SCIENCE ÜBER ALLES – we know this from Team Sky and their talkative spokespeople. But at my most delusional I can’t imagine spending ten times the cost of a stock 1980 racing bike for a pair of wheels. Neither can some kid trying to ride his way off the farm. $300 for those bikes, Italian, full Campagnolo (state-of-art at the time), double-butted Columbus tubes. You can probably find one in a museum.
A man named Gruenwedel sent me a note the other day about my chronicle of an early US foray to Italy. What used to be the US Cycling Federation had managed to scrape a few thousand dollars together in 1978 (as I recall) to send a team to Europe, with Mike Neel managing, and starring George Mount, hero of the Montreal Olympics. The Italians loved Neel, which was a very good thing, because the team ran out of money after about ten days. The Italian generosity was unbelievable, and these were not rich people. I was attached to the team to write about it, and was regarded as potentially expendable because the money going for my room and board was another expense. Neel calmed that down.
We stayed at the Bar Augusto d’Alme at a reduced rate negotiated by Neel. It rained most of the time, but funny things happened, starting with a foreshadowing of the ’84 Olympic blood doping. When the Polish team arrived, they made jokes about Eddie Borysewicz, whom they said was a junior coach who’d been fired for “chemicals,” an area where the eastern bloc teams were in the vanguard and notorious.
Chilly and wet, unhappy middle-class American kids who didn’t speak the language (Neel had ridden there as a pro and was fluent.) Many silly questions at dinner, which Neel would answer twice, and then say “figure it out.” That calculation took a while in some cases. Physically, the team was strong, but the racing confused them at first. Faster tighter gruppo and decisive unexpected moves by riders they couldn’t evaluate. So, no results. After a long-winded excuse for yet another tactical snafu, there was a little silence.
“Resultati,” said Neel decisively. He wasn’t a big talker, except with Italians when we needed credit or a favor, which was often. When he asked how much money I could lay hands on, I realized what he was dealing with. The Bergamo skies remained gray and we remained at the Bar Augusto getting no results and waiting for the Settimana Bergamasca, a big local stage race.
I will remember that race to the grave, because I learned a lot that week: France has the Tour, the low countries have those nightmare classics and guys who can handle them, but Italy has the love. I saw it every day as they did us favors, loaned us cars, filled their tanks, and discounted everything. They were totally knocked out at having actual Americans there. American bike racers – who knew?
The night before the Bergamasca race there was an emergency involving a long-distance drive our team cars just weren’t up to. A local tifosi loaned us his new Lancia. Neel drove the Autostrada all night and I tried to figure out exactly what 160K meant in miles per hour.
I covered that race in various vehicles, always with some Italian making sure I got a ride that would let me see the race. The best rides were on motors and in the lead car, a tiny red convertible. A happy vehicle. I was amazed at how cool and relaxed the driver and race chief were. Absolutely no resemblance to punitive tightass US personnel drunk on power.
On the best day Mount got away in a break, and just as I was feeling it there was an emergency: One minute we were cruising, the next minute the little red car stopped dead. The driver was under the hood instantly, the race chief under the dash, and they were shouting at each other, still in a great mood, confident, sure the car would start, actually laughing.
And the car did start, just as the race was overtaking us, close enough that I could spot Mount’s red white and blue jersey at the front, taking a pull, strong as a horse. We roared off and life was absolutely perfect, couldn’t be improved.
But it was. Ten or twelve minutes later a motorcycle pulled alongside and the driver shouted at me in Italian. I didn’t get it, and he made gestures. Then he reached into a sack hanging over his shoulder and started tossing me tiny bottles of grappa, one each. We opened them and toasted him and/or the cycling gods, and tossed down the grappa. It was totally un-American, never happen here, an experience beyond great. Sublime.
To be followed by the miracle of the wines – Mount and Mark Pringle finishing first and second at Bassano di Grappa, for which we we won an industrial size case of wine, with which Neel paid a very happy Augusto. Followed by more success and more cases of wine, which took up a lot of space in the team car.
So while I’m impressed with what science has done to the bicycle and the sport, I recall the Bergamasca and what followed the same way I remember my college girlfriend finally saying yes.