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Mike during the 1970s, when he tore up Northern California, then national, then international bike races as an inexhaustible roleur.

Until thirty six years ago, there was no such thing as an American bike racer at the front of the European professional peloton. Until twenty four years ago, there had not been a U.S. based team winning top European races. Both are commonplace now.

One man was instrumental in producing both milestones. Neel finished 10th in the 1976 world professional road racing championships. In 1988, he coached US 7-Eleven team captain Andy Hampston to a Giro di Italia win. 

Neel is now only marginally employed, living in a remote California mountain valley, in a house he bought for $50. His story is one of an anguished character prone to extreme-seeming behavior who's spent a lifetime struggling to find purchase on the world.

As we close out a year in which bike racing has made headlines with new evidence detailing the alleged extreme behavior of a certain US post-office-sponsored squad of ex-champions, cycling pioneer Neel serves an example of the fact that extreme behavior may be cycling's price of entry.

Exhibits One and Two: the star witnesses in USADA's dossier accusing Lance Armstrong were Floyd Landis, whose acute case of non-conformism led him to flee his Amish community for life as a Southern California mountain bike racer, and Dave Zabriskie, who took to cycling as a refuge from his father's drug abuse.

"Happy, well-adjusted, shiny people do not race bikes at the highest level," said Rob Roll, discussing his days riding for the 1980s 7-Eleven Team coached by Neel.  "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."

The November 2012 issue of Pro Cycling features a profile of Neel, now-forgotten hero of the USA's 1976 arrival on the global cycling scene. His 10th place in that year's professional road championships, along with George Mount's Olympic 6th place that year, propelled America into the European big leagues.

For Neel cycling was an escape from the 1970s Haight Ashbury drug culture, which destroyed the lives of some of his youthful friends. He has a gentle, self-effacing yet erudite demeanor, but with a viper's strike in the realm of bike racing.

Right before his 10th place at the 1976 worlds, where he sprinted alongside greats such as Eddy Merckx, Neel had become one of America's first-ever European professionals, riding for the Magniflex squad sponsored by an Italian mattress company.

That didn't work out for long; as a Euro-domestique, the former U.S. star had no chance to shine. Thankfully, he had a fallback skill: As a youngster Neel worked as a horse groom. His husbandry skills matched a post-racing career as a coach.

Andy Hampsten, one of his charges, recalled Neel once became disgusted upon seeing a horse being trotted on pavement. That's bad for the hooves, Hampsten learned.

"He treated us like thoroughbreds," Hampsten recalled.

But before he rose during the mid-1980s to status as a world-beating coach, Neel spent several years behaving outrageously.

He launched a cycling-goods import business with his friend Lee Katz.

"He shoved the business and the warehouse up his nose," Katz said, referring to what Neel acknowledges was a freebase cocaine problem.

Neel's marriage fell apart.

"He's a good coach, but that's it," his ex-wife Lauren Sweezy said.

And he drove away family members who had sought to help him.

"He was a terror to be around," said his brother Larry Neel.

Neel got help back to his feet from cycling impresario Tom Ritchey, who's since also sponsored the personal redemption of 1970s champion and convicted child molester Jonathan Boyer.

 Ritchey gave Neel a job developing a dealer network for Ritchey bicycles. His job in a bike business inhabited largely by ex-jocks allowed him to refresh his contacts with bike-racing team managers.

By 1985, Neel coached 7-Eleven team captain Andrew Hampsten to a tactically-artful stage win in the Giro di Italia.

And in 1988, Neel nurtured Hampsten to one of the most storied victories in sport, where Hampsten endured a sleet-smothered ride over the Gavia Pass, taking enough time to eventually put him in the Giro di Italia's pink winner's jersey.

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Prior to Andy Hampsten's legendary 1988 Gavia Pass stage, Neel rubbed his riders legs with heat-sealing Vaseline, "like English Channel swimmers did." And he bought special ski caps and gloves the night before.
By 1989, the year after Hampsten's Giro win, Neel was making $90,000 per year, and was featured on increasingly-frequent television  cycling broadcasts as the soft-spoken, multi-lingual master-schemer behind the 7-Eleven stores-sponsored America's Team.

