Saturday, December 6, 2014

California Cycling Legends Part II - Tim Neenan

Steel WÜl had an opportunity to spend a few hours with our friend and California cycling icon Tim Neenan who was at the forefront of innovation, culture and folklore 41 years ago when Santa Cruz cyclists were forging their permanent mark on the global cycling map. Enjoy this exclusive interview.

            Nickname: "Rocket" back in Santa Cruz
            Age:  67
            Height:  5’9”
            Weight:  180 lbs
            Home Town:  Santa Ynez, Ca
            Favorite Book:  ‘Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz’
            Favorite Band:  Walk off the Earth
            Bikes:  2 compact road-racers (one with a triple for climbing Figeruoia), a ridged
            Mt bike, a fixie, a touring bike, all Lighthouses.
            Occupation:  Frame Builder
            Years building:  41
             Website: Lighthouse Cycles

SW:  How and when did you get hooked into road cycling in Santa Cruz County?

TN: I moved to SC in 72’finishing my last 2 years at UCSC. I had one of those white U-O8 Peugeots and pedaled out towards Branciforte one day and absolutely got hooked on the descents, it was like a roller-coaster. My friend had a bike with an aluminum fork which was kind of a death wish and we pretty much needed to replace or upgrade just about everything on those first bikes. My friend Jack and I would pickup Big Macs and go to Rogers Sands shop (Bicycle Center) to hang out and eat. Roger was the first guy to invite us on the Saturday rides. We were ecstatic that he extended an invitation to us! I bought Tom Cuthbertson’s book which taught me how to overhaul bottom brackets and such. Bob Jackson came over from England and visited the Bicycle Center and taught me how to braze a fork crown. Every morning 20 guys would meet at the Bicycle Center for our group rides which went up to Davenport and back or down to the bowling alley in Watsonville. We were so consistent and had so many cyclists that Cabrillo Lanes bowling alley actually required us to call them if we weren’t going to show up to eat.

SW: Who were the Davenport Whalers and how did you join them?

TN: I'm pretty sure that Roger Sands came up with the name but the head guy in the club was definitely Kelly Robertson. We would race up to Davenport, drink coffee and race back to town. Maynard Hershon would come up and join us from time to time. Maynard still has his Lighthouse. 

SW: When I started road cycling in Santa Cruz in the late 80’s Lighthouse bikes were only ridden by former Olympians and the inner circle, what made these frames so coveted by the locals?

TN: The guys seemed to love them, they were nice to look at and with a background as a jeweler, I had some unique designs. Kelly Robertson and Norm Gall each bought one. These were the days when locals were riding Della Santa and Cinelli frames. It absolutely made my day when Owen Mulholland bought one of my frames, I cut a shamrock into the down tube for him and he still has that bike today. Things were simple and magical back then. Without that group of guys, I never would have been involved in cycling, Kelly taught me everything from what tuxedo suspenders to buy to how to ride in the group. The Davenport Whalers eventually morphed into Coastal Sportive club with Norm Gall.

SW: Tell us about the early group rides in Santa Cruz County.

TN: They were your typical club rides with super fast guys, sprints and stuff like that. Danny Nall and Lawrence Malone were out there. Lawrence was an incredible athlete whether he was playing tennis or racing bikes. Lawrence was a bit of a nonconformist and one day I found myself off the front of the group ride in a break with Lawrence and he was wearing a Pendleton longsleave shirt with his national championship jersey hiding underneath. He was basically saying – I don’t need to show anyone my stars and stripes but just to let you know its right here if you happen to sneak a peak. 

SW: How did you get connected with Specialized and what bikes did you design for them?

TN: I was managing the Bicycle Center and Mike Synard was selling his Cinelli and Clement products to us out of the back of his bike trailer. Mike asked me to design a road bike for them and I jumped at the chance. I drew up the frame design with intentions of selling it to him. He was looking to take on another guy with Specialized and I ended up designing the Allez, Stumpjumper, Sequoia, and the Expedition. We spent a few weeks in Japan overseeing production. I designed their crank sets, headsets, and most everything on the Stumpjumper. I quit that job and it was the stupidest thing I could have done. What was I thinking? Years later, Mike told me that the stupidest thing he ever did was let me quit. What are you going to do...

SW: How did one of your bikes end up in the Smithsonian?

TN: I Don’t know exactly, someone realized that this was the actual bike that broke loose the mountain bike industry. A lot more people found them to be accessible and I suppose they were at $750. At one point the Stumpjumper was in the SharperImage catalog. Bike Magazine named the original Stumpjumper as one of the most important bikes ever made. 

SW: Who were the local ride bosses in the 70’s in Santa Cruz?

TN: Kelly Robertson for sure! No one else even comes close. Once Kelly and I argued for an hour and a half outside of the bowling alley over something stupid. He could be kinda stubborn. 

SW: You have experienced a lot of change over the years to road cycling in the US, what stands out as the most significant to you?

TN: Definitely clipless pedals and index shifting which were both god sends. Carbon is carbon and the new steel products are amazing. My bike is 18 lbs with nice parts and the transfer of information is magical. You can make amazing bikes out of steel and it’s more accessible to novices. You can still reference the old cycling manuals from the 60’s and fit someone to a bike. 

SW: When someone refers to a bike as an Adventure Road Bike, what does that mean to you?

TN: A gravel style bike which is the Sequoia I designed back in the day. It’s basically a road bike with standard reach breaks, low BB shell, tons of tire clearance, and can go anywhere... your multipurpose bike. A 73 degree headtube with 59 mm of trail equals a perfectly handling bike...still responsive and a ton of fun! Mountain Bikes introduces trendiness to the sport of cycling. Unfortunately trendiness drives our sport today – a curve tube here, a bend tube there, huge tubes this year, small tubes that year, massive head tube, ect, ect. It just seems crazy to try to reinvent things every year. If you take a look at bikes from 40 years ago, for all intensive purposes they resemble modern bikes.

