I figured why not the Putnam Cycling Classic? 80 miles, 6,000 ft. climbing just north of NYC in Cold Spring Harbor, NY- on the Hudson River. It was a UCWT qualifier for the UCI Master's World Final in September in Trento. That's in bella Italia.
Trento. Monte Bondone. Charly Gaul's climb. 'Il mio sogno': My recurring Walter Mitty fantasy dream. Of fanning a tiny gear up a mountain road, in the snow, dropping everyone, in a state of grace, on the way to winning the Giro, in a blizzard. An opportunity to race the legendary Monte Bondone. However, slim the odds, how could I not take a shot at that?
So with more dreams in my head than miles in my legs, I convinced my ever-game friends Brad and Tony to join me on an early Sunday morning dawn patrol to drive 3+ hours west, and tackle this one. Preparation? Schmeparation.
"C'mon, it's only 80 miles... how hard can it be?... just take it easy... it's a gran fondo, not a race...it'll be a piece of cake, you did 60 last week, what's another 20 miles..." I pulled every enticement out of the bag to sell the adventure to comrades with fewer miles - and absolutely no Monte Bondone delusions of grandeur...
As we walked, I noticed a tall guy pulling a sweet new BMC out of his car. Recognizing him instantly from the old days, I waved.
Mike Neel smiled and waved back, but with a quizzical "I think I've seen you before, but have no idea who you are.." He shouldn't have known me. But you can bet your last Binda toe strap, I knew him. Like a teenage Hockey fan from Boston back in the 70's would spot Bobby Orr, or Phil Esposito in heartbeat.
"Who's that?" Brad and Tony asked me.
"That's was Mike Neel, ya know?" They didn't.
I let it go. Too much to do right now to get into a US cycling history lecture. Gotta register, get the timing chips, the number, the swag bag, hit the latrine, drive across town to the parking area...ready the bikes. Short sleeves? Definitely today, it'll be over 60 degrees. But linament cream and oil for the legs SVP. 2 Stinger Waffles and 6 GU in the pockets. 2 big bottles, with electrolyte mix. Short, ez-spin to the line....
A start line comprised of ~300 mostly old guys and gals. Virtually all Masters. A few I knew. Depite this being the only qualifier in the US, most hailed from a 100 mile radius of the NYC area it seemed. Saw my old CCB teammate Jack Gregory. And multi world Masters Champion Dmitri Buben. A whole team of neon yellow fit-looking Tower International team guys with Cipollini bikes that screamed 'unlimited disposable income' - dominated the front row. I always feel like a fat shite when I look around me on Master's starting lines these days. Lots of gaunt lean and hungry guys.
They called a few notables to the front line. Among them getting the full intro and applause were Mike Neel, and 3 time cyclocross world champion Erwin Vervecken, over here representing the UCI's interest. Both those guys are wicked tall dudes. Some US race winners, and world champions from last year's UWCT series too.
The game? Why, finish in the top 25% of my age group, and win a ticket to Italy of course! Based on my spotty preparation this year, I had no business really expecting that, but once you're on that line, reason has to go out the window. Cycling is for dreamers. Gotta go for it, right? What the hell, why not? I'll just be really furbo - y'know, that's italian for crafty, clever, smart, sharp, astute and sly.
Out of town the pace heated up almost immediately. At about 7 miles a long gradual climb and false flat saw the front group of about 50 drill it HARD to make a selection. I was struggling to stay with them.. gapped and closing... yo yoing... couldn't get the rythym.. in the 13 and 14 up a false flat. Yikes, on the limit already! Hang on another minute. Shite, I'll never sustain this for 80 miles. Don't think that way. Just till that mailbox. OK, now just to that pole. Now just till that house. Just till that...arrrgggggg....
Finally I popped. Solo and in no man's land now. Done. Jack Gregory led a chasing group by me. Couldn't grab their wheels either. Really blew. Uh oh. Finally enough come by to get a draft, and I sucked wheels for all I was worth to recover. That group soon caught Jack's and co., and I found myself stuck in the 2nd group on the road. Maybe 35 or so, maybe more. I tried to look back and gauge it, but some guy yelled at me for doing that. (I love it when I get lectured like I've never ridden in a pack before...).
I soon found myself riding alongside... Mike Neel. He started chatting, 'Hey, who won the Giro stage yesterday?' We yacked a while as we were sucked along. I told him he was looking really great, he said 'so are you'. We passed the miles, both using all the old tricks to stay in there. Survive up the climbs in the 25, even doing a paperboy at times on the walls. And the ol' start at the front and slowly drift back trick going easy over the top to save the legs.
Mike was still smooth as silk, stretched out on the bike like the true ex-pursuiter he is. At times I'd sit on his wheel and divert my mind from my own suffering by admiring what Mike was still able to do at age 61. I only hope I can do the same in 10 years time.
|Ostuni Italy world pro championship 1976: L-to-R: Mike Neel (10th), Guy Sibille (12th), Jan Raas (8th), |
Don Allan (9th) , Eddy Merckx (5th), Felice Gimondi (7th), Bernard Hinault (6th).
|Mike on Mont Royal, 1976 Montreal Olympics.|
I wonder if they knew that same year of '76 he'd represented the US in the Montreal Olympic road race? Crashing in the rain on Mont Royal. Then picking himself up to become the first American road professional in the modern era, signing for Magniflex in Italy? A year living hand to mouth, as a gregario.
