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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.

Wednesday, Apr 28 1999
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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."

The year after the Summer of Love, Neel was seduced by a Raleigh Professional racing bike on display at Velo Sport bike shop in Berkeley. The shop's owner sold him the $90 bike on credit.

Before long, Neel entered a circuit race at Lake Merced and placed fourth -- good for a $100 cash prize. "I thought, 'Hey, this is a pretty easy way to make money,' " he says.

And make money he did. Before long, Neel was winning prodigiously. He cleaned up in Northern California, then moved to Chicago and won money at local circuit races. From there, he went to Europe, where he rode for an amateur team. In 1976, Neel made the U.S. Olympic team, and helped teammate George Mount of Berkeley win an unprecedented sixth place. Neel turned professional right after the Montreal games. Like football, baseball, or basketball in the United States, the professional game is everything in international cycling.

That same year, Neel lined up at the start of the world professional championships in Ostuni, Italy, an audacious move given that no American rider had placed in the race since 1947. By the end of the 150-mile-plus race, Neel found himself sprinting for fourth place alongside superstars Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi.

To the astonishment of the entire cycling world, Neel took 10th place, good enough for a berth on the Italian Magniflex pro team, the first time an American had ridden in the European pro ranks since the 1940s.

To his cycling peers in Northern California, news of Neel's success was the equivalent of the lunar landing. "Could a mortal man really reside amid the European stars?" these Californians asked themselves.

But in Italy, the practical realities of the pro game dampened any illusions Neel might have had.

Bicycle racing may seem like an individual sport, but it is actually a game of sophisticated team tactics. Because of the effect of aerodynamics -- a rider in another cyclist's slipstream works only 70 percent as hard -- getting to the finish line first involves much more than merely being the strongest rider of the day. Team members work together to ensure that their best rider gains all possible advantages -- leading him to help preserve his strength, or breaking away in an effort to draw out and tire a challenger.

These tasks are performed by a squadron of domestiques, riders who are paid only to help their team leader win. That was Neel's job. "It was hard," he recalls. "You work all that time, you get there, and realize you are the designated worker bee."

And a worker bee not just on the course. Magniflex also lined up a winter job for Neel as a laborer in the company mattress factory to supplement his meager salary.

"That was a real Third World experience," Neel recalls. "Every week, [the factory owner's] mother came around and said, 'Here's $50 for the whole week.' I'd say, 'I need more than that.' She'd say $60. I'd say $80. And she'd say, 'Here's $75.' I'd definitely say I was not a silver spoon case."

Neel's professional career lasted only a year before he returned to Northern California. But his exploits were a watershed for the bike racing vagabonds back home. The idea that the Bay Area's groovy hand-to-mouth bike culture could intersect with the world-class European scene had barely occurred to anyone before. Now, a hard-core group of West Coast riders began imagining it might be possible to beat the Europeans at their own game.

As it happened, they needed a coach.
While suffering the drudgery and humiliation at Magniflex, Neel formed the opinion that a little pampering and encouragement of the sort he had learned to give thoroughbred racehorses might also produce winning cyclists.

"The rule of the stable was: Don't upset the horses. No fighting or running. Do their wash-down, rub them with liniment, wrap them in a blanket, feed them hot oats, then put them to bed," Neel recalls. Bike racers weren't all that different.

Neel's team was successful beyond anyone's expectations. Star rider George Mount proved one of the strongest amateur racers on the continent, winning several prestigious events. In 1979, Neel's team won a gold medal in the Pan Am games.

Mark Pringle, who served as Mount's lieutenant on the road, recalls that Neel's street smarts also helped. Once in northern Italy, Neel talked a beverage promoter out of 38 cases of sparkling wine, then used it to pay the hotel tab. Another time, Neel somehow obtained two Fiats that were used as team cars all summer.

"I don't know how he got those. I didn't ask," recalls Pringle, now a Seattle machinist.

Neel found he enjoyed winning as a coach nearly as much as he enjoyed racing himself. But in 1980, the U.S. Cycling Federation, which runs the national team, replaced Neel with a Polish amateur cycling team coach who had immigrated to the United States.

