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.

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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