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.

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.

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