Pumping through the Sierra for seven days and 475 miles, the second-longest bike race in U.S. history met unbelieving cops and unyielding semis
July 07, 1974

This is terrible!" people were crying at the finish line. "Somebody's going to get killed!" The official with the bullhorn went so far as to say, though not through the bullhorn, "I think it's hopeless."

A gaily colored, clench-teethed tangle of sprinting cyclists was expected any minute, and there seemed to be no room for them. The third stage of the seven-day, 475-mile Tahoe Donner Tour of the Sierra, the second-longest bicycle race ever held in the United States, seemed to be on a collision course with the busy afternoon traffic in front of the Nevada State Legislature Building, The Carson Transmission Exchange, La Table Franchise, the Y Not Bar and The Capital City Mortuary, all right there in the heart of Carson City.

At this moment Announcer Vic Black drove up in his official vehicle to begin advising anybody inclined to listen, "This is the finish of a 108.5-mile bicycle race. These riders have gone up 5,000 feet of elevation, and now they're coming into town at 30 miles an hour!" It turned out someone had alerted the police; a patrol car showed up to block traffic just in time, and here came the pack—otherwise known as the peloton, or bunch—with a whirring, clicking, cloud-of-locusts sound, and it looked as though the Tour of the Sierra might survive one more day without an outright cataclysm.

But then the smartly dressed lady carrying the big straw hat appeared out of nowhere. Intent on whatever mission brought her to the State Legislature Building, she walked straight in front of the oncoming pack.

The foremost riders braked slightly, and a cycling enthusiast who had anticipated that something unlikely probably would happen jumped out and dragged lady and hat out of the way just as Mike Neel, with his jut-jawed, near-snarling all-out expression, sped past on his 21-pound $800 bike with the titanium spindle and cluster (the five gears on the back wheel). Neel, who by Sunday would be overall Tour champion, was first in that day's finish, followed closely by the only vaguely daunted peloton.

The lady was unapologetic. "The government's falling apart," she said, "and here are all these damn bicycles." Whatever it was, her point was not well taken. There may well be a crisis of American values at this point in history, but those bicycles traversing almost 500 variously breathtaking miles of Nevada and California proved that wild, woolly and unbought intrepidity is not dead across the land.

In Europe and Mexico road racing is a lot more orderly. The Tour de France, which is now in progress, is one of the world's biggest sports events by any measure. For it, the roads are closed to all traffic and the crowds of spectators along the route cheer both lustily and with great respect. That must be pretty boring, compared to the Tour of the Sierra.

Eighty riders, including longhairs, shorthairs, a geophysicist and a man who "stripes parking lots" for a living, began the Tour. Sixty-five finished all eight of the stages (a team time trial, five road races, a criterium—which is a race over a short, closed course—and an individual time trial) held during the seven days. Dan Nail of Santa Cruz, Calif. was knocked down by a truck. Jack Janelle of Littleton, Colo, tried to hold position on the inside of two big cattle trucks and was forced off a 30-ft. embankment. Nick Farac of San Francisco, at 41 the second oldest man in the race, was awarded a "Mystery Prime" prize of a free session at Nevada's legal Moonlight Ranch sporting house. All three men finished the Tour going strong.

Bicycle racers are not among this nation's most pampered athletes. The Tour participants paid their own travel expenses and even room and board at places like the sponsoring resort lodge, Tahoe Donner, in Truckee, Calif. Most of them said they got started in the sport by riding around the countryside on their 10-speeds and encountering racers by chance. European riders are trained by long-standing, highly structured organizations. American cyclists tend to be individualists, unschooled in team tactics and not always ready for the challenges they take on. From 1920 to 1974 only one racer was killed in this country, but so far this year three have died after their lightly helmeted heads hit the asphalt. The statistic is partly a reflection of the sport's growth: in 1962 60 competitive riders were registered in Northern California; today there are more than 1,000.

