PEZ Retro: US Groundbreaker David Mayer-Oakes
PEZ Retro Interview: There have been many names put forward as groundbreakers for North American riders in European professional cycling, but you will be hard pushed to find someone with a better claim than David Mayer-Oakes. Ed Hood caught up with the ex-pro to hear his cycling life story.
His name keeps cropping up when we talk to folks about US cycling in the 70’s and 80’s; a former national junior champion, an ACBB man and at various times a team mate of Bob Roll, Jonathan Boyer, Alexi Grewal – and Sean Kelly, then there’s the coaching. . .
Time we had a word with David Mayer-Oakes:
PEZ: How did you get into the bike, David?
David Mayer-Oakes: I lived in Winnipeg, in Manitoba until I was 15 years-old. I was always riding my bike, started out in the dirt on a kind of homemade BMX style bike with 24 inch wheels. We would ride along the trails that bordered the Assiniboine River in the summer time, next thing you know I got a Supercycle, English racer type three speed from Canadian Tire and I started racing all the neighborhood kids to school and around the block, things like that.
In 1967 Winnipeg held the Pan Am Games; my Dad took me to the new velodrome to watch the cycling events. I was mesmerized – I couldn’t believe how steep it was, and how skinny their tires were! I knew I had to try it. Later that year I joined the Winnipeg Cycling club. I still have that jersey, too.
Anyway, there were a host of European immigrants as well as Canadians in the club which held weekly training rides and races during the summer months. Tuesday, Thursday track training and racing, Wednesday night Handicap Time Trials, Saturday training rides and Sunday races on a road course outside of town.
I got a track bike right away, used, for $60 put a brake on it and I was off to the races. The next winter I saved enough shoveling snow to get my first 10 speed with tubulars, a Gitane. In 1972 we moved to Lubbock, Texas – my father had taken a job at Texas Tech. They had a small bike club in Lubbock, mainly touring at the time, but did have weekly time trials.
My first time out I won the ten miler over the entire club. They were still on heavy clinchers and I had invested in a pair of 28’s with Nisi 290g rims and Clement Strada 66’s as my race wheels. I’ll never forget riding back with the guy who got second place, who explained to me that they didn’t ride sew ups ‘cause they would explode in the Texas heat – I beat him by eight seconds!
PEZ: You were US Junior Road Race Champion 1974 – tell us about that one.
Well, I had been to the Junior Worlds in Warsaw that year, and narrowly missed a medal in the TTT. I was riding for Turin bike shop team, having met Mike Neel the winter before. He introduced me to Lee Katz who would help and mentor me throughout my career. I stayed in Chicago and used Superweek as my prep for Nationals, which were in Michigan that year. I rode in the senior races, think I got third overall.
The last two weeks before the race I trained exclusively with Mike with the goal of peaking for Nationals. The course was basically flat, out and back 11 mile laps as I remember; 50 some-odd miles total. The only guy I was worried about was Dale Stetina (father of current Trek professional, Peter, ed.) I had never beaten him in a time trial and I knew he would be my biggest threat. It was a big race – there were 200 plus riders at the start, the best from every district. No open Nationals back then!
Anyway I waited for Dale, who was playing my shadow, to fall behind in the field and sure enough there was a crash over the infamous carpet covered railroad tracks. I looked back and he was nowhere in sight. I headed up the gutter and got away in the confusion only to be joined a couple of miles later by my Texas racing buddy, Hans Schneider. Now Hans was no slouch, he could always beat me in a flat TT and he was determined to go. I could barely sit on his wheel.
We had like three laps to go. After pulling me for almost a full lap, Hans slowed and we started taking turns. We could see the chasers, who had whittled down to an elite group of 12 or 13 twice a lap, every time we turned around, they knew exactly where we were. My Dad was there also, giving us splits. On the way back with like three miles to the bell, Hans cracked and came off my wheel. He looked like he was giving up.
I waited for him and pleaded with him to just sit on, that he would get a second wind; he tried but a few short blocks later he came off again, I turned to encourage him but all I saw was Hans heading up someone’s driveway and collapsing on their front lawn! I had to continue on alone, I still had like two minutes on the chase. I remember passing John Howard, who was standing in the median before the finish, his mouth agape. He looked at me, then at his watch, and shouted; “You’ll never make it.”
