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 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.

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