In no other sport do athletes go hard for five solid hours, as they did in the longer stages through the Sierra, and then race again and again every day for a week. The ordeal is relieved somewhat by the fact that the riders tend to travel in packs, whose members take turns pulling the pace, or breaking the wind, as the others ride behind in the slipstream, "sucking wheels." In footraces the strongest runner tends to win. The bicycle, many riders point out, is a great equalizer, allowing canny wheel suckers to take advantage of others' might.

But staying with the leaders requires great conditioning and intensity, and to win you must keep looking for a chance to pull away and leave the peloton behind. In Europe a race may boil down to an echelon of Poles, or Dutchmen, or Swedes, or Czechs (these nationalities tend to be the strongest riders physically) leading a long line of subtly jockeying trailers for miles and miles. The Sierra packs were far more loosely organized; cries of "What are you doing, you idiot?" could be heard among teammates.

The bikes in the Sierra Tour may have been finely tuned, but the race was not. The 105-mile second stage was barely under way when the California Highway Patrol intervened. Several cars and a trailer truck were backed up behind the 80 cyclists and the attendant four motor vehicles when a patrol car went screeching around the whole procession on a blind corner, cutting so abruptly in front of the leading riders as almost to ram into them. A patrolman jumped out and began warning all the cyclists over to the far right-hand edge of the highway. When this produced even more confusion, he began to run alongside the press bus, demanding to speak to the person in charge, stopping only after someone inside told him he was talking to the wrong bus.

In Sierraville, Officer Dean Rupp of the highway patrol hove into view. Officer Rupp was beefy, burr-headed and proprietary toward his stretch of the road. The riders sat there for 45 minutes while Officer Rupp underlined in green ink for the benefit of the race organizers, Section 21202 of the State Vehicle Code: "Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway as is practicable." These bicycle operators were clearly filling up one whole side of the road. They were racing, explained the Tour organizers. "What the heck kind of race is this," Officer Rupp wanted to know, "where everybody rides in one big pack? I've never seen a race like this before." He had once peeled two motorcyclists off the front of a semi, he said, and he didn't want to have to do the same for 80 bicyclists.

At length Officer Rupp was won over—the next time the race went through Sierraville he merely called out "Hello, peoples."

During its seven days the Tour went on, through, past, down or alongside:

Genoa, which is Nevada's oldest settlement and in whose graveyard rests legendary 19th century mailman Snowshoe Thompson, who once delivered a parcel-post cast-iron stove over the mountains in deep snow.

Lake Tahoe, which is almost unnaturally blue ("And if you go 30 feet down," boasted an area resident "you can drink the water").

California Highway 49, so numbered because it carried the gold traffic during the rush of 1849.

Mesquite bushes, sagebrush, ponderosa pines, the Ponderosa Plumbing Company, Coggins Auto Hospital, Chilcoot Grocery, Lula's Beauty, Joy Real Estate, "Our Unique Tax Shelter Financing Tyrolean Village," the Cold Springs Valley Volunteer Fire Department, a "Christ Jesus Died to Save Sinners" sign and the Merry Winks Motel.

And as the Tour went on, through, past, down or alongside the above, it became evident that cyclists' legs are unlike any others. They taper almost conically from outsized thighs through distinctively rounded calves to relatively narrow ankles. Mostly they are shaved, because cyclists are always falling and hairy legs make for troublesome scabs. The legs pumped steadily (at one point Neel was pedaling uphill at 80 revolutions a minute) past scrabbly crusty rock and dun-colored dirt with streaks of salmon pink and vermilion, toward blue and snow-peaked mountains.

In the race-within-a-stage up Monitor Pass in California the first four finishers were 1) Neel, 2) 18-year-old George Mount of Lafayette, Calif., 3) John Timbers, 29, of Tucson and 4), appearing precipitantly around a bend, a huge yellow truck pulling a flatbed trailer carrying heavy equipment which almost rode the first three down. "Slow down!" race followers yelled to the truck, and "Where'd that come from?" to each other. At the top of a mountain in another stage, an elderly tourist, having gathered that a race was impending, approached an official and asked, "What direction are they coming from?"