I wonder how many of them clad in $350 SIDI's knew
|1980 Coors Classic saw Mike Neel win 2 stages, including a solo in the Boulder|
Mountain Road Race.
I wonder if they knew about the time he came out of retirement and put together a composite SIDI team for the Coors Classic in CO in 1980. A team that included Jock Boyer who'd also had a year off due to Illness after having spent a season in the Lejeune BP professional team in France. if any of them remembered how that SIDI team put together a 'combine' with some other European teams to take 3 laps out of Colombian race leader Antonio Londono in the final 50 mile criterium in North Boulder park, winning Boyer the overall general classification on the final day by just 9 seconds.
Mike also won two big road stages in the Coors that year himself I think I remember. The first stage, and then the Boulder Mountain road race.
I wonder if the guys wailing each other at the front knew that they were towing along the genius behind the US 7-Eleven team's victory in the 1988 Giro d'Italia? The only directeur with foresight to get ski gloves, wool hats and industrial quantities of vaseline on his riders in anticipation of the blizzard on the Gavia Pass. The guy whose connections, hustle and nice-guy diplomacy guided Andy Hampsten to the US' only Maglia Rosa?
No I don't think many of them did. 'Cause today Mike was clad incognito, in some California brewery jersey, very much under the radar. We talked about how the steep high watts climbs were quite different from Nor Cal where he's been living and training and it goes up steady forever. How some of these walls even made a 25 feel a little too big. At one point we both corkscrewed up a big one that seemed to wind up through trees to the sky, hanging in. Most guys were out of the saddle. I still spun the 25, seated.
After that one, I actually started feeling better, climbing more and more near the front...my goal was very much to stay in the group till the end. I figured the places for Italy were way up the road in the first group now minutes ahead anyway. But I really so wanted to stick in that group till the end... I wanted to finish with Mike Neel. That would be cool, I thought.
How to explain it? I grew up playing hockey on Boston ponds, but my buddies and I would never ever get to skate and play hockey with Bobby Orr. Not possible.
|First US Road Pro of the modern era, 1977.|
But this Sunday, I could race with Mike Neel.
Sorry to report that all-over leg cramping at the steepest wall at 50 miles put paid to that illusion too. Guess you can only fake it for so long on 8-10 hour training weeks. As the miles wore on, the power started to drain. Just couldn't keep the pressure on, had to back off the power just a little to keep the legs from locking up, and let the group go. Weird, I hadn't experienced leg cramps like that in a race since the spring of 1977: I was 16 then and racing a 70 mile junior race on a similarly warm spring Sunday. A day when Mike Neel was more than likely racing as a pro over in Italy somewhere.
The last I saw of Mike (and my old pal Jack Gregory who was climbing fantastic and qualified in the 55+ group) was their backsides slowly, inexorably pulling away, up that climb. I wasn't so wrecked that I couldn't help notice that Mike was still seated stretched out on the bike, holding the hoods, steadily and smoothly churning a slightly larger gear than the others. He looked like he was getting his second wind, near the front. Still a real pro at 61. Did my heart good to see it.
I hoped he'd be able to slay those other guys. Figured he would, cause Mike was always furbo. I'd have bet good money that he'd have slayed Maertens, Merckx, Gimondi and Raas this past Sunday if they were riding here. (But no... I'd never bet against Hinault...)
The rest of that way was just a personal battle to the end. Chased solo in TT mode for about 7 miles. Finally a third group caught me and I duked it out up the final 8 mile climb with them. Spinning the 23 and 25, the legs came back a bit, and I scraped up enough juice and aggression to go clear over the top with 2 young, strong guys. We relayed each other down the final eight of so miles of 40mph descent back to Cold Spring, picking off several more guys who'd come off the front groups.
|Survival expert Tony T. (right) in his quest for shelter, |
and a pulse rate under 150.
We sprinted the last 200m, for fun. One of them pipped me by half a wheel. And goodnight Irene...I was done! I didn't even have enough left to pedal up the small rise past the finish banner, pulling over immediately instead. Pulse? It hit 190 max. A new record in the past 5 years for me.
Did as much as I could, which wasn't much really. 4 hours 6 minutes. And a nice, even, 100th place overall, 23rd place in my 50-54 age category, exactly at the 50% mark. Sunday, I was the median man. Eddy Average.
|Tony's still smiling cause it was easier|
than climbing El Capitan.
Dr. Brad came in a few minutes after me, doing a great ride on even less mileage than I've put in this year. And despite a bout of bronchitis only a week ago, Tony T. gutted his way though the day to finish a ride he really had no business attempting based on total preparation and recent climbing form. He got through by patient discipline - keeping his pulse under control and persistence learned from years of mountaineering climbing some of the worlds toughest approaches.
I was happy to see my old pal Jack Gregory qualify for Italy. And see that Mike Neel qualfied in the 60+ class.
Go over there and tear all their legs off Mike. I'll be rooting for ya.