SW: Describe a perfect day for Tim Neenan.

TN: If it’s a work day in the shop, then I do my email in the morning then a 30 mile ride in the valley. I try to avoid traffic these days which is easy living in Santa Ynez. I prefer these out and back routes with little to no traffic, then back to the shop listen to Pandora and work until about 5 and all day I’m thinking and planning dinner.

SW: Do you still spend time with Andy Hampsten in Italy and how did you get connected with him as his chef?

TN: My friend David Schnitzer lives in Seattle and I’ve known him since I was 19. He was actually on the cover of Vogue magazine as a model back in the day. He organized a training camp in Los Alamos and Steve Hampsten came down and we did a VIP dinner one evening and Andy happened to be there and said that my Ossobuco was the best he had ever had. Andy was looking for a chef in Italy for day-trip style cycle touring in Lorain so I rented a place in the Chianti region called Gaeoli and met a local butcher and figured out the food situation. I ended up making dinner for 35 people for a week with a kitchen that did not have an oven. We made do with what we had and it all worked out. Andy is a fantastic guy and still has incredible fitness.

SW: What are your thoughts as to where cycling is headed in the US?

TN: I see more and more people out which is good – lots of women are on bikes today compared to 30 years ago. It’s pretty scary hearing about people getting killed on bikes, the cities aren’t handling the right of way appropriately in my opinion. The safety issue needs to be addressed. Motorists just appear to be pissed off at us, cyclists and motorists need to take a mature view on this. Obviously there are some knuckleheads that run red lights which give us a bad name. The Lance issue soured the sport for me as well. I have noticed that people seem to no longer wave at each other which is too bad. I was out riding alone one day and came across a group of women cyclists and I overhead them teaching each other how to ride in a group – like the old days. Men are not as encouraging as they use to be to each other. Anyone can get a 15 lb bike today and there seems to be a certain level of fitness that is accompanied with it but knowing how to ride is different and more important than being fast on the bike. The Triathlon movement really changed how folks got introduced to cycling. It is what it is…

SW: If given two weeks to ride with an endless budget, who would you like to pedal with and where?

TN: Jerry Brown, Owen Mulholland and David Schnitzer would be my people and we would definitely go to Provence. The riding there is like mecca - an absolute holy place to pedal a bike, the kids and older folks in the street clear out of the way and cheer for you while the motorists give you plenty of room. Italy has incredible strata bianca for days and days but contrary to popular belief the French actually accept you better than the Italians do. I do have Figueroa Mountain in my backyard which is harder than Mt. Ventoux. 

SW: What is your favorite all time cycling memory?

TN: Winning the California bear jersey in the state time trial championships in 1980. The wind was blowing like crazy that day and the effort felt like Hell on Earth. I spied a flag on top of a building and it was standing straight out. I paired my road bike down to 17 lbs that day with a single chain ring and all. It was so painful yet so worth it. You can let yourself get a bit out of shape when you own a district bear jersey. 

SW: How much riding do you do today?

TN: Well…If I can ride 30 miles a day that is good. I need to up my miles this winter…200 miles a week is what it takes to feel really good on the bike these days, being 67 a 20 mile ride feels like a 30 miles ride. The good news is that you can do this sport until you die!

SW: How many frames have you build over the years?

TN: I think 1100 at the moment. I started building in 74’ and selling in 76’. When I started there were 10 guys in the US doing this…now everyone is a fucking frame builder – it’s crazy. I thought steel would die out when titanium and carbon made a run. Steel is ideal for rondoneering and adventure frames and folks are gravitating back towards steel for these bikes. Carbon bikes are made in a waffle iron in China with tons of gimmicks each year – there’s lots of hype in the economic end of cycling.

SW: Santa Ynez or Santa Cruz….

TN: I was in Pescadero recently riding with some buddies from Santa Cruz and that area seemed to have some heavy traffic compared to 30 years ago. I would say Santa Ynez because there are more cows than cars.

SW: Who is your all-time favorite racer?

TN: Andy Hampsten, he is such a great guy and happens to be a foody like me which is fun to have in common with him.

SW: What decade do you consider the golden age of cycling?

TN: The Eddy Merckx and the 1970’s. I met Eddy and had dinner with him when I was with Specialzed because we were going to import his bikes. He had huge hands.

SW: Have cyclists gotten tougher or softer over the years?

TN: I don’t do group rides anymore so that is hard to say…my initial reaction is that they are not as tough. People are more into the technology not pure power like in the old days. Everyone was on Campy Record and similar frames, there is so much variety now which creates different scenarios.

SW: What do you prefer to eat on the bike?

TN: Cliff Bars, no gels..I used to ride with sandwiches. I was riding with Phil Anderson and he handed me a juice box from his jersey that looked and tasted like breast milk. I didn’t know what to think.

SW: Tell us about your win at the the Santa Cruz Classic and was it on a Lighthouse?

TN: Definitely on a Lighthouse…when I’m good, I’m fast!

SW: Is it true that you coined the nickname “Reno Rocket” for Greg LeMond when you were the announcer at the Tour of Nevada City Classic?

TN: Yep! We all saw this kid crushing the pedals and knew right away that we were all watching something very special. He was absolutely amazing!

**If you're interested in getting a beautiful custom frame from one of the original builders in California then check out what Tim is doing at  Lighthouse Cycles.

                              The three amigos: Tim Neenan, Kelly Robertson, Jerry Brown

                    Tim's personal compact Lighthouse with his favorite Santa Ynez valley roads

                                    Tim winning the Santa Cruz Criterium on a Lighthouse

No comments:

Post a Comment