"You pick the fourth, fifth and sixth men up to the top," the official told him. The tourist nodded a little dazedly at the non sequitur and began looking cautiously first in one direction and then in the other.

Catch as catch can, the race negotiated the streets of Reno, home of Liberal Slots and $25,000 Keno, and the one street of Truckee, which used to be a town that everyone only passed through. Now, with several ski and summer resorts nearby, Truckee features not only a store that sells liquor, magazines and night crawlers but also such new-wave establishments as a restaurant called Grey's Toll Station whose menu claims that Truckee was named for a Paiute Indian who "found immortality practicing culinary skills learned at Grey's as chef for the Donner Party."

In Gardnerville, Nev. an old man was rocking on a front porch next to the American School of Diamond Cutting and across the street from Shelley's Beauty Salon. He had been sitting there for 20 years, his expression clearly said, and this was the first time 71 bicycle riders in chamois-seated shorts had ever gone past. But he didn't say anything. In Europe towns bid eagerly for the lucrative honor of being on the route of a major bike race, but the communities along the Tour of the Sierra did not seem to know exactly what they were on the route of. In Gardnerville a cross-eyed boy in a tank shirt did sing out, "All right?' as the peloton flashed by, and on the outskirts of Reno a barefooted girl did say, "I guess it's kind of neat to have a bicycle race finish in front of your house."

Belgium's Eddy Merckx, Europe's premier professional rider, makes $625,000 a year, and all you need to do to sell unlimited bottles of So-and-So over there is put up a billboard saying "Claudine Drinks So-and-So," since everyone knows that Claudine is Eddy's wife. Rewards for U.S. riders include staying in shape, satisfying competitive urges and eating large amounts of food after a race. John Coplin of El Cajon, Calif., a vegetarian, consumed, after one stage of the tour, two quarts of Seven-Up, four fig bars, a bean taco, a lemonade, and a dinner of corn, peas, mashed potatoes, salad, wheat bread with lots of jelly and honey on it, a glass of milk, a mixture of Seven-Up and Coke, a cup of hot chocolate and two helpings of pudding. Coplin, it must be added, claims he buys lumps of titanium and makes his own bicycle parts out of them.

The melting pot and improvisation. America. May be our cyclists ought to appreciate the flavor of racing here and not aspire to such grimly refined big-money competition as prevails abroad.

A good man to put this to is one of the most prominent of U.S. riders, Rich (Captain America) Hammen, a 29-year-old theoretical chemist of some distinction who has gone on unemployment to devote himself full time to bike racing. Hammen was unable to compete in the Tour of the Sierra because he had a cold, but he rode most of the course anyway in his red, white and blue togs. He and his wife Hoppy drive from race to race in their van, which holds their bikes and Stars and Stripes-pattern bedding.

No, says Hammen, when an American beats others as decisively as Neel was doing in this race (the field did not include four other top U.S. cyclists who were either tired from or still off on bike-racing excursions in Europe), he has got to seek out the best racers in the world and be as good as he can against them. In this country, Hammen adds, bike racers get no support. "People think of us as Communists with shaved legs."

Neel is from Berkeley, Calif. but works for the Turin Bicycle Co-op in Chicago now, so at 22 he is, in effect, a semi-pro. For finishing the Sierra Tour on top in every scoring department, he received a number of tires and pumps and jerseys from various donors and several kisses from Emily Dekker, who was appointed queen of the race no doubt because she was the Tahoe Donner employee, who looked just like the girl next door if you're extremely lucky. As it happened, she knew Neel in high school. Neel accepted the kisses, tires, pumps and the like, but what he really wants, he says, is for some foreign professional team to sign him and take him off to heights like the Alps. Where you don't have to brake for ladies and hats.

PHOTOSHEEDY & LONGHis yellow shirt signifying he won the Tour's previous leg, leader Neel negotiates a turn. FIVE PHOTOSSHEEDY & LONGThey went thisaway: by the shore of Lake Tahoe; grinding up a slope; feeding on the fly; uh, oh; in the heart of downtown Virginia City.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)