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.

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.

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