Words || Gary J. Boulanger
Northern California has been the breeding grounds for some of the most dynamic road racers in history. One of the most celebrated is Greg LeMond, three-time winner of the Tour de France and twice world road champion. Monterey native Jonathan Boyer, coach of the Rwandan national cycling team, was the first American to race the Tour in 1981, helping French powerhouse Bernard Hinault to his third victory. Boyer’s 7-Eleven teammate Bob Roll, an East Bay native and now a popular television commentator, was an integral part of Jim Ochowicz’s 7-Eleven squad, which held the Tour’s yellow jersey for a day in 1986 and won the Giro d’Italia with Andy Hampsten in 1988. But the man responsible for directing the efforts of 7-Eleven behind the wheel of the team car is mostly unknown, making his mark before the Internet, and well before Lance Armstrong became a household name.
El Cerrito is a small community north of Berkeley along the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, founded by refugees of the 1906 earthquake. Less than 25,000 people live in the town where the heavy metal band Metallica formed 30 years ago. Mike Neel was born and raised hell there, dropping out of high school and running away from home in 1968, when he was 16. His parents divorced when he was young, and like many kids from a broken home, he struggled with authority. The East Bay taught Neel a hard lesson growing up, and he became resourceful, something which would serve him well throughout his life.
Athletics weren’t something modeled in his home. As a kid growing up in the politically-charged Berkeley area during the Vietnam War, Neel kept to himself and worked odd jobs through school. He was one of the only white caddies at the Mira Vista Golf Club in El Cerrito, and was in the same boat during reform school. He lived and worked at the Golden Gate Park horse track, where he was paid to groom the horses. Neel saved up, and went to Mexico with another hippie friend before his 17th birthday. The plan was to indulge and leave responsibility behind. Drugs took his friend and others during this destructive period, so Neel enrolled in Laney Junior College in Oakland in 1969.
Despite Neel’s non-athletic background, he was invited to ride with other Laney students. Neel dropped everyone, and was encouraged to race. His junky used Schwinn bike needed replacing, so Neel walked in to Peter Rich’s Velo Sport Bicycle shop in Berkeley a week later, and purchased a Raleigh International for $95. He rode his new bike to Mendocino, nearly 170 miles away, and broke into a cabin on the beach. He rode home through Santa Rosa, stopping only to air up his tires, a hippie without a care in the world.
Little did Neel know what was happening on the other side of the world in 1969, and how fate would intervene three years later.
Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx won his first of five Tours de France in 1969, a season in which he also hoovered victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Milan-San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Nice for his Italian Faema team. In addition to winning the leader’s yellow jersey, Merckx won the points classification, mountains classification, combination classification and the combativity award. The 24-year-old led the race from stage 6 to 22, and his 17 minute, 54 second margin over second-placed Roger Pingeon has never been matched since. It was also the first time a Belgian had won the Tour since Sylvère Maes 30 years earlier.
Back in California, Neel quickly gained momentum as a bike racer, participating in several Bay Area events before riding for Peter Rich’s Velo Sport Berkeley team during the inaugural Tour of California in 1971, whose leader finished fifth overall. The 10-stage Tour was organized by Rich, who took a huge financial bath and returned to running his bike shop. The following year, Neel moved to France to race.
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. “In Grenoble, I lived with Joe Harvin; then Mike showed up. He was super talented and 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.”
In October 1972, Neel and some other racers dropped out of the Tour of Mexico, and decided to grab a bus to watch Merckx try to break the world hour record in Mexico City. The Dane Ole Ritter set the distance to beat — 48.653 kilometers — on the same track four years prior, right before the Summer Olympics. It was the first time a cyclist attempted to break the record at altitude (7,550 feet above sea level) since 1898.
The Agustín Melgar Olympic Velodrome, located in the Magdalena Mixhuca Sports City sports complex, is banked 39 degrees on the curves and is 333.33 meters long by seven meters wide. Its wooden surface is made of doussie alzeiba, an especially strong and durable African hardwood.
Merckx set the new record at 49.431km that day in Mexico City, to remain unbeaten until the Italian Francesco Moser advanced the distance using an experimental aerodynamic time trial bike and blood doping (which wasn’t illegal at the time) in 1984. Neel witnessed Merckx’s true suffering, and took note of the Belgian’s meticulous preparation.
