The Bike Whisperer

Mikeneel_7eleven

Old enough to drive but not old enough to vote, the high school dropout ran away from his Oakland, California home with a friend and lived a hippie’s life in Mexico, where in 1968 $1 bought 8 pesos, enough to live on for a week. The drugs were cheap, and the teens spirited across the country on freight trains, their long hair flowing in the breeze without a care in the world. The dropout’s friend would later get hooked on heroin, and after seeing several friends die from overdoses or drug deals gone horribly wrong, the tall son of a self-made concrete millionaire left the seedy life of Haight-Ashbury and became a bike racer.

Mike Neel’s life story is full of supreme highs and gut-wrenching lows, a rollercoaster ride of emotion, heartache and success of the highest order. He was destined to be a famous, pioneering American bike racer, but his personal light flamed out quickly after the 1976 world pro road race championship, weeks after turning professional for the Italian Magniflex team.

The 179-mile race, the longest since 1964, was held in Ostuni, Italy on September 5. On the last lap, on the backside of a big hill, the great Italian Felice Gimondi had two teammates pushing him. Neel rode alongside them, red faced from the effort. He didn’t get dropped, and after the downhill was working hard to get to the front. He intuitively followed the wheel of the Belgian Frans Verbeeck, as they raced toward the finish on the boulevard.

“I was making my way to the front of the chase group, trying to get on Eddy Merckx’s wheel,” Neel described in his northern California dining room nearly 36 years later. “Gimondi decided he wanted that wheel instead, and shoved me aside right before the sprint started. Verbeeck was leading Merckx, and I was out in the wind on the left, where the sea was, and where the wind was coming from. Suddenly a small figure comes sprinting by me, and it’s Bernard Hinault! I’m like ‘shit…’

“I’m out in the wind, no wheel to grab onto, passed by Hinault with 200 meters to go, and Jan Raas passes me,” Neel continues. “There were four up the road in the breakaway, so we were sprinting for fifth place. I finished fourth in the sprint, 10th in the World’s. My Australian Magniflex teammate Gary Clively was ecstatic for me, but I was pissed because I thought I could’ve finished fifth if I’d stayed on Verbeeck’s, then Merckx’s, wheel. I didn’t have the experience to know better.”

Neel has replayed that situation in his head hundreds of times since, winning the sprint. Neel’s other Magniflex teammate Tino Conti finished third, behind Francesco Moser and Freddy Maertens, who earned the rainbow jersey with a winning time of 7:06:10, for an average speed of 25.19 mph. Merckx won the field sprint for fifth, 26 seconds back, ahead of Hinault, Gimondi, Raas, and Australian Donald John Allan. Among those Neel beat in Ostuni were Walter Godefroot (19th), Hennie Kuiper (21st), Raymond Poulidor (24th), Walter Planckaert (25th) and Bernard Thévenet (28th). All told, 77 started the race, with 53 finishing.

“I kept my mouth shut about my two Gimondi experiences, because in Italy, you want to get invited to the criteriums, where the real money’s to be made. Something like $2,000 back then! If I would’ve squawked about Gimondi, I wouldn’t have been invited to anything after the World’s. Of course, all the criteriums were orchestrated, just like they are today after the Tour de France. We were told what place we’d finish before the race began. I played along.”

This race sums up Mike Neel’s character: strong and gifted enough to duke it out with some of the greatest road racers in the history of sport, but naïve enough to share food and let another racer push him off the all-important wheel during a crucial time in one of the biggest events on the calendar. His decision to not play along so easily from that day forward would provide both agony and ecstasy for the riders he would eventually direct in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.

Self-sufficient runaway
Neel’s path to the Grand Tours began as a horse groom in Golden Gate Park, where he worked and lived after running away from home at 16. Neel started off walking hots, taking the horses on cool-down walks after their workouts.