I continued on, determined – maybe even more determined. At the bell I paid no attention to my Dad, he had no split for me, he just told me to GO!
Last turn around I took a good look at the chasers, over half of which were sprinters, and my lead had dropped from over 2 minutes to a little over 40 seconds and they had me in their sights. I decided to ride tempo halfway to the line, and then go all out to the finish. With all the sprinters in the group I knew that at one point they would start playing around, and sure enough, that’s what they did.
Halfway back, I saw my Dad, he had moved up the course. He told me they were only 20 seconds behind me; I turned around and sure enough there they were. That’s when I took off, gave it everything I had left – at the finish I had 46 seconds advantage!
PEZ: I believe you spent time with ACBB – what was that like?
I moved to ACBB in ’76 after spending the season with A.S. Varennes in ’75. It was a much bigger team, and I got there with the help of Jonathan Boyer, whom I had met on the Junior Worlds team in 1973. More impersonal than the smaller team, they gave me my own apartment instead of the hotel I had been in the year before. What they gave me was the chance to ride all the amateur classics, which hopefully, would lead to me getting noticed faster by some of the pro teams. It also meant much harder racing with older guys, and taking the start with 15 or 20 teammates. For me it was like moving from Cat 3 to Pro 1.2 in one season.
PEZ: Fred Mengoni was the sponsor for ’82 – tell us about Fred and your ride.
I spent the first part of 1982 again riding in the US with Lee Katz and Turin. That year we were the Aspen/Sidi team. The Mengoni deal was put together specifically for the Coors Classic in Colorado, with Mike Neel as DS. I had always done well in stage races, especially in Colorado so they wanted me as support for their team that year – a good one it was too!
I was riding with Jonathan Boyer, Wayne Stetina, Roger Young, Steve Bauer and Alexi Grewal. Unfortunately that year we were no match for the Columbians, who brought their ‘A’ squad led by ‘Lucho’ Herrera and Alfonso Flores.
PEZ: You rode as a stagiaire with SEM late ’82 – what was that like?
Again I turned to my friend Jonathan Boyer to get me a chance to try out with De Gribaldy’s squad, and again he came through for me. It was great, we did a couple of late season classics, some kermises in Belgium and the prep races for the Worlds in Goodwood. My main role was to stay as close to Sean Kelly as I could because our bikes had almost the identical positions, in case he needed a change. I loved it, but unfortunately came down with bronchitis about two weeks before the Worlds, where I was not at my best.
Back then the professional races were 200k or longer and I think I raced more kilometers than I had in the previous two seasons. I also got a chance again at the Tour de L’Avenir, where I finished stronger than I started with a decent finish on the stage to Joux Plane and Morzine.
PEZ: John Eustice and Jonathan Boyer were there too – what was that like?
Jacques (Boyer), John and I had been friends since we were juniors. I roomed mainly with Boyer and it was good to have those two around to show me the ropes. They were both great guys. My favorite moment with Jacques was in ’75 , late in the season at some obscure race in Provence, one of the longest ones I rode that year, I remember attacking on some climb late in the race and reaching a group that had been up the road.
Boyer was in it, I hadn’t seen him since the Worlds race in ’73. I’ll never forget the look on his face, “Oakes, what are you doing here?” he said to me! With John Eustice It was the ’82 US Criterium Championships that also crowned the US Pro Champ. Davis and Bauer had gotten away from us, but we were both in the next group to finish. The Pro jersey would go to the first US rider to finish in our group, so I was trying to position myself for the win, but Jocelyn Lovell came flying by, then a couple of Frenchmen, and I thought I had it until right before the line. Around comes John, right at the line! He always was faster than me in those kinda finishes anyway, but it was oh so close – I’ll never forget it.
PEZ: No contract with SEM though? ’83 was Winning-Merckx-Campag, sounds like a great deal.
In late ’82 I came back to Texas for the winter and got a call from Mike Farrell. He was then managing the Schwinn team and offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse. He wanted me to ride in the States, mainly the criterium circuit, with my main focus being the Coors Classic. He had a really strong team and there was a generous contract with less racing. I had had a small taste of what would have been in store for me on the European circuit, and pretty much decided that I had better chances State-side. That’s when I decided to come back home for good.