Montreal, then Italy
A few years of domestic bike racing followed for Neel, who moved to Chicago in 1973. Bike racing was fairly lucrative in the Midwest. He raced for the Turin Bike Shop team, alongside future 7-Eleven boss Jim Ochowicz. Turin co-owner Lee Katz would eventually start Lake Shoes.
“Bicycling was freedom for me, and adventure,” Neel 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!”
The Montreal Olympics were approaching, and after winning a few qualifying races in 1975, Neel was named captain alongside teammates George Mount, another Velo Sport protege, and Olympic veteran John Howard. Mount would finish sixth in Montreal, the highest of any American. Neel had driven to Montreal in his custom 1965 El Camino, which was also used as the team car. 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. Neel signed a professional contract to race for the Italian Magniflex team, and moved to Italy to prepare for worlds, scheduled for September 5 in Ostuni.
“I was staying at the same hotel as the Italian team because of my Magniflex teammate, Tino Conti,” Neel said. “I enjoyed the best mechanics and soigneurs before the race, something I never had before. I designed my own American jersey, which was used for many years afterwards as the standard. I cut the Magniflex logo out of my cotton cap and sewed it on the upper portion of my jersey, on advice from Francesco Moser.
“I remember getting on the hotel elevator with the cocky Germans, who did their best to intimidate me. My training for the worlds consisted of several hours in the saddle, a pasta and Coke meal, some rest, followed by several more hours in the saddle each day. I trained solo.”
Neel’s preparation paid off. There was a stacked peloton that day, with future Tour winners Bernard Hinault, Joop Zoetemelk, and Bernard Thévenet lining up with Merckx, Moser and 1965 Tour winner Felice Gimondi. Neel wasn’t intimidated by the 179-mile distance, and after nearly seven hours of racing, found himself in the chase group, behind his Magniflex teammate Conti, Moser, Zoetemelk and Belgian sprint star Freddy Maertens. Neel and Company were sprinting for fifth place, and the Californian was in an ideal position coming down the stretch, bridging up to Merckx’s wheel with 300 meters to the line.
Gimondi decided he wanted Merckx’s wheel, and the Italian deftly brushed the American aside, as Hinault whizzed by on Neel’s left with 200 meters to go. Future world champion Jan Raas followed suit, as did Australian Donald John Allan. Merckx won the field sprint for fifth, 26 seconds behind the day’s winner, Maertens. Neel rolled in for an impressive 10th.
This, just four years after watching Merckx set the hour record in Mexico City, and just eight years removed from his drug-addled hippie days in Mexico.
Neel’s first and only season racing as a professional in Europe was anti-climactic after stunning the world in Ostuni. Magniflex management was vexing, teammates were doping, and Neel’s dream of making it as a European pro was shot down quickly. He barely stayed above the poverty line in the off season, working in the Magniflex mattress factory to keep his head above water.
“It was always disappointing to see such talent pissed away struggling for money, struggling with a crappy place to live, struggling for recognition, etc.,” Mulholland explained. “Mike just got worn out with the vexations that would never allow him to be who he could be. I wasn’t surprised to see him come home. He’d climbed a lot higher than almost anyone else up until his time.”
I asked Mulholland why he thought Mount was able to get results as a professional in Europe, while Neel’s flame quickly burnt out.
“Mount landed in a better team and had a nicer place to live,” he said. “Mount also became Roberto Visentini’s super gregario on the Sammontana-Benotto team, and when George had the chance he really showed his capabilities, most memorably on the Giro d’Italia stage to the Tre Cime di Laverado in 1981. Both Neel and Mount were super talents, but talent alone isn’t enough, and Mount had a break or two that let him at least hint at what he could do, whereas Neel didn’t.
“Today we have a system,” Mulholland explained. “You do well, climb up the system, get on the national team, take advice from coaches who are real coaches, and then, if you have the talent, you can have a future in cycling. I’m sure today’s American up-and-comers don’t have to pay for plane tickets to Europe, figure out where and how to get a hotel, ride their bikes from the airport to the hotel… Mount and Neel had almost none of that kind of help, although I think Mount was on the first Amateur Bicycle League of America (predecessor of USA Cycling) team to actually go to Europe, maybe 1976. That was a big deal back then.”
