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.

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29 Comments

  1. I remember all of this, I got my cycling merit badge about 1955 riding all over the Bay Area,I could take the ferries for a nickel for Marin and SFO riding. I remember the races at Lenkurt and the San Jose Velodrome. I was the pace car for the races with Walter Gimber refereeing the races from my Sunbeam Alpine. Great times after wards.

  2. In Portland we got our velodrome in 1967. Vancouver BC’s velodrome was built in 1952. There were cycling hot spots all over the west. Salt Lake City and Missoula Montana were two of them. Berkeley should stick to claiming the Free Speech Movement and Country Joe and the Fish. I don’t diminish the importance of Peter Rich and Velo-Sport though. What other bike shop can say they had a promotional poster done by David Lance Goines?

  3. When I was announcing the Berkeley Criterium in 1981 a guy leaned his bike up against his car to put on his cycling kit inside and his bike was stolen. I announced the loss of the bike for about 15 minutes and the culprit was found and the bike returned.

  4. Flip Waldteufel was the chef at Emile’s Creekside Bistro and Rendezvous Bistro up in Santa Rosa!

  5. Imagine having a criterium in Berkeley now. Can’t imagine how you’d string together a long enough stretch of decent pavement to pull it off.

  6. Perhaps they did, but John Finley Scott was writing about his “woodsie” bike when he was a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1950’s. As noted in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame Scott played a crucial role in the development of the mountain bike. He published an article in “The Rough Stuff Fellowship”, a British cycling journal, about his ascent of Mt. Whitney on his “woodsie” in the late ’50’s.

  7. I found Anybody’s Bike Book, by Cuthbertson, at a yard sale, what a blast from the past! Did you know that bicycles can have up to T E N speeds these days? Also, there’s this new kind of T-shirt, a cotton-polyester blend, that might be good for wearing while you ride bikes.

  8. More about Peter Rich – please. Berkeley cop for a while, I believe. I think he also raised Arabian stallions.
    The store Velo Sport ended up in on University Avenue was originally the Ski Hut – another venerable Berkeley institution – really the first mountaineering store in the Bay Area — and it opened around the same time as Velo Sport. My brother bought a Masi Special from Peter Rich circa 1962 – they were at the corner of Grove and Virginia for most of their existence.

  9. I remember it.. I watched it live .. Lemond won and Fignon (with his nazi glasses) disappeared forever….. we need more Lemonds now to fight the new nazis

  10. Peter also taught me how to (really) ride my bike. I took his four week beginner series in the 80’s and I’ve been riding ever since (and loving it) . Thank you, Peter!

  11. Peter Rich was no longer doing day-to-day management. Also, there’s been increasingly heavy competition from regional (Mike’s Bikes) & national (Performance, Trek) chains. I was very sorry to see them go.

  12. What really got people excited about George Mount’s ride in the ’76 Olympics was that he crested one climb in the lead, thanks to the climbing speed he got from training in the steep Berkeley hills all the time. That astonished cycling fans worldwide–they were used to Americans having some sprint speed but being rather aerobically unfit & poor climbers. Then LeMond came along…

    I bought my 1st good bike, a Gitane Tour de France with a Reynolds 531 frame & cheesy Simplex derailleurs, from Velo-Sport in ’71, trading in my Peugeot 404 car to afford it. For $230, just after Bretton Woods broke up. It was a revelation compared with my old Schwinn Varsity. Spoke with Peter Rich several times ’71-4 before I moved away, & bought something from George Mount once.

    > He was the first — and is the only — American to have conquered Le Tour.
    Well, officially now, after all 7 of Lance Armstrong’s wins were very retroactively disqualified for doping.

  13. And let us not forget that the very first Tour of California was produced in 1971 by Peter Rich. It was legendary; somebody needs to write a book about it! It featured everybody who was anybody in North America at the time: John Howard and John Allis of the US, Augustin Alcantara and Sabas Cervantes from Mexico, even a team from British Columbia with Roger Sumner and Sigi Koch. I used to hang out with the hippies on Telegraph Avenue in those days, and I was curious about all the Ford Pintos with bikes attached to their roofs zooming around town. I think there was a criterium in Berkeley. After a few stages, Alcantara promised that a Mexican would win every subsequent stage, and they did. The legendary Sabas Cervantes (who was still a Mexican hero when I did some masters racing in Mexico back in the 90’s), who was 37 years old at the time, took off by himself on the long Ebbets Pass Road, which was gravel in those days, and won that stage. Mexicans took the remaining stages, and Alcantara won overall.

  14. I had always thought Velosport was always on Grove St. (now MLK). I went to elementary and junior high school in Berkeley in the 60’s, and recall being regaled by my friend Denis Hammond with tales of Jacques Anquetil in the Tour de France. Denis’ brother Steve was an amateur racer, and Denis would tell me amusing stories about his brother’s feed zone disasters. I bought my first cheap 10-speed at Velosport in 1971 and rode with the Berkeley Wheelmen. Another huge influence in Berkeley in those days was Albert Eisentraut, who made the best frames in America back then. George Mount had a big gap in his front teeth when he first started coming to Berkeley Wheelmen meetings in the early 70’s, where old Ed “Foxy Grandpa” Delano would provide the cookies. He was known as “Smilin’ George,” because he always had this big smile on climbs. “The more he smiles, the more you hurt.” Mike Neel would show up on early season training rides on a fixed gear bike (66 inches, with a peanut butter wrench strapped with the spare under his saddle) and beat us all in the townline sprints. He worked at Dennis Stone’s Cycles in Alameda, and he sold me my first good bike, a Peugeot PX-10. I thought I needed a 24″ bike, but he sold me a 23″ (58 cm) because he said that was my size, and I did not question him! I have been riding 58 cm ever since. The Berkeley Wheelmen was run in those days by the Charonnat brothers, Noel and Marc, and they gave me a proper and invaluable introduction to cycling. I think Noel runs a ski shop near Reno now. Another big influence was Emile Waldteufel. I only met him once, but in a world where everyone was sloppy and casual, Waldteufel was in a US National Team track suit, zipped to the top, and looking every inch a pro, every hair in place. That’s always stuck with me.

  15. I know it’s something that most Tour de France fans know, but since you mention Lance Armstrong in the first paragraph, it seems like he should be mentioned in the last one as well. Armstrong’s Tour wins were stripped due to doping, but I think it’s a good thing to remind the public of that.

  16. I played rugby for Cal in ’68 and ’69. Graduated in ’69. I had always ridden a bike for fun, and was originally on the track team as a middle distance runner. So, I had a big motor. I bought my first racing bike in ’70, showed up at the group ride at Velosport. I was looked at a bit askance, because I didn’t dress right, or know any of the many unwritten rules of cycling. But, they tolerated me. ‘They’ included several members of the National Team, including Hal Tozer, Cindy Olivarri, Calvin Trampleasure, and others. I was able to sort of keep up, due to my aerobic abilities, and eventually they stopped ignoring me, and gave me helpful suggestions. I rode with them off and on for about four years, then left the Bay Area. I took up cycling again in the early 80’s and eventually won multiple medals at National and World Masters Championships. Those early years were invaluable in developing a love for the sport and the comaraderie of the group.

  17. I mean, how did they decline from the premier road bike shop in the area to nothing?

  18. What ever happened to Velosport? I used to go there all the time on MLK, then they moved to University and seem to have fallen apart before folding. History, please!