“I took care of ten horses, and got $100 a month each,” the now 61-year-old explained. “I was a rich teenager! I never fit in with school; I wasn’t planning out a career, especially during the San Francisco scene in the late `60s. There was turmoil and politics, so I did what I could: working the Oakland shipyards, manual labor.

“Earlier in my teen years I was a caddy at Mira Vista Golf Club in El Cerrito, one of the only white caddies. I was small, so no one messed with me.
I got kicked out of El Cerrito High School, and had to attend a reform school, where I was one of the only white kids; it was a really rough school.

“I saved my money and left for Mexico; I checked out of society for awhile. I led a destructive life. The death of close friends because of drugs woke me up and set me straight.”

In 1969, Neel, 18, was attending Laney Junior College in Oakland, a predominantly black school. Someone left a note on his old stolen Schwinn road bike (that he was using purely for transportation) asking if he’d like to go on a ride. He rode with a group who looked and dressed like bike racers, and had decent bikes. Neel wore his Levi’s shorts and tall basketball socks with tennis shoes, riding around Lake Chabot and the Berkeley Hills.

Never much of an athlete as a child, the naturally gifted and hardened Neel somehow dropped everyone on the ride, and they encouraged him to race.

“About a week after that first ride, I discovered Peter Rich’s Velo-Sport Bicycle shop in Berkeley,” Neel said. “I saw a Raleigh International bike in the window, with Campagnolo components and Weinmann brakes. The bike was $95, which seemed a lot of money to me then. Peter said I could take the bike and pay him later. I paid him half, then rode it to the San Rafael bridge, hitchhiked across, then rode to Mendocino, nearly 170 miles from Berkeley. I broke into a cabin on the beach, and stayed the night. The bike had sew-ups, and I remember losing air on the trip. No one told me I had to put air in the tires, so I stopped at a bike shop in Santa Rosa, mentioning my trip from Berkeley. It was 2-1/2 days of adventure; I didn’t know any better. I just went for it. I was a hippie without a care in the world at that point.”

A couple weeks later Rich mentioned a handicap race around Lake Merced, with the novices going first. Neel took fourth, the same place he’d take against stiffer competition around the state capitol in Sacramento.

“In the last corner I thought I would win, but didn’t know anything about the final sprint, and took fourth again. This time, though, I won $200! It was way easier than working the shipyards in Oakland. I was hooked.”

Lm1

Neel’s winning ways were expanding, including victory in the 1971 Mt. Hamilton Classic, which includes a 20-mile climb to the top of the 4,500-foot peak near San Jose, then continues 43 miles through remote ranch lands to the finish in Livermore, with total elevation gain exceeding 6,000 feet. Monterey native Jonathan Boyer won the junior edition. Boyer would eventually race under Neel at 7-Eleven, after becoming the first American to race the Tour de France and working for Bernard Hinault in 1981.

“In the `70s we all had to fend for ourselves and had to be driven by our internal drives and our own determination,” Boyer explained from his base in Rwanda, where he’s coaching the national team. “It was never easy being the only ones from America in a foreign country; Mike was able to overcome incredible hardships and still perform as a top cyclist.”

Tour of California
Rich organized the first Tour of California in 1971, and included Neel on his Velo-Sport Berkeley team, which helped their leader finish fifth overall during the 10-stage race two weeks before Lance Armstrong was born in Texas. Neel’s trajectory from hippie to bike racer was rising fast, and after some politics with the American governing body for bike racing which left Neel off the 1972 Olympic team in Munich, he took the next step by traveling to Europe to take on the world.

American journalist and author Own Mulholland, another California native, also went to France to race in 1972. He was 26 at the time and had scrimped and saved to go to Europe.  