"I was going to work for him," Neel says. "I said, 'To hell with that.' "
So Neel went back to bike racing at age 29. He quickly returned to winning form, earning enough victories for a contract with the Miko-Mercier professional team in France for the 1981 season. But, "with one day to go before the Tour of Corsica, they said, 'You don't have a work visa.' So I was left on my own, and didn't have a team," Neel says.

Neel had a backup. During his Magniflex days, he had used his spare time to mail Italian cycling equipment to the U.S., where his friend Lee Katz would sell it through classified ads in cycling magazines.

The two expanded their importing operation, and Neel eventually opened a West Coast warehouse in Reno, Nev., with Katz running operations in Chicago.

The business was successful, but Neel didn't take well to his new life. He began seeking transcendent moments through illegal drugs, and wound up freebasing cocaine. An overdose landed him in a Reno hospital.

"One day, somebody was saying, 'You got to try this freebase -- you smoke it.' Two months later, I was almost dead. It was a Richard Pryor-type thing," Neel says. "When you retire from a sport, you're seeking the thrill of what you used to have."

His marriage fell apart.
"All I have to say is that he is a good coach, but that's it," says Lauren Sweezy, Neel's ex-wife.

His business fell apart.
"He shoved the business and the warehouse up his nose," says Katz. "Do I still feel hurt? That's putting it pretty mildly."

He alienated his family.
"He was a terror to be around at that point," says Larry Neel. "We put him up for a week, and that was all we could take."

Mike Neel was destitute and alone. And it was left to mountain bike pioneer Tom Ritchey to help pick him up off the floor.

Tom Ritchey's name is known to anyone who's visited a bike shop during the past 10 years. His Redwood City factory turns out one of the most prominent American-made brands of racing bicycles and components. In the early 1980s, Ritchey had just split up with his partner, Gary Fischer, and enlisted Neel to help him strike out on his own.

Ritchey decided not to heed the warnings that had begun circulating about Neel. He gave Neel a place to live in his house. He gave him a job developing a dealer network for Ritchey bicycles.

Ritchey is remembered for taking Neel in at a moment when the former champion was considered a pariah.

"Ritchey is a Christian in the most real sense of the word," says Maynard Hershon, a journalist who writes about cycling.

"I let the Lord take care of me," Ritchey says. "I don't let a lot of things people say affect me ... that's someone else's issue. A lot of times you do things, and there's a voice in your head that says, 'This is the right thing to do.' It was definitely the right thing to do, and Mike helped me out a lot."

By 1985, Neel was back on his feet, and was hired to coach the 18-and-under division of the 7-Eleven cycling team, America's best. Soon, Neel was promoted to head coach.

It was at 7-Eleven where Neel cemented his legend. He took a group of athletes unknown outside the United States, and groomed them into one of the best pro teams in the world.

He did this using a coaching style likened by former riders to that of New Age hippie-philosopher/Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson. Neel's dreamy, self-effacing, sensitive personality was ideal for the task of coaxing the best out of the fledgling U.S. team. He motivated his riders more by listening than telling, his riders recall.

Andy Hampsten remembers one day driving back from a race in Sicily with Neel when they came upon a horse and rider in the road.

"The horse was going on a really fast canter on the pavement. Mike slowed down and waited for the horse and said that it was very bad to be running him that fast on pavement," Hampsten recalls. "The thing about horses is that they can't talk back, so you have to anticipate their needs. I realized then that that's how he treated us. Not like a workhorse, but like thoroughbreds."

This talent served Neel particularly well in catering to the animalistic side of pro racers, says Bob Roll, a former 7-Eleven rider who now races mountain bikes for Nike-Lightspeed.

"Happy, well-adjusted, shiny people do not race bikes at the highest level," says Roll, a man famous in cycling circles for his use of hyperbole. "For someone to subject themselves to that, you have to be very screwed up. Everyone on that team was a knacker, a sociopathic reject, and it would have been very difficult to get along in normal society. To stay out of a mental institution, it was necessary to kill the dysfunctional background. You know you must be there racing. Until you kill the rage, you know you must be there."