The Winning-Merckx team was a one off deal for the Tour of America, and Mike released me to do that race. I was really excited about it; mainly because I got to meet Eddy Merckx, who had custom built all of our bikes, which he said we could keep. I’ll never forget the moment after the final event in Washington when it was Eddy himself who brought us trays of sandwiches and hot tea, while the rest of the team mechanics and manager whisked away our bikes, never to be seen again. I spent the rest of the time that year with Mike and the Schwinn team.
I was selected for the Pro Worlds again, and returned to my home on the high plains of Texas for a serious special preparation. This time I was gonna be ready, after my experience at Goodwood, and eager to support Greg Lemond. I got a chance to ride a race for Schwinn in Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire as my final prep on the way to Europe. At that race I unfortunately was in an accident with a car in the time trial stage, which basically ended my pro career. I was unable to attend the worlds.
PEZ: Schwinn for ’84 – and Mengoni mentioned again?
In 1984 I attended the early season training camp for the Schwinn team and entered the first race series of the season, the Tour of Texas. I managed to finish about half of the races before I had to give up because of the back injury I had sustained. I never raced again
PEZ: Which Euro result gives you most satisfaction?
Finishing in the Tour de L’Avenir in 82. After that result, I knew in my heart that if I wanted to stay and compete with those guys, I could.
PEZ: And US?
In ‘76 I won the Aspen Alpine Cup ahead of the entire US Olympic squad with no teammates. This race was the precursor to the Red Zinger/Coors. In ‘79 I took the leaders jersey in the Red Zinger on the Morgul Bismarck stage and won the overall King of the Mountains classification, and of course the junior nationals in ‘74.
PEZ: A result which jumps out is – the Red Zinger ’79 top 10 with Lemond/Anderson/Pirard. . .
Yah, and a leader’s jersey for a day; not to mention overall classification in the King of the Mountains. I even surprised Michael Aisner, the organizer.
PEZ: After finishing racing you went into coaching and management?
I spent a year after I quit racing working as director for Turin/Tycos. Our guys did well stateside and we even got a shot at a stage race in Abruzzo in Italy. It was a low budget team and was gone the next year. After that I worked contract work at as many events as possible – the Tour of Texas, Tours de Trump and Dupont and the Coors Classic just to name a few. I worked the Tour de France with TV crews from ABC and CBS, and I worked independently as an announcer at many events, mainly on the east coast.
In 1993 I went to work for Chris Carmichael and USAC as a regional coach during the EDS years. I had produced a few profitable training camps of my own prior to that, the best one being the Taos Training Camp in New Mexico. When Chris asked the regional coaches to hold selection camps for a junior regional team it was right up my alley. As a regional coach I was always able to hold well attended and profitable camps for the South Eastern Region, soon we were taking teams from the camps to the only UCI World Cup race in North America, the Tour de L’Abitibi in Canada.
That was a no brainer, even though a lot of US Juniors did not know that opportunity even existed. US Participation revitalized that event and continues to this day. After the demise of the EDS sponsorship in 2000, severe budget cuts at USAC were the end to the regional program. I proposed to manage all their camps, road, Mountain bike, and track, myself, and did just that as USAC’s Athlete Development Manager until 2004. At one point I was managing USAC coaches at 26 camps nationwide. The program that we established during the early 90’s still exists today, and I feel confident saying that it is the most successful development and talent ID program USAC has ever had.
PEZ: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the sport?
The biggest changes have got to be the technology we have today. From power meters, to 11 speed cassettes and carbon frames, the technology we now have is constantly changing how athletes train and perform in competition. For me, it kind of takes the romance and spontaneity out of the sport, you can see that some of the top riders are riding by their data, their wattage output, not with their hearts. This can be predictable and produces boring races. I think that a lot of the pro races are shorter than they used to be, which can change the way a race unfolds.
PEZ: Lance and Floyd – your thoughts?
I don’t really know Armstrong, I have just met him a couple of times. Not to condone his actions but I think that if Lance had really retired after his seventh win, gotten fat and gone fishing or played golf for the rest of his life that he might have gotten away with it. I have never met Floyd, all I know about his situation is what I’ve read in the media, but it’s definitely hard to support someone who has lied about his involvement for so long, and then changed his mind