With Both Feet: Part I

With Both Feet: Part I

Spring 1977

All I wanted in my life was to go race my bike in Europe with the best. It was okay racing with the European riders and doing well over here as I had done in the Olympics and pre-Olympic events, but I wanted to race over there, with them, on their roads in their world. For me, the Olympics and all the races I’d done in the US could only lead to one thing. All the racers and races in the Americas were frankly meaningless in the long run for me. They were stepping stones to get me to where I could prove to myself what my limits were with the best in the world.

So I decided I needed to go. I had no idea how or where I just knew it had to happen. Unbeknownst to me at the time my coach had received queries after Montreal and deflected them all never telling me about them. I still do not know what offers came in but I do know they did as the Europeans were impressed with my performance in the Montreal Olympics and I was known. While the iron was hot I was unable to strike and too ignorant to know it.

So there I was, saving every penny I could living in a room above a bike shop with a hot plate and toaster oven with no way to know what was happening and how to get to where I wanted and had proven myself able to do. I was figuring perhaps show up in Belgium and race and hope to get on a real team. Racing was open there and anyone could enter most races whereas in other places you had to be in a club to enter races or were limited to only top level races. Getting in a club was not easy unless you had money and could essentially buy a spot on a team and then pay all your own expenses. I didn’t have that kind of money. I had round trip airfare and a few hundred bucks so I would have to show my stuff fast when I got over there.

Fortune smiled on me though with the greatest thanks to Mike Neel, a teammate, friend, and fellow Bay Area rider who knew what it takes if you had it. Mike had turned pro after the Olympics and finished an improbable 10th in the worlds that fall riding for the Magniflex team. He somehow met a fellow, Marcello Mealli, who turned out to have one brother who had won 3 stages in the Giro and was a very good racer in the 60’s, and another brother who as far as I knew was an important person at the Gazzetta dello Sport.

The meeting, as I understand it from Mike, turned into a vociferous discussion of how talented Marcello’s team was and how Mike knew a kid in California who could wipe the floor with them. That turned into a call from Mike which turned into me buying a ticket and hopping on a plane to Italy. No idea about where I was headed or what the team was like, with a bike and a small pocket dictionary in my pocket, off I went.

When I got to Roma a driver was waiting for me at the airport to take me to the offices of the Gazzetta. On my way in I saw at least three accidents and numerous minor incidents—a great way to start I thought to myself. I get to the newspaper and it turns out not only are they the sponsors, but this Franco Mealli guy runs the whole damn Giro d’Italia. The rest was a whirl, I can’t even remember how I got to the next place, the town I was to live in and race for the next year. I was completely in the dark as to what was next. And I was loving it.

There I was though, arriving in the Tuscan hill town of Castelfranco di Sopra. Founded in 1299, there are about 500 people and not one of them speaks more than a few words of English. I’m halfway between Firenza and Arezzo looking across the Arno river plain right into the Chianti hills. The roads for training and racing are fabulous.

Now I was not a hack rider. I had results internationally. I had raced and done well against the best. I’d done long 14-day stage races with world champions. I knew I could do well, but much was different and some things were the same so it was mostly all new to me. Turned out the team consisted of the son of the DS and another couple of guys, one who could be expected to finish the races maybe. And the DS, Marcello, was a loud mouth with a bad toupee who seemed to argue with everyone and always be mad. But I had learned during my formative racing years that it was best to let my legs talk and that for the most part, the Europeans knew so much more about the sport so I had a lot to learn; so shut up and listen.

I settled into the tiny hotel room in the tiny town and they gave me a Pinarello since any bike not Italian (even if it’s made by some guy named Marinoni) was wholly inadequate. I started to meet the people and learn the town and surrounding countryside. Wonderful people. Genuine, helpful and a bunch of characters whom I later found out were teaching me every unacceptable swear word there is in Italian. Then Remedia steps into the picture. 

His name was Renato Innocenti and he was a scrawny very Italian guy with a perpetual cigarette hanging out of his mouth and an espresso usually in one hand. He was the other guy running the team and turned out he was absolutely the best guy you could ever get on your side. He was quiet, gregarious, concerned and caring, compared to Marcello who was bombastic, loud, and in everyone’s face. But Marcello was the connections and the DS, so he ran the team. He was not actually that mean; he just had this image he liked to project. Renato, though, is known as Remedia, as in he remedied things. Not just because he’s physiotherapist at the hospital but mostly because he fixes things for people. He was the Italian Freddie the Fixer. He carried a little book to record every thing he fixed for everyone in case he needed a favor to fix something for someone some time. It’s in no way malicious, it’s just what he liked to do and he was good at it. And like everyone, he really loved cycling.

Like many small towns, Castelfranco has a piazza. In three of the corners are three different bars; each seems to represent both a sport and a political party. The patrons of each bar at times mix in the center of town to raise toasts and hurl insults about politics or sport, all in good fun. Some version of this has been transpiring for as long as the town has existed I guess. 

 

Images courtesy George Mount


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10 comments

  1. Dave King

    Awesome! A legend of NorCal racing who was a New World pioneer in the Old World of bike racing. I knew the basics of his story but not the details or overall arc. Looking forward to more.

  2. Winky

    Great writing. I can’t wait for the next installment. So nice to read about someone who can see past all the difficulties of trying to make it in Europe as a pro-cyclist, and just love it. Many of these types of stories focus on how “unfairly” the rider/writer has been treated.

  3. Dave

    George,

    We’ve met over the years and I know your story but really admire your skill in writing it all down–magnifico!

  4. Dave

    PS–if anyone wants to see how elite racing has changed over the decades, look for the ’76 Montreal Olympics road race on youtube.
    Ridden in wool clothing in a soaking rain with the lavish support given by—-one pickup truck full of officials and spare wheels.

    1. George Mount

      Well, it was actually a lycra jersey but the shorts were wool. 112 miles in the wet in wool shorts was never fun. Fairly advanced for 1976. We also rode on all of our own equipment. Not even a ball bearing was provided by the overlords of the ruling body. We know they were provided equipment, it’s just that some of us never saw any of it. But that’s another story.

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