Berkeley helped create the modern American bicycle racing boom

George Mount. Photo: Courtesy of George Mount

The following is adapted from The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France by Daniel de Visé, published in June by Atlantic Monthly Press.

If any single city can be credited with spawning the modern bicycle-racing boom that gave us Greg LeMond, Lance Armstrong and the weekend throngs of “Middle-Aged Men in Lycra,” it just might be Berkeley.

In 1962, a cyclist named Peter Rich opened a bicycle shop on University Avenue named Velo Sport. In the 50 years prior, competitive cycling had gone from dominant sport to fringe activity in America, and most of the bicycle-racing action had moved overseas. Rich began to teach the locals what he had learned racing in Europe, selling the latest continental equipment and staging local races. In 1957, Rich started the Berkeley Hills Road Race, now the longest continuous-running race in the U.S. In 1971, Rich organized a seven-day Tour of California. It the first major stage bicycle race held on American soil, according to cycling historian Peter Nye.

After decades of isolation, American cyclists would gradually, painfully reassert themselves on the European cycling landscape. And two of the new American stars would come from Berkeley.

George Mount and Mike Neel were decidedly countercultural characters. Mount’s father had kicked him out of the house for evading the draft. Neel had run away from home and lived the hippie life in Mexico. Even after they discovered bicycle racing and came under Rich’s tutelage, Mount and Neel remained well-toned vagabonds, sometimes sleeping in the bicycle shop.

In summer 1976, George Mount finished sixth in the Olympic cycling road race in Montreal. He didn’t win, or even medal, but no American rider had placed so well in that race since 1912. Broadcast on national television, Mount’s performance gave millions of Americans their first stirring glimpse of success in the sport of cycling in half a century.

The same summer, Mike Neel placed tenth in the world championship road race in Ostuni, Italy, an absurdly good finish for an American rider.

Those performances demonstrated to the cycling world, Mount recalled, that “there were some new guys who were coming along.”

Mount and Neel had trained with the Velo Club Berkeley, one of the nation’s most prominent amateur cycling clubs, founded in the 1950s. Mount said both men had to overcome “this giant mythology about European bike racers,” a community whose exploits were not yet featured on American television and scarcely drew a mention in American newspapers. “We realized that these guys aren’t undefeatable.”

Neel would become, by Nye’s calculation, the first American cyclist to join a modern professional cycling team in Europe. Mount would follow. Mount would eventually win more than two hundred races in the Americas and Europe. Neel would go on to many successes as a coach.

Both Mount and Neel would be elected to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. A third Berkeley cyclist, Kent Gordis, would not. Yet, his journey is also worth retelling.

Gordis grew up in Switzerland, where his mathematically gifted father worked on one of the first corporate computer systems. When the parents divorced, his mother decamped to Manhattan and thence to Berkeley, where Gordis attended Malcolm X Elementary School and played schoolyard basketball with Huey Newton.

In Europe, Gordis’s life had been suffused with cycling culture. Now, in his teens, Gordis was delighted to discover that Berkeley sat at the very epicenter of America’s small cycling subculture. He joined Velo Club Berkeley and trained with Mount.

One spring weekend in 1976, Gordis traveled to Tassajara and entered his first race. He was immediately struck by one of his competitors, “this kid with a yellow bike and a yellow jersey,” he recalled. The boy’s unruly golden locks spilled out from beneath a thick black-leather Kucharik helmet, an apparatus whose curved temple protectors made him look a bit like an old-time football player. “And he had this goofy, goofy smile on his face,” Gordis recalled.

The boy was Greg LeMond. And when the race began, LeMond dashed away, a canary-yellow blur receding into the distance. Gordis could barely stay on his wheel. At the end of the 25-mile race, LeMond was in first and Gordis was several lengths behind, huffing and puffing in second place. The third-place finisher was ten minutes down the road.

Gordis and LeMond would become best friends. Gordis would eventually escort LeMond to Europe, where the seeds of LeMond’s legendary career would be sown. LeMond would go on to win cycling’s capstone event, the Tour de France, three times. He was the first — and is the only — American to have conquered Le Tour.