“I knew I wasn’t good enough to make the Olympic team, and for various reasons this was practically my only chance to see what the scene was like in Europe,” Mulholland told me from his home in San Anselmo, California. “In Grenoble, I lived with Joe Harvin; then Mike showed up (big surprise for Joe and me – no problem, but a surprise). Mike was super talented and he soon moved into his own apartment paid for by his new club, Pont de Claix. That’s how good he was! I had seen Mike for the first time at some of the local Bay Area races in 1971. The first time we talked may have been when I answered the knock at our apartment door in
Grenoble.”

Meeting Merckx, aiming for Montreal
In 1972, after quitting the Tour of Mexico, Neel and some fellow racers caught a bus to Mexico City to watch Eddy Merckx set the hour record on October 25, after he had raced a full road season winning the Tour, Giro and four classics. Merckx covered 49.431 km at high altitude in Mexico City. Neel witnessed the clinical preparation by Merckx and his team of mechanics and coaches, and was impressed. He also saw how excruciating the effort was for Merckx, and the suffering needed to break the record.

Neel made a meager living working in French bike shops, racing as much as possible, before moving to Chicago in 1973, where the American racing scene was strongest, and the money was better.

“Bicycling was freedom for me, and adventure,” he explained. “Plus I was making good money once I moved to Chicago. I’d race twice a week at the tracks in Kenosha and Northbrook, and twice a week in criteriums. The prizes today are the same they were 40 years ago!”

With the 1976 Olympics in his sights, Neel showed up at future 7-Eleven rider Tom Schuler’s parent’s house in Cadillac, Michigan, driving his customized 1965 El Camino with headers, built with a plywood camper on back. It was 1975, and they drove East to Florida, Mississippi, and New York State for the Olympic trials, winning races along the way. Neel’s clubmate George Mount also made the team, as did John Howard. Schuler was an alternate.

The Olympics were held in Montreal on July 26. Neel was team captain, and his prized El Camino was used as the team car. Showing early signs of his ability to read races, Neel told Mount when to make his move on the backside of the course, bridging up to the breakaway. Howard tried chasing down his compatriot, and Neel had to literally grab him to hold him back. Mount finished an incredible 6th, and credited Neel with helping him. The team captain crashed in the rain on the slick road right before the field sprint, after a rider in front of him slid out and tumbled to the wet tarmac. On the way back to California, Neel raced the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic in Colorado, won by his teammate Howard for the second year in a row. He became a pro with Magniflex, and moved to Italy to prepare for worlds.

Neel’s professional stint lasted a year. Short-sighted directors, excessive doping and abysmal living conditions made the decision easy for Neel, who worked in the Magniflex mattress factory to make ends meet, barely keeping his finances above the poverty level.

Taking a leadership role
He returned to the States in 1978, and got an offer to coach at the national level, working with George Mount again. He also started a bicycle distribution company with Lee Katz, whose Turin Bike Shop sponsored him in the early `70s. Life was good, and better than what Neel experienced as a short-term pro in Europe. In 1979 he was in charge of the four-man kilo team, when Polish immigrant Eddy Borysewicz (bor-i-SHAY-vitz) was in charge of the U.S. national cycling program. Eddy B. started from nothing, opening an office in Squaw Valley, California in 1978.

In July 1979, Neel coached the first American team to win the Pan Am Games time trial. He made the hard decision to leave Howard off the team, due to his individualistic ways, something Neel remembers from his 1971 Pan Am and 1976 Olympic experiences with Howard. In fact, one of Eddy B.’s first decisions as head of U.S. cycling was to focus on a team effort, which meant dispensing with Howard. Neel and Eddy B. bumped heads, prompting Neel — then 28 — to return to racing in 1980. Neel raced with Boyer, who won the Coors Classic and a few stages with the Grab-On team before finishing fifth at the world pro road race championship in Salanches, France, behind Hinault.

