I had the honor of visiting George Koenig the other day at his beautiful home in Santa Cruz. George and I played phone tag for a few weeks and we finally connected while I was running errands on my Mt. Bike. I did not want to keep him waiting or miss the opportunity to hear his story, so I road straight to his house on the beach.
I arrived to find George hanging out with his grandson who was finishing up some of his molecular biology homework from UCSC and sneaking in some body wompin' at 25th ave. I imagine George looked a lot like his grandson when he was selected for the 1960 Olympic Road team.
I explained to George over the phone that I am with the Steel Wül cycle club and was interested in interviewing him about his Olympic experience. As it turns out, George was kind enough to tell me his entire cycling story and I finely put my pen down after scribbling 6 pages of notes. I had all the best intentions to initiate the interview but I did not want to interrupt him when he was dropping names like the Gato brothers, Ricky Bronson, Boby Best, Spence Wolf, Charlie Alard, and of course the one and only Bob Tetzlaff. I felt like the cycling version of Robert "Wingnut" Weaver-appreciating and honoring all the obscure cycling legends from yesteryear.
This Stanford graduate, athlete, architect, and traveler, shared his story with me with amazing detail going back to WW-II. This 70 plus year old did not skip a beat when it came to recalling the finest details of racing over cobbles in Italy or remembering what drivetrain was on his Cinelli that Cino Cinelli himself gave him.
George grew up in Palo Alto in the 1940's when men of age were headed off to war. The young kids that were left at home spent their time on bikes and he dreamed of having one with a Sturmey Archer 3 speed. The local junior high school had over 1500 bikes out in front because that was the only way to get around. His father was a professor at Stanford and he eventually went there after a stint at a boarding school in southern California.
His first "road" bike was an aluminum French bike with a 4 speed simplex rear derailer that he bought for 40 bucks. A guy names Hass took him out to Page Mill road and dropped him immediately. This was his first experience with endurance riding.
The summer after his sophomore year at Stanford he and a buddy went to Europe to tour. They flew into Paris to look for bicycles and they found a shop called Oscar Egg (former world hour record holder). They found some very expensive steel bikes with aluminum drop bars, 10 speed simplex, and mafac brakes. They opted for a cheaper heavier version (35 lbs) with fenders, lights, generators, and panniers. They toured Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Italy. They literally walked their bikes over the Alps in a storm in Austria. They crashed in youth hostels and he described this trip as great times and hard times. I can only imagine what it was like in the 1950's. Put things in perspective, Luison Bobet won the Tour de France in 55'.
They made their way to the Spanish Steps in Rome and found a bike shop that sold Lazzaretti bicycles with gold and chrome lug work. George was "overwhelmed with desire" when he laid eyes on this machine. They bought 2 of them and shipped them back to Palo Alto.
In the fall of 1955 he made his way back to Stanford. That is when he met Ricky Bronson on Whisky Hill Road. These were the days when no one was out riding the roads so when you saw someone in a wool kit you stopped to find out what their story was. Ricky was from Belmont and was with the San Francisco Wheelman and had just won the state road championships. Ricky was on an English Claud Butler frame.
Ricky convinced George to join the ABA (American Bicycle Association). That is when he met Bob Tetzlaff (bicycling hall of fame & founder of the Los Gatos Bicycle Racing Club) who was winning everything he looked at. Tetzlaff and Santa Cruzin Rob Parsons were just recently honored at the Tour of Nevada City Bicycle Classic for having won that event more than any racer in history.
George started racing and got the bug to go back to Europe with a friend to "get race fit". They took a boat to Europe and had two sets of roller trainers to occupy their time on the boat. Spence Wolf (famous bike shop owner) wrote a letter to Cino Cinelli for George and his buddy. Cino took them in and set them up with Italian racing licenses and a place to stay. He said Cinelli treated them like his own. They trained in Italy all summer long. The first race they entered they ended up on the front page of the paper by virtue of their position in the group at the time of the photo.
Their first "real" race was the Grand Prino Pereli in Lambardia. This was an eye opener for them as they negotiated cobbles while hanging on by a thread and caring their bikes around train tracks and just trying to stay in the main group. It took everything they had to just hold the wheel in front of them. Unlike the Americans these Italians were racing their way out of poverty and had a hardness that was unfamiliar to American racers.
They made their way home with plenty of fitness for the 1956 Olympic Trials and George was 4th. This was a solid result but not quite good enough to make the 56' Melbourne Games. This is when he formed the Pedali Alpini cycle club. He described the Alpini club as a place to enjoy the outdoors and "find" yourself out on the open road vs training and sprinting. I think I would have dug that club. They road and trained in San Mateo, Napa, and Santa Cruz County. At this point no one was dropping him at the local level.
He finished Stanford in 1958 and was drafted into the Army. The Army knew of his cycling talent and allowed him to train and compete. He stayed in the states and was 5th at the Pan Am Games Road Race in 1959.
George was primed for the 1960 Olympic Trials held in Central park. Remember in these races, you essentially have no teammates as everyone is fighting for a spot on the team. The group stayed together until the very end where George was obligated to chase down a break after 90 miles. He knew there were some fast guys in the break. After a huge effort to bridge across he was 4th over the line which put him on the team for the 1960 Rome Olympics.
As his story was unfolding in front of me, it became obvious that it was his collective cycling and life expirence that he was passionate about not the Olympic target so often chased by athletes.
He lived in Squaw Valley in the 1970's and designed the Chinquapin complex in Tahoe City. He still pedals his bike which happens to be a beautiful green Calfee Tetra Pro.
For the record: When I asked his Grandson if he was planning on going to medical school George said, "if he gets in I will pay for it!".
Athlete ID pin from 1960 Rome Games
A commemorative Olympic Medal issued to the Athletes
Grandpa's Olympic warm-up jacket.