But Neel's greatest brilliance was in his keen understanding of team tactics.

During the 1985 Giro di Italia -- 7-Eleven's first big stage race -- Neel found himself leading a band of neo-pros against a field of seasoned Italian squads. By leaving the overall win to the bigger teams, Neel realized he could announce his new team's arrival on the European scene with a few well-placed individual victories. His silver bullet turned out to be the skinny Montanan Andy Hampsten, whom 7-Eleven had hired just before heading to Italy.

Neel advised Hampsten to preserve his energy for a short, hilly stage called Gran Paradiso that ended with a 16-kilometer climb -- perfect for a wiry mountain goat of a rider like Hampsten. Driving over the course the day before, Neel marked a spot 500 meters into the climb, and told Hampsten to attack there and never look back -- an unusual strategy for Hampsten, who usually waited until nearer a race's end to attack.

"When I attacked, it turned out to be exactly the right moment, and it worked," Hampsten says. "I got away with a clean break right at that moment and slowly increased my lead right to the finish."

With a stage win at the Giro, Neel's 7-Eleven boys were no longer the novelty Europeans had made them out to be.

Three years later, likewise under Neel's tutelage, Hampsten won not just one stage, but the whole Giro di Italia, one of the most watched sporting events in the world.

By 1989, Neel was coach of one of the world's top cycling teams. He was earning $90,000 a year, and was a favorite interview subject of television journalists covering the European racing scene. He had fallen in love with the team masseuse, whom he married.

That year, the team had a successful spring campaign, and again was looking toward a winning season. But, according to team philosopher-in-residence Roll, Neel and his boys had been turning sows' ears to silk for too long. It was time for something bad to happen.

While sleeping in the back of a team car during a nighttime drive from the Tour of the Basque Country to Paris Roubaix, Neel again came tumbling back to Earth. The team mechanic fell asleep at the wheel and drove the car under a truck, tearing off the entire top. Neel, who was sleeping in the back seat, suffered a broken jaw, his chin was torn up, and he was left in a coma for several days.

Neel continued as team coach for a while. But he had suffered more brain trauma than anybody knew.

In the middle of the Giro di Italia that summer, it became clear that Neel's brain was too addled to perform his coaching magic. He had to return home to Scott Valley to convalesce.

"I would get angry easily. I would wake up in the middle of the night speaking French. I started going around wearing bright suspenders, thinking that was normal. It was really, really bad," Neel says. "I went from $90,000 a year to nothing. I was poor. I had nothing. We lived off our savings, with an infant child."

The road back to health was a gradual one. Bit by bit, Neel regained his mental faculties, and tried to return to coaching.

One team, conceived by a Denver financier, crumbled after Neel had already used his contacts to sign contracts with a world-class team of riders.

Neel got yet another coaching job with a team sponsored by the restaurant Spago. Things went well for two years, with Neel's boys winning important races throughout North America. In the third year, Spago's sponsorship mantle was supposed to pass to an Italian bicycle company. "They had even advanced some money, given us bicycles and some support. They had met with all the riders that we were going to have. We had solid promises from them about what they were going to do with the team," Neel says. "But they just burned us."

Neel was branded a traitor by the elite crew of riders he had signed. "I almost had a nervous breakdown," Neel says. "It was really bad."

So Neel withdrew from cycling. He spent the next two years working as a laborer, crawling under San Francisco-area houses and attaching braces to foundations as protection against earthquakes. He spent another year working construction around his home in Scott Valley.

Then, three years ago, Neel started doing 100-mile bike rides in the Siskiyou Mountains.

"It's funny: Here we were, poor as church mice with two infant children, and I'm out riding 100 miles a day with no job. Here's your wife asking you, 'What are you doing? You're riding your bike every day.' But actually, it was the best thing I could have been doing, and she had to understand that. I got my health back, I started doing the training camps, and people in the cycling world started to think, 'The guy's snapped out of it.' "

In the summer of 1996, Neel went on a bike ride at Mammoth Mountain with Tom Schuler, a former 7-Eleven racer and director of a company that manages several professional bicycle racing teams, including the Timex women's pro team.