“I still had my Neel & Katz company, but my relationship with Lee wasn’t healthy, and neither was my behavior in Reno, Nevada. In 1981 we were selling Mercier bikes. I was planning on racing with the Miko-Mercier team, so I went to Europe with my young wife and stayed with Greg LeMond and his in Brittany. I did one race for the team, and overdid my role as team helper, subsequently getting dropped after working hard for my leader. This didn’t sit well with my coach, who didn’t take me to the next race. He said I wasn’t working hard enough, so I quit. I did some races in the States, worked at my business, then starting coaching again. I coached the Mengoni team at the 1983 Coors Classic, which was Alexi Grewal’s coming out race, where he finished third overall.” Grewal won the 1984 Olympic road race in Los Angeles.

Neel lost his business after having a blowout with Katz, got out of coaching, and suffered through a real down time in his life, in early 1983. He worked as the first national sales manager for Ritchey Design, travelling the Western states selling Tom’s bikes shop to shop out of his Saab. Neel was successful, but the relationship with Ritchey soured. A fortuitous call came from Neel’s former Turin cycles teammate Jim Ochowicz after the `84 Los Angeles Olympics, where 7-Eleven sponsored Ochowicz’s amateur team (which won several gold and silver medals) and the velodrome.

7-Eleven comes calling
“I got an offer to run the 7-Eleven junior team, so I took it,” Neel said. “We won everything imaginable; Richard Dejonckheere was a director for the men’s team, but was very unorganized. I got a call from Och, who founded the 7-Eleven team with Eric Heiden three years before that, asking me if I’d consider going to Europe to direct the men’s team in 1985. I said yes; my first race directing was the Tour of Baja, which we won, then we went to Italy and the Giro d’Italia,

“At the `85 Giro, I chewed the guys out after they put in a poor effort early on. I told the guys they could finish the stage and all go buy a plane ticket home, I was so pissed at their performance up to that point. Ron Kiefel took it to heart, and got in a break on stage 15 with Gerrie Knetemann, a former world champion and multiple Tour stage winner. There was an uphill finish, which was Ron’s specialty.” Kiefel never looked back, becoming the first American to win a stage in a Grand Tour.

“What Mike brought to the table was his understanding of the American racer psyche; we thought differently, certainly not like the Europeans,” Kiefel told me from his bike shop in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. “We didn’t always take Mike’s advice to heart right away, and he knew that, so he worked to play up our strengths and get the best out of us. It’s hard to find a modern director to compare to Mike; he had a natural intuition behind the wheel.”

This set the stage for another Neel victory on stage 20 with Andy Hampsten, who was on loan from the Levi’s-Raleigh domestic American team.

“I drove the course with Andy before the stage in Gran Paradiso,” Neel explained. “We talked about where he should attack on the short stage, which was steep. I told him to attack as hard as he could, with no looking back. He didn’t have enough confidence in himself, but he was always finishing in the lead group.” Hinault was in pink, and his teammate LeMond was working hard. Hampsten flew up the hill like a man possessed, winning the stage. Neel thought of it as retribution for Hampsten’s being left off the 1984 Olympic team by his old boss Eddy B.

“Andy went from being a $10,000-a-year rider to a $200,000-a-year rider almost overnight,” Neel added. The North Dakota native impressed Hinault so much that the Frenchman offered Hampsten a spot on his La Vie Claire team in 1986, snatching Neel’s protégé. But Neel had momentum on his side, and combined with Ochowicz’s business dealings with race organizers, specifically the Tour de France, the young cowboys were given the nod to participate in the biggest bike race in the world the following June.

1986 Tour shocker
Team 7-Eleven’s 1986 Tour de France debut was auspicious. Clad in a then-unthinkable skinsuit for the first of a double-day stage race on July 5, Canadian Alex Stieda treated the 53-mile road race as a criterium, shooting off the front and staying there long enough to take every Tour jersey imaginable, including the leader’s yellow. He was the first North American to wear yellow, but it was fleeting. The day’s second stage, a team time trial, proved disastrous, where multiple crashes and flats, coupled with Stieda’s having nothing in the tank, returned the yellow jersey to prologue winner Thierry Marie almost as quickly as he took it that afternoon. Regardless, Neel’s boys had taken France by storm, and got plenty of valued television exposure for their sponsors.