Neel’s European connections, developed during his two stints in France and Italy, plus his instinctual ability to read races, caught the attention of former Turin teammate Ochowicz, who wanted to take his 7-Eleven men’s team to Europe in 1985. Neel worked briefly for U.S. cycling director Eddy Borysewicz in the late `70s, and struggled with recreational drug use in the early `80s after he and Katz started a bicycle distribution company together, which ultimately split the two apart and destroyed the business. A short time selling Tom Ritchey’s new mountain bikes to dealers in 1984 brought Neel back to his feet, but it was the call from Ochowicz after the Los Angeles Olympics that stirred Neel’s soul.
Mount was wrapping up a successful career as a pro by this time, having twice placed in the top 25 in the Giro. He thinks he understands why Neel failed as a pro, but was ideally suited to be a director in Europe.
“There’s an intricate behind the scenes system to arrange getting teams into races that no one else understood for many years,” Mount said. “Mike thrived there and the guys he worked for never understood that. They have it a lot easier now as they barrel into Europe with well-financed teams and let the money talk, but Mike had understanding of people, sensibilities, and the sport in a way no one else here did for a long time, if ever.”
Neel directed the 7-Eleven junior team in early 1985, winning with aplomb. Och was struggling with organizational issues with the men’s team, and called Neel up to the big leagues. It didn’t take long for Neel to weave his magic.
Neel’s boys promptly stamped their authority in the Giro d’Italia, with Ron Kiefel becoming the first American to win a Grand Tour stage, followed by Andy Hampsten mountain-stage victory five days later. It was an auspicious debut, to say the least.
“Mike had an insight into Italian cycling, and had a knack for relationships,” Kiefel said. “He had a good calming effect, especially for Andy Hampsten. Mike could talk Andy through race situations and provide advice to bring out his strengths. He had a wonderful human side that wasn’t always present in the pro peloton.
“Och was more black and white, more operational, while Mike was the more experienced manager when it came to actual professional racing. We had trained hard, and racing as amateurs in Europe before that was telling, because we won 60 percent of the races we entered. We had confidence once we turned pro, but I was never intimidated. To win a stage of the Giro was a huge gift, which didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I felt it was my job to win big races.
“There comes a point in every bike race where it’s time to fight and time to wait. Beating the Euros was a great way to win their respect,” Kiefel added.
Chris Carmichael was part of that `85 Giro team, and raced for Neel from 1985 to 1988. He’s taken several of Neel’s coaching cues, beginning with the national team in 1989, when a young Texas named Lance Armstrong switched from triathlon to road racing.
“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.”
Tour De France splash
Neel’s boys proved to be much craftier the following year during their Tour debut. Canadian Alex Stieda treated the second 53-mile Stage 2 like a criterium, breaking away almost immediately. Wearing a then underhead of skinsuit, Stieda gobbled up the bonus minutes at each checkpoint, and grabbed the leader’s yellow jersey by race end, becoming the first North American — before Boyer or LeMond — to wear the maillot jaune.
“As an ex-pursuiter and criterium guy, I knew that this distance would be perfect for me,” Stieda told me last year. “There was no need to carry any food with me and there was no rain in the forecast, so why not use a skinsuit? I knew there were time bonuses and I was the best-placed guy on our team after the prologue, just 17 seconds down on the General Classification.
“You never know what can happen, but I had a solo break in the back of my mind. I didn’t actually share this with my teammates as it would have sounded a bit audacious: ‘it’s our first stage in our first Tour and I’m going to go solo, okay guys?’ But, I knew if I got away, they would cover the chases.”
The elation last a few hours, though, because it was a split-stage day. Neel’s 7-Eleven team suffered every humiliating situation imaginable in the team time trial (flats, crashes and bonking), returning yellow to Thierry Marie from Systeme U by day’s end. Taylor Phinney’s dad Davis redeemed the team by winning the next day’s sprinter’s stage. Stieda would finish 120th overall when the race reached Paris.
Neel’s riders would win three more stages in the ‘87 Tour, but it was Hampsten’s amazing overall victory in the `88 Giro d’Italia that was the crowning glory for the American team. The North Dakota native was ideally prepared to take the leader’s pink jersey after a thrilling, snow-swept Stage 14 over the Gavia Pass. Neel paid attention to the weather forecast, stocked up on ski gloves and caps, and made sure there was hot tea for his team on the summit. The other teams weren’t prepared, and on a day historians say ‘grown men cried’, Hampsten finished a close second to Dutchman Erik Bruekink and wore pink until the finish, winning the Stage 18 uphill time trial for good measure.