"I kept up with him," Neel says. "He ended up hiring me."
Mike Neel was back in cycling again.

The past two years have seen another Mike Neel renaissance: He's taken a relatively low-budget women's pro team and turned them into champions. Last year, team leader Linda Jackson placed second in the women's version of the Giro di Italia, and his team won pretty much every major race in the United States. By bringing world-class coaching to the nascent sport of professional women's cycling, Neel has again made himself a pioneer. Last year, following his women's string of victories, the bike racing journal Velo-News named Neel coach of the year. And unlike men's cycling, the U.S. is where it's at on the women's side of the sport.

But the magic seems to be ebbing as Neel stares out into the parking lot of the Monterey Travelodge wishing the rain would stop.

The two riders Team Saturn hired away last year are winning. Neel's riders are not. Last month, he had to coax one rider to shake off a case of depression, and not abandon the team's Orinda training camp.

Coaching women is requiring the full force of Neel's patience and sensitivity, he says.

It's Linda Jackson who's giving him the worst fits. Until six years ago, she was a vice president of a San Francisco investment bank. She quit to take up bicycle racing, and is now a worldbeater at age 40. She's famous in cycling circles for being headstrong, and she's turned the Monterey race into a camping trip, showing up at the team hotel with her dogs. She doesn't do terribly well in the first stage of the race.

In fact, none of Neel's riders do very well, which is particularly ominous in light of the recent withdrawal of the team's main sponsor, Saeco. A bad showing this year might make other sponsors nervous, Neel fears. Worse, the damned drizzle won't quit.

Neel's suffering one of those dreary, mundane moments that make up so much of life. It's like sweating in an Italian mattress factory and hoping things will get better down the road. It's like walking out of a Reno drug-rehab program, or getting filthy underneath Berkeley houses doing earthquake retrofits, and hoping that your damaged brain will eventually repair itself. It's like going on 100-mile bike rides while you're down and out in Scott Valley and wondering, just wondering, if you might have a life in cycling again.

The Timex girls seem to sense this.
"I know he feels bad," confides Jennifer Evans, an effervescent sprinter who joined the team just this year. "But we're going to be doing better soon."

At dinner, Jackson, Neel's nemesis for the evening, reveals herself to be a charming raconteur, and a fierce admirer of her team's director. "He's the reason I ride for this team," she confides. "If he weren't here, I wouldn't be here."

That night, Neel gets the van window fixed. The rain lets up the next day. Racers, coaches, sports writers, and hangers-on wave, or come over to talk to Neel, the shy, self-effacing legend whom they're glad to see back on his feet.

The next weekend, in Santa Rosa, the Timex team puts two riders on the podium at the Greton County road race. Three weeks later, the Timex girls prove themselves the team to beat at a grueling four-day race in Eugene, Ore. Jackson puts in a commanding, yet selfless performance, sacrificing her individual result for the sake of the team.

Anke Erlank, an unknown 21-year-old South African Neel recruited this year, has pulled off two wins. Neel plucked her out of nowhere, and had a lot riding on her success.

"I thought she was a diamond in the rough, and she's won three races already," Neel says. "To me there's nothing more satisfying than helping a young rider find themselves and blossom, so we were really tickled."

Neel is back in the hunt for the transcendent moment, as he has been for 30 years. He also seems to have tackled the monumentally harder challenge of handling the downtime, of taking it on faith that the monotony and rigor are worthwhile, even if they don't always lead to rapture.

It's a lesson we're all born with, get beaten out of us, then spend a lifetime learning again.

Ask Anke Erlank. She'll explain.
"You're going so hard that you taste this kind of metal taste in your mouth because your mouth is so dry, and you're almost dying, and you're thinking, 'I can't go any more. I can't!' And you're on a 15-mile climb, and you just know you've got to finish. You've got to get to the top, and you can hardly turn the pedals anymore," Erlank says, sitting in her own dank room at the drizzly Monterey Travelodge. "The adrenalin rush because you think you're going to win, that's awesome. You have to go through that other, metal taste thing first before you get there sometimes. And after that, victory tastes as sweet as sugar.

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Matt Smith

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