Muscular sprinter Davis Phinney more than made up for 7-Eleven’s heart-breaking TTT by winning the next day’s stage, a 214km gallop from Levallois-Perret to Liévin. LeMond took over the lead after stage 16, and held off his overzealous teammate Hinault to win in Paris by 3:10. Hampsten finished an astounding fourth, 18:44 behind teammate LeMond. Neel’s best 7-Eleven finisher was Bob Roll in 63rd place, 1:43:26 off the pace.

Chris Carmichael was part of that `86 Tour team, and raced for Neel from 1985 to 1988. He’s taken several of Neel’s cues as coach to the stars.

“Mike had an uncanny ability to read a person,” Carmichael told me from his home in Colorado. “He could tell when a guy was fading, when he was strong, or when he was faking strength to hide vulnerability. His gift was the ability to read people, more than it was to read race situations. And he could also apply those lessons to how we should conduct ourselves. He would describe how and where to position ourselves in the field and how our movements and demeanor would set the tone for how we’d be perceived by the competition.

“This was important because there were times when it was good to be perceived as weak or clueless, and times when it was important to be assertive and show some bravado,” he added. “Perhaps most important, he helped us to understand how everything you did in your life affected your performance on the bike. In those days, a lot of guys operated primarily on talent and they weren’t very disciplined off the bike. Mike didn’t want us to look at them and think that was the way we
’d become the best.”

Neel’s team won three more stages of the Tour in 1987, with Phinney (stage 12), Dag Otto Lauritzen (stage 14) and Jeff Pierce, who took the final stage on the Champs-Élysées. Hampsten struggled to finish 16th, while his teammate Raúl Alcalá finished 9th, winning the white young rider’s jersey and placing 3rd in the final mountain climber’s classification, one place above 1988 Tour winner Pedro Delgado. Neel and Alcalá had been friends for several years by that point, and Alcalá regards his time with Neel as his most fulfilling.

“I remember the `87 Giro del Trentino, when the stage finished at Francesco Moser’s home town of Predazzo,” Alcalá told me from his home in Mexico. “We had to climb 5km to the top with another 5km to the finish. Mike advised us in the team meeting to be prepared for the cut because the race favorite was of course Moser. I stuck with the Italian, and taking Mike’s words to heart, I won the stage.

“Mike was a visionary, one that believed in me and gave me the chance to be a professional,” Alcalá added. “I consider him the man who taught me to be a smart racer, and most of all I consider him my friend.” Alcalá won the `87 Coors International Cycling Classic, plus two stages of the Tour de France, making history for Mexico.

The ascent: 1988 Giro d’Italia
Hampsten regrouped for the 1988 season, and like several of his 7-Eleven teammates who lived in Colorado in the off season, relied on Neel’s workhorse crossing training for conditioning, which pay off large dividends the following May and June in the Giro.

“I’d write them out a training regimen to hang on their refrigerator,” Neel explained. “This included four hours of snowshoeing, three hours of cross-country skiing, two hours mountain biking, an hour of hiking, things like that; plenty of activity in the snow. We didn’t have the nice indoor trainers like they have today, so we improvised.”

With a strong support team and a solid base of preparation, Hampsten raced the `88 Giro with gusto, winning the hilly stage 12 before flexing his muscles during the historic stage 14 between Chiesa in Valmalenco and Bormio, which included the famous snow-swept Gavia Pass. Neel took notice of the weather forecast the day before, and took action.

“We had a pep talk before the stage, where I told the guys this was our big chance to get the leader’s jersey and win the race,” he explained. “All we have to do is prepare for the weather. I had all the guys rubbed down with vaseline, like English Channel swimmers did, to retain the body’s heat. We bought ski gloves and caps the night before. I handed Andy a wool hat early in the stage to retain heat, replacing the standard cotton cycling cap he normally wore before helmets were mandatory.

