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Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robinson at his home in Vancouver shares a laugh with his daughter Terra, 14, January 18, 2010.

JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail

It's an easy 10-minute pedal to the day's first appointment. On an overcast morning, on a warm January day, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson tucks his grey suit pants into his blue dress socks, dons a helmet and sets off from his two-storey home near City Hall. The 45-year-old co-founder of the Happy Planet organic juice company could drive or be driven where he needs to go to lead Canada's Olympic city.

Instead, in a business suit and bike helmet, never mind the regular rain, Mr. Robertson puts 80 kilometres a week on his two-decade-old mountain bike.

On arrival, there's not a bead of sweat on him. Vancouver's green capitalist-in-chief locks up against a fence and shifts with ease from cycling to conversation with the Belgian ambassador and a Bombardier Inc. executive, partners on the trial project of a streetcar line that will run during the Olympics.

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His brown hair slightly mussed, coloured by sprigs of grey, Mr. Robertson leads officials and reporters on the line's inaugural run. "Smooth," the smiling mayor comments, "a sweet ride."

He is perfect on camera: His good looks are described as "Hollywood movie star handsome" by green ally David Suzuki.

Vancouver's mayor, on the job for only a year and in politics less than five, doesn't match the mould of the typical Canadian politician. Mr. Robertson has led the life of a risk-taking entrepreneur. From work as a cowboy in rural British Columbia and sailing the Pacific Ocean in a small boat, to starting an organic farm and then Happy Planet, Mr. Robertson is no standard-issue staid politician.

The 2010 Olympic Games, which begin on Feb. 12 and will put his face on televisions around the world, are the mayor's spotlight to promote his long-held belief in the urgent need for a green economy, even if he knows that it'll be hard to hold attention in between hockey games and ski races.

"People complain and moan and groan about the inconvenience or the cost or the potential debts, and pressures on the city," Mr. Robertson said in an interview in his modest City Hall office. "We're getting through all that. There's a good chance that we end up being one of the few Olympic cities that really does land some significant benefits socially and economically."

To his supporters, he's a prototype politician for the 21st century who balances and blends business acumen and sincere green instincts. Mr. Robertson won decisively in November, 2008 - but has yet to be tested in a run for re-election.

Mr. Robertson has two big goals: Make Vancouver the world's green capital by 2020, and end homelessness in a city stained by the gaping maw of the drug-addled Downtown Eastside. Early progress has been made. One lane of a major bridge has been closed to cars for exclusive use by bikes. The plan was widely derided as a likely traffic catastrophe, but cars are still moving unimpeded and the number of bikes is up by 25 per cent.

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On homelessness, Mr. Robertson faced down middle-class residents' anger last year over emergency shelters. The city has opened additional facilities this winter to little protest.

Critics are caustic about his pronouncements on what is possible in Vancouver. It's all "irritating greenwash," said Kennedy Stewart, a public policy professor at Simon Fraser University. "Vancouver doesn't even have a composting program or congestion charge. I understand about trying to set ambitious goals, but these types of ludicrous statements make Vancouver political leaders look like bumpkins rather than world leaders. It is superficial and insulting to voters. Don't get me started about his pledge to eliminate homelessness by 2015."

Mr. Robertson has always embraced risk, yet at the same time carefully weighed and measured it. Mr. Robertson and his wife, Amy, sailed across the Pacific Ocean a few years after university in Colorado, at sea for as long as 25 days at a stretch in a 12-metre 1957 sailboat that the young couple, newly married, had restored. They stowed two bikes for on-shore explorations. Back in Canada, the two became organic farmers in 1991 west of Vancouver, growing strawberries and carrots and raising deer and turkeys, years ahead of today's prevailing trends. Happy Planet started in 1994, named during the Stanley Cup finals that the Vancouver Canucks lost to the New York Rangers, and by 1998, Mr. Robertson had managed to get the juices in Starbucks stores across Canada.

Food, to Mr. Robertson, was the nexus of the world's problems - and potential. He aimed, on the 20-hectare Glen Valley farm, to strike at the mass manufacturing of food, heavy with pesticides and underpinned by oil for transport.

"I meet a lot of business people who know they should care about the environment, or who may be genuinely interested, but few who have Gregor's depth of knowledge or values," said Tzeporah Berman, long-time environmental activist and old friend of the mayor. "Gregor has given birth to a new form of politics, a kind of radical pragmatism."

Politics is the latest iteration of an eclectic life full of go-big moves. Discouraged by B.C. politics early this decade, Mr. Robertson was urged to pursue public office by close friends Joel Solomon, whose Renewal Partners was the first outside financial backer of Happy Planet, and Mike Magee, another old friend and political activist who helped get Mr. Robertson elected as a New Democratic MLA in 2005 in a tough Vancouver seat and as mayor three years later.

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Preparations for February are feverish. The Olympics will be a flurry of greetings with dignitaries, scores of public events, the day-to-day running of the city - all the while trying to trumpet green. Mr. Robertson aims to spark the small cluster of clean energy companies in the region into a global hub. The immediate plan: Persuade dozens of European green firms to make Vancouver their North American headquarters, a bridge between Europe, America and Asia.

"Three billion people watching the city," said Mr. Magee, now the mayor's chief of staff. "It's an enormous opportunity. The risky part for the mayor is that there are a huge number of things out of our control - the weather being one."