In the 2004 book "L.A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong," anti-doping journalist David Walsh wrote that, despite Neel's own recreational-drug-abusing past, the 7-Eleven coach ran one of the European peleton's rare non-doping teams.

"Neel managed an irreproachable medical program that reflected their conception of the sport," wrote Walsh, a writer famed for publicly indicting riders he believes to have doped.

During a 1989 cross-Europe drive between races, Neel was put into a coma by a car crash. 

The resulting brain damage meant he couldn't handle the demands of team management. He ended up working construction, and by his own admission behaving erratically, before eventually getting his bearings back and signing up to coach a series of second and third tier cycling teams.

Those jobs became successively less viable. 

A strong US based team sponsored by the Spago restaurant chain fell apart during the early 1990s with riders purportedly stiffed of salaries. He later coached a women's team sponsored by Timex, and a regional men's team sponsored by the Sierra Nevada Brewery.
[Adversisement]

Now, according to talented Northern California journalist Gary Boulanger, author of the Nov. 2012 Pro Cycling article, Neel isn't coaching these days. He's getting by on occasional  construction jobs, and any other mountain money-making enterprises he can conjure. Given ample downtime, Neel rides a seven-year-old Belgian-branded bicycle every day, Boulanger writes.

Perhaps it's an apropos life for a man once famed for coaching a successful squad of "knackers." 

After Neel's Spago debacle, he went back to his home in Siskiyou County and spent a good part of the year going on 100 mile bike rides, despite the fact his family was broke.

Zabriskie, in his USADA testimony describes going on bike rides and later achieving success at racing as an exhilarating escape from a troubled home life. Armstrong so resented his no-show father that he instructed relatives on his dad's side to never contact him. It's possible to imagine that Armstrong's life, too, started to seem better once his brain was deprived of oxygen during five-hour rides.

There's something noble, even beautiful, about the fact cycling attracts and uplifts people with such needs. 

It shouldn't be a surprise, though, that some cycling veterans later-life rides are swiped with existential road rash.

[ And please remember -- buy a Gobha hat! ]
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Comments

Olivia
12/02/2012 11:05am

hi people love 'em hats ya'll have got there cute

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James Gillett
01/21/2013 3:44pm

Gentlemen Their legions of men and women who would take the shirts off of their backs for Mike Neel and for what he has acomplished for our sport of cycling. As far as his personal life and side hobbies that groups him with the likes of Howard Hughes or Jerry Garcia, when you all are 90 years old and sitting around your altenheim, Mike and a select fewof us will still be on the road. Lifes not lived fully don't interest many of us. Ride on. James in Oakland

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01/29/2013 8:11pm

Thanks for the literate and sagely comment, James.

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Bjarne Rostaing link
05/18/2015 12:57pm

Over the seventies and eighties I worked and travelled with Neel through many races here and in Europe. He cared more about riders and less about money than anyone in the sport, and was the best manager I ever knew about, even after many years in the sport. Everyone took advantage of him, especially 7-11, in whose car he nearly died. I'm currently working on a book with him about the decade 1976-1986.

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Race Frederick
05/08/2013 2:08pm

I met Mike Neel this past Sunday in the Putnam Classic in Cold Spring NY. He had experienced a horiffic crash at speeds exceeding 50+ MPH downhill. Pretty badly torn up, but maintained a great spirit about him. Seemed like a real mello guy and very appreciative of the people he was sitting with. We all had a great time with Mike. Sorry to hear some of his past but we all have skeletons don't we. A short career on the US Cycling Team is still a major achievement. Kudos to you Mike. Your new friends from Cold Spring, NY.

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Ernie
08/10/2013 11:10pm

A lot of this material is plagarized from a 1999 sf weekly article by Matt smith, who was part of the nor cal racing scene at the same time mike neel raced

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11/02/2013 7:55pm

Self-plagiarized, perhaps. I'm Matt Smith, Gobha co-owner, ex NorCal racer, and ex SF Weekly staff writer. Thank you for defending my work, and thank you for reading a second time.

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Please remove the photo of Mike Neel

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While there were no US pro teams in Europe before Mike Neel, there were several US pros racing in Europe: Kund, Simes, & Mountford come to mind immediately and I'm quite sure there were others. I think it wasn't until the mid 80's that the 7-eleven team became the first US team to race in Europe.

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