“Johan Van der velde of the GIS-Ecoflam-Jolly team was in the break ahead, but had stopped at the top of the Gavia Pass. I prepared hot tea for my riders, and decided to give some to Van der velde, whose hands were so frozen the tea slipped through his fingers and fell on the ground. My team car, which I bought used from Cinelli, wouldn’t start, so I had to push it to restart it. Peter Post, team director for Panasonic, passed me at that point. I always got along with him. I made Andy put his raincoat on, and as soon as he did that, Panasonic’s Erik Breukink attacked, subsequently winning the stage ahead of Andy.” Breukink won the battle, but Hampsten won the war, taking the leader’s pink jersey with eight stages remaining. Bob Roll suffered from hypothermia, while it was reported that other team’s riders got into team cars to finish the stage, unbeknownst to the race directors. Neel turned a blind eye, empathizing with the other riders and their need for survival.

Hampsten stamped his race leader’s authority by winning the stage 18 uphill time trial. Neel controlled the race beautifully through the end in Vittorio Veneto, where Hampsten beat Breukink by 1:43 overall, also taking the mountain climber’s and the combination classification jerseys. He would eventually win the 1992 Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour, finishing fourth to equal his tour debut in 1986.

“I joined 7-Eleven in 1987,” Hampsten explained from his home in Tuscany. “I negotiated my joining the team to include Mike being the director. I think he was going to be hired for the position, but I made sure he would be directing the team for our European races. He knew European racing and American racers. That made him the only man for the job in the mid `80s.
   
“H
e treated his racers like thoroughbred horses. We racers often thought we were astronauts capable of anything, but we needed to be put through the paces of training consistently between racing campaigns. Mike would tell us about all sorts of silly myths European teams imposed on their riders; ‘Bikers shalt not eat ice cream or yummy treats’, ‘Bikers shalt not visit with females’, ‘Bikers shall sneak out in team sweats to visit cafes to eat treats and talk to women and hope to hell they are not caught by their team director’…

   
“Mike would tell us how to rest and eat well so our overly tired bodies would recuperate from the riding. He explained what we could expect at the races we went to, and after we would be trounced he told us how to train for them. Of course he told us about that before the poor racing periods, but he knew we were going to listen better after poor results.”

The descent: car accident in France
Neel’s tenure with Ochowicz was tenuous at best. When the Californian was hitting on all cylinders and given full reign he was unstoppable, winning in Europe wherever possible. But it was taking its toll on Neel, who despite his track record of survival under any circumstance, was running out of steam as 7-Eleven became more international.

“We started in 1985 with a group of Americans, and got results,” Neel said “Then there was the European factor, with Dag-Otto Lauritzen and Sean Yates, who weren’t always on my side. I caught a lot of flak for not controlling Andy after he won the `88 Giro; he was invited to several dinners and parties, including one thrown in his honor back in Colorado, and wasn’t able to properly recover enough for the Tour. The Thompson family, who owned 7-Eleven, came to the 1988 Tour and wanted to pamper the riders with their RV, making pancake for the riders. This messed with my professional approach, and threw a wrench into things. I caught flak after we didn’t get results that year. I never really got along that well with corporate folks; that was always Och’s strength.

“My relationship with Och was slowly deteriorating, but we had good results in early 1989, and results made a difference with Och and I. At that point he was working to keep the team in the black, and I was handling things in Europe. Paris-Roubaix was a day and a half after Tour of the Basque Country, where we did well with Andy winning a stage.

“We were in Biarritz, and Jeff Pierce forgot his plane ticket, so I gave him my ticket and decided to sleep in the back of the team car heading for Paris. A team director never does this, but I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. I did this in the early days of 7-Eleven when a lack of resources dictated, but I shouldn’t have ridden in the car.”

