe he fell out of love with it. With other people, if they don’t have the means, financially or otherwise, they kind of have to stay connected with the sport. I think cycling was a tool for Roland to earn a living. Then he made enough to retire, and just said, ‘I’m out.’”
What might have become of his career, if he hadn’t hit that crack in the road in Georgia? We’ll never know. In 2001 and 2002, Green was the best in the world — better than Hesjedal, who went on to win the 2012 Giro d’Italia, better than Evans, who went on to win the 2009 Tour de France, and better than Rasmussen, who was days away from winning the 2007 Tour de France before he was sent home by his Rabobank team management. Green claims he wouldn’t have been a Grand Tour contender, due to his muscular build, but says he thinks he would have been well-suited to one-day classics.
“Roland was still coming into his best years,” says Jones. “In 2003 he was unbelievably strong. He was the strongest rider at the Tour de Langkawi, and he was great at Georgia until he had that bad crash. That was the start of the downward slide. That crash was more serious than most people realized. He was still on an upward trajectory. I think he would have gone to the road and accomplished significant things.”
What is known is that Roland Green was ready to disappear from the cycling world, for reasons that only he fully understands.
Asked why he just walked away from the sport, seemingly without a trace, Green paused.
“Well, there are two parts to that,” he says. “I never really enjoyed the attention, being in the limelight, it wasn’t for me. So, to go back to it… for what? The only thing that would draw me back would be to help young talent, if I saw a kid who needed help, that’s really the only capacity that I would go back to the sport.
“Other than that, there’s nothing there for me. It was hard to stop when I did. I know a lot of people say, ‘oh, you just up and left.’ They don’t know what I went through. And I’m not one to give a big song and dance about it, but here I am, giving you the best explanation I have.”
And with that, Roland Green said goodbye, returning his attention to his kids, his wife, his welding business. If, or when, the cycling world might hear from him again seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind.
Roland Green, September 2016.