The spotlight on Mr. Robertson was expected to be held by former mayor Sam Sullivan, a quadriplegic who made a global impression accepting the Olympic flag at the close of the Turin Games in 2006. But Mr. Sullivan's party ousted him in June of 2008, and Mr. Robertson's Vision Vancouver team trounced the incumbent council and their mayoral candidate that November.

Vancouver business leaders praise Mr. Robertson, support that is unusual, all the more so in B.C.: capitalists backing the hippie socialist. "He's an excellent representative," billionaire Jim Pattison said. "He walks the talk. He's got some new ideas, he's creative, and he's certainly a good listener."

Politics wasn't Mr. Robertson's first career choice - not even his second. The original plan was to be a doctor. Mr. Robertson's middle name is Bethune, named after humanitarian and doctor Norman Bethune, a relative. After high school, he attended Colorado College, a small private liberal arts school south of Denver. It was there that he met his American wife and studied sciences and English, readying for medical school. His undergrad thesis was on contemporary satire in the works of Thomas Pynchon and Terry Southern.

"That clearly showed a witty side of him that could stand outside the system," remembered Prof. George Butte, who taught Mr. Robertson a class on Tennyson and Browning. "[He's]the kind of person ... that can cross these boundaries and actually solve problems."

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On graduation, Mr. Robertson and his wife travelled in China, India and southeast Asia, and the allure of medical school faded. And then he wasn't accepted to study medicine at the University of British Columbia, so he went sailing with Amy instead.

His entrepreneurial heart comes from his father, John. A prominent Vancouver lawyer who did business in China and Japan, the elder Mr. Robertson disappeared on the North Shore Mountains in 1991, as Gregor and Amy were starting their farm and had their first child. Mr. Robertson's remains were found on Mount Seymour four years later, the cause of his death unknown.

"He taught a measure of respect, and engagement, and enterprise," Mr. Robertson said of his father.

"Politics is a profession that probably goes to lots of people's heads, just because they got elected. I don't have that feeling at all. I feel a weight of responsibility and a need to stay true to myself. A lot of that comes from my Dad."

*****

TAUTING THE TUBA

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Gregor Robertson concedes tubas are "geeky" to some people but he has had a lifelong affection for the instrument he plays when he gets time.

He learned the tuba in high school after being a frustrated drummer competing for parts.

"I think they're quite cool," said Vancouver's mayor, calling them crucial to any band because "music without a bass line is tinny and uninspiring."

The mayor has scored some good gigs. He's played Christmas carols with billionaire (and trumpet player) Jim Pattison on CBC Radio. "It was low-priced talent, as far as I can figure out," laughed Mr. Pattison. "I've got a lot of respect for tuba players, just carrying that thing around."

Mr. Robertson also recently contributed five hours of his time to She Believes Her Own Lies, a cut on B.C. performer Slim Milkie's new country music album, Silverado. He was roped into the project by NDP MLA Nicholas Simons, who helped produce the song for Mr. Milkie, his partner.

"My brother, who is a professional musician in Montreal, heard that track. He didn't know Gregor from a hole in the wall. He just thought it was a pretty good display of tuba playing," Mr. Simons said. "He's got good intonation, which means he knows if something is off-key, and I think those kind of skills translate well into being the mayor of a big city."

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PAST OLYMPIC MAYORS

Two previous Canadian mayors have been Olympic hosts. One managed to keep his job despite presiding over Games that ran way over budget. For the other, the Games were arguably a ticket to higher office - the premier's post in his province.

Jean Drapeau

The Montreal mayor had been in charge at City Hall for a total 19 years by the time the Olympic torch arrived in the Olympic Stadium in July, 1976, for the opening of the 21st Summer Games.

Mr. Drapeau, attending the opening ceremonies, received a five-minute ovation - a tribute to the mayoral boosterism that helped bring the Games to his city. Still, the Games left a legacy of red ink - necessitating a special property tax to help cover the costs of a $1-billion post-Olympic debt - despite Mr. Drapeau's notorious claim: "the Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby."

In the Montreal Games, remembered, among other things, for the performances of gymnast Nadia Comaneci and high jumper Greg Joy, Canada won 11 medals - five silver and six bronze.

And the Games did not hurt Mr. Drapeau's political fortunes. Two years after the athletes left town, he was re-elected as mayor. He left office in 1986.

Ralph Klein

As Calgary mayor, he played host to the 1988 Winter Games that eventually helped him become premier of his province.

"There's no doubt that the ability to say, 'I was the Olympic mayor,' certainly boosted [Mr. Klein's]political cachet - no question about that. And we used it," Rod Love, Mr. Klein's former chief of staff, recently told The Globe and Mail. A former city hall TV reporter in Calgary, Mr. Klein first ran for mayor in 1980 and won re-election in 1982 and 1986. In his first term, Calgary was awarded the 1988 Winter Olympics.

Unlike Montreal, these Games came out in the black and left as a legacy a number of top-notch sporting facilities that continue to provide training opportunities.

Canada won five medals - two silver and three bronze. But the Games helped forge a new political star for Alberta. In 1989, Mr. Klein entered provincial politics as a Progressive Conservative MLA and became premier in 1992. He held the job for exactly 14 years, retiring in 2006. In a 2008 interview, Mr. Klein said the Games were a boost for Calgary. "Even today, 20 years later, I still get letters from people remembering the Olympics," Mr. Klein said. "And when I travel internationally, people remember Calgary because of the Olympics."

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