For Neel, Hampsten’s victory in Italy was the crowning glory for Team 7-Eleven. In some ways, it was also redemption for Neel’s disappointing stint on an Italian team nearly 10 years prior.
“Winning the Giro with Andy was massive; you couldn’t paint a better starry night than that,” he said. “Everybody did their job on the team, and believed we could do it in Italy. Unlike many other directors at the time, I never took kickbacks when I was with 7-Eleven. There were kickbacks around every corner! I didn’t think it was right, even though I could’ve made a lot more money. We did things differently, like having a female soigneur or sending Stieda off on a wild goose chase during the `86 Tour.”
When the Californian was hitting on all cylinders and given full reign his team 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.
“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,” Neel explained. “This messed with my professional approach, and threw a wrench into things.” Hampsten wasn’t able to take his Giro momentum into the Tour in 1988, and Neel felt the pressure from above.
Crash and burn
7-Eleven had good results in early 1989. Paris-Roubaix was a day and a half after the Tour of the Basque Country, where Hampsten won a stage. Neel gave up his plane ticket to a rider who forgot his, and shared a car ride with a team mechanic from Biarritz to Paris. This turned out to be a big mistake.
The mechanic fell asleep at the wheel, crashing into a truck both men were injured severely, but Neel spent nearly a week in a coma. He lost his ability to process and comprehend simple tasks, and his renegade ways and stubbornness forced Ochowicz’s hand. Neel was fired from the team he led to Giro glory less than a year earlier.
Neel recovered from his accident and directed the Spago team, which prompted Ochowicz to reconsider bringing Neel back on to his team in 1991, when Motorola took over sponsorship. Despite a generous offer, Neel declined. The journeyman, it seemed, was no longer interested in the corporate game. His connections in the pro peloton landed him directing gigs with domestic men’s and women’s teams throughout the `90s and early 2000s, but he never achieved the glory found in the high-flying 7-Eleven years.
Neel, 61, lives on 10 acres in Fort Jones, California, with the 14,000-foot Mount Shasta looming on the horizon. He’s lived here since 1972, and leads private cycling camps a few times a year, just like he did with his 7-Eleven team. There’s plenty of climbing, and the traffic is light. The fishing’s good, too, and these days the twice-divorced Neel will dip his pole into the stream as often as possible. He lives alone, with two dogs, working light construction with his brother, who is semi-retired. He rides every morning, sometimes twice a day, drinking only coffee for breakfast in his effort to lose weight.
“Mike was an excellent director sportif and I always appreciated his way of working with the riders and myself,” Boyer said from Africa, where he was preparing his young protege Adrien Niyonshuti for the London Olympics mountain bike race. “He had experience and a real passion for cycling. He had good insights on races and racing and was able to read the race and communicate that his riders. He was also a great person to ride for, very enthusiastic.”
Boyer was one of the first Americans to make a successful racing career in Europe, and understands the hit-or-miss nature that the `70s provided. Boyer had to learn the language, culture and nuances of the peloton to make it as a professional, mostly on his own.
“I think those of us ‘in the beginning’ are often unrecognized and forgotten for the most part,” he added. “Mike is one of those that helped trail blaze and has not been recognized for what impact he has had on American cycling.”
From Etna to Europe
Eight years ago, local resident Ally Stacher met Neel when she was just starting in the sport, on her fourth or fifth ride.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Stacher told me from Belgium, where she was racing for Team Specialized-Lululemon. “My bike was super old school with shifters on the top tube. One of the first things he said to me was I looked horrible on my bike and I needed to lower my saddle. I had no idea he was a pioneering American road racer. All I knew was that he hunted with my dad and his buddy Frank Lincoln years ago. I knew he really impressed them when they shot a buck and Mike carried it out on his back. My dad talked about Mike, his toughness, and that he rides his bike all over Scott Valley.
“As time went on I found out more about him and his past in cycling,” she added. “We did a lot of long rides, went fishing, did trail runs and we enjoy a beer to two with friends when I’m around. Mike is very humble and I found out more about him and is pioneering reputation through a mutual friend, Scott Davidson.
“Mike knows bike racing. He knows when the attacks are going to stick, who’s going to contest the sprint, who the General Classification rider is going to be. Race tactics and the killer instinct come natural to him. He has the ability to see how the race is going to play out.”