Team mechanic Michael Haney feel asleep at the wheel and crashed into a truck, severely injuring himself and Neel, who was in a coma for several days. Neel doesn’t think he had the best advice on proper recovery afterwards, and his relationship with Ochowicz came to an end. He lost his job with 7-Eleven, and doesn’t think he’s been the same since.

Neel’s successes with 7-Eleven were noticed by Team Spago, and Neel took a job directing the young squad, beating 7-Eleven like he did with Och’s boys in 1985.

“Och offered me a job directing his new Motorola team in 1991. I turned it down, because I wouldn’t have done well with a more corporate set-up that was in place. I was better directing American racers, so when 7-Eleven/Motorola morphed into a more European squad, it was time for me to move on. I never thought money could buy the strongest team: there’s more to it than that. Look at this year’s BMC team.” Jim Ochowicz is co-owner and general manager of Team BMC, which won the 2011 Tour de France with Cadel Evans, the only Tour won by Ochowicz in 30 years.

At peace
Today, Neel lives in remote Fort Jones, California, just an hour south of the Oregon border in Siskiyou County, elevation 2,762 feet. The imposing 14,000-foot Mt Shasta looms over Neel’s roads. Twice married and divorced, he works odd contracting jobs to make ends meet, living on little. He’s a popular resident in this town of just 839, which he’s called home for 40 years. He lives in a renovated school house he purchased for $50 on auction 10 years ago, on 10 acres he bought when he was making nearly six figures with 7-Eleven in 1989. He rides a 7-year-old Ridley carbon Damacles road bike with worn Shimano Dura-Ace components every day, and has a 20-year-old Eisentraut rigid steel mountain bike parked on the wrap-around porch. Several old trucks and other neglected vehicles dot his property.

“Looking back, my life would’ve been a whole lot different if I would’ve made a director-type decision and flown to Paris in April 1989,” Neel said, looking down at the floor of his dining room. His frustration with the events of his life were apparent throughout our two days together, and he sometimes was quick to blame others. I point out that maybe his racing DNA, mixed with a healthy dose of naïveté and disdain for corporate direction, undercut his ability to stay employed. After a long pause, he agrees, quickly pointing out the one train wreck he adroitly avoided in 2008:  declining a fat contract to direct the ill-fated Rock Racing team of Michael Ball.

“Working with riders was similar to working with horses, but there are no politics working with horses,” he told me after a long pause as we walked along a new singletrack he carved a week before my visit. “I’m riding more, and would like to lose few pounds like any other rider.”

It seems the runaway teenager from 1968 has finally found his true calling all over again.

Chris Carmichael on Mike Neel:

“Mike was one of the first people who really made a difference in terms of how we performed as athletes. At that time, most coaches were warm bodies and they didn’t know that much more than we did about training or tactics. Mike made a real difference, and when it came time for me to transition out of pro racing his example stood as something to aspire to as a coach. He still shapes the way I coach and I can still see his hand in the philosophy and tactics I use today.

“Couple of lessons I remember from Mike:

“He was great at reading people inside and outside of a race. He would look at a guy and say he would never be a GC contender in a big Tour, despite his immense power and talent. He would say he was too nervous, that being a GC rider was really stressful and those guys would fold under pressure. That stuck with me and influenced how I viewed athletes when I was a development coach, and how I advised and guided athletes as they prepared for big races.

“Mike used to say that the most important tactic in bike racing is patience. He would tell us to let the distance and terrain wear down the peloton – even if you knew you were the strongest guy in the race. You only had two bullets to fire, and you could waste them by attacking early and trying to win with brute force. You had to be patient, wait for the hills, heat, and distance to soften people up, and then hit them.”

For the edited and published version, look for the November 2102 issue of Procycling Magazine on newsstands, including your local pro shop and Barnes & Noble. Also available for the digital subscriber in all platforms here.

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