Road to Redemption

Bad luck and a head injury couldn't kill him. Poverty just made him stronger. Now, freewheeling Bay Area bicycling legend Mike Neel is staging another comeback by coaching professional women's racing.

Slouching in the doorway of a dimly lit room at the Monterey Travelodge, America's greatest bicycling coach gazes forlornly into a relentless drizzle outside. Rain is streaming into the team van through the left front window, which jammed open earlier this afternoon.

His star rider has decided to bring her two dogs to this race, go camping, and otherwise flout team discipline. Another one of his stars is sick and depressed, and two more won't eat properly.

His team is being unambiguously trounced in this drizzly four-day race, the first big competition of the 1999 women's international bike racing season. It didn't help that a wealthy rival team lured away two of his best racers from last year.

On top of that, the coach recently learned that one of his team's financial backers is withdrawing, forcing him to cut salaries. With his own pay already scaled back to $25,000 a year, he'll have to do carpentry work to support his wife and two kids.

"It's depressing," he says. "I just got a call from my wife. We're going to have to refinance our house to pay the bills, and in order to do that I have to do some repairs. Where am I going to get money for supplies? I'm going to have to do something like sheetrocking this summer just to make ends meet."

The coach is Mike Neel, one-time Haight-Ashbury hippie kid, former Golden Gate Fields horse groomer, and paterfamilias to two generations of counterculture athletes. In 1976, Neel was the first American bike racer since the 1940s to crack the top 10 at the World Professional Road Racing Championships. He's a former U.S. national team coach, whose riders produced more international results in 1978 than any American team had during the previous 50 years. He's the urbane, Babel-tongued Tour de France coach whom John Tesh interviewed regularly on CBS Sports during the 1980s.

Now, the Mike Neel, 48 years old, is standing amid a clutter of bicycle equipment in a dank hotel room, wondering how he's going to fix a stuck window; when the rain's going to stop; how he's going to feed his kids.

The coach has lived a quarter-century of such suffering. He has toiled in an Italian mattress factory; almost died from a cocaine overdose; went into a weeklong coma after a car wreck on the way to a race; and experienced the repeated humiliation of complete financial collapse.

He has suffered for himself, and his disciples, in service to the bike racer's creed: Life is a quest for the transcendent moment. Bicycling legend Greg Lemond called it "floating" -- the t'ai-chi-like feeling that you are so strong, so tactically astute, so invincible that you become as light as air.

"It is a little bit like flying," says Andy Hampsten, who won the Giro di Italia in 1988 under Neel's tutelage. "But then, years and years of trying to find another day where I feel like flying, instead of swimming in mercury, is hard."

That's the rub, of course. In bike racing, most time is spent waiting for the rapture that validates eons of penance. Average pros log 30,000 miles a year, through rain, sickness, and maddening boredom. A typical European salaried rider will win fewer than one out of 150 races each year, and some may win an important race only once or twice in a lifetime.

In between the grand moments lies the hardest course, the impossible task of learning how to survive the downtime, and find redemption in the mundane. Like watching droplets of water roll through an open window and onto your driver's seat, and imagining that before long, you'll get the window fixed, your family will make ends meet, and your team will win again.

In the San Francisco area, bicycle racing has existed since the 1960s as a home-grown counterculture with local roots as deep as Grateful Deadism, Haight-Ashburyism, and Berkeley Free Speechism.

During the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, cycling vagabonds could be found every weekend in obscure rural locales like Copperopolis, Brentwood, and Jackson, arriving from the Bay Area in cheap used cars that, likely as not, they had slept in. They forwent school, jobs, and respectability. They lived in basements, on couches, with girlfriends. They survived hand to mouth, race to race, devoting themselves to the realization of the philosophy "Live simply, so that someday you might win."

As a teenager during the mid-'60s, Mike Neel had a foot in both the hippie and the cycling ferments. He lived in a fourth-floor walk-up on Post Street, and lied about his age to work in the San Francisco shipyards. Neel had left home as a teenager after bickering with his father.

"There was no hate involved. He and my dad just didn't get along," recalls Larry Neel, Mike's older brother.

Neel couldn't have chosen a more apt time or place to be a teenage runaway than the 1960s in the Haight, and his circle of friends consisted mostly of drug-using roustabouts. He traveled to Mexico. He experimented with illegal substances.

"We basically lived that life," recalls Neel, who lost friends to drug overdoses along the way. "It was right about that time when all that went to shit. Everything went from LSD to heroin, and the Haight became a slum. It became a choice of, either you go to harder drugs or you quit drugs, and I quit because of cycling."

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