By Kenneth Olausson
Stronger than Popeye, Rolf Tibblin is a man who always preferred carrots to spinach. He was a muscular rider who could outperform all competitors in any physical exercise. Making his motocross career the hard way, Tibblin soon picked up one title after the other and he took all of his three championships wins on Husqvarnas.
Born in Stockholm on May 7, 1937, Rolf claims today that it was just a coincidence that he chose motorcycles as a hobby. With an interest in both soccer and ice hockey, he could have easily become a champion in either of these sports. Son of a scrap-yard lumberman, Rolf Tibblin had to carry his weight from early age and this built up his physical condition and stamina. As a young man, Rolf recalls: “I felt that the team players were complaining about almost everything instead of trying to win games, and since my parents had strict rules about behaviour, I had to work when others were training.”
Despite having little time for training Tibblin never had any trouble getting his place in his soccer and ice hockey teams and he always outperformed his teammates. It was during this time that he also started hanging out with young motorcycle friends.
“They were more open and easy going so we socialized much better", Tibblin remembers. As a consequence he joined a motorcycle club west of Stockholm, where he claims he was ‘pretty poor in the saddle’. But good partnerships and plenty of practice spurred him on and he began to pick up speed.
By the time he was 19 he had built his physical strength to high standards and this meant Rolf managed to keep up his pace when others started to tire. A positive result of his efforts came when Tibblin, riding a Husqvarna, won a local 175 cc championship. Later in the same season Rolf also managed to conquer the half-litre class. It was then that racing started to get serious for the young rider and he now applied for a license in motocross and enduro. It took Tibblin three years to establish himself in the winner’s circle. In 1959 Rolf Tibblin won the European championship in the 250 cc class - the world title was not introduced until in 1962. He then decided to step up and compete against the prestigious 500 cc riders.
The season of 1960 started well for Tibblin. His Husqvarna was very competitive and Rolf managed to win the two first Grand Prix races in Austria and in France. But then his luck changed and at the end of the year he had to be content with third spot in the final points chart. At the same time and to his merit, Rolf Tibblin won the first individual class victory at the International Six Days Trophy, that year held in Bad Ausee in Austria. The following year Tibblin slipped to fifth place in the 500 cc class championship. However, he was a member of the winning Swedish team at the annual Motocross of Nations.
The most difficult GP of the 1962 season was undoubtedly the Czech Grand Prix where everybody was exhausted after the two heats. "It just proved that my hard training paid off well,” Tibblin remembered. He went on to win half of the GP races that season and was 500 cc World Champion for the first time in his life. Still accompanied by Husqvarna and the factory, the following year went smoothly and Rolf won five of the 12 rounds. This resulted in another world title and it was the first time in the history of the sport that one rider had taken victory in the half litre class for two successive years. Rolf also won the famous Novemberkasan five times in a row from 1960 to 1964, an incredible record at the time.
In 1964 Tibblin changed from Husqvarna to Hedlund, prepared by technician Nils Hedlund, who also had been involved in tuning his previous Husqvarnas. This season turned out to be a giant battle between Tibblin and British rider Jeff Smith. The title was on a razor's edge going into the decider in San Sebastian, Spain. But luck didn't favour Tibblin and he had to be content with second place after his front wheel gave up during the last lap. By 1965, the era of the two strokes had arrived and Tibblin once again switched brands. After having raced in Europe for some years he was looking for new challenges and he took his family to the United States where he began racing successfully again. Tibblin soon became a popular name in the US after winning prestigious events like the Baja 1000 and the Mint 400. He also started a famous motocross school on the west coast, which became very popular among up-and-coming US riders. One of Tibblin's pupils and friends was Steve McQueen and they were often seen together riding in the desert sand. Rolf stayed in the USA from 1971 to 1978 during which time he also raced buggies in the desert, also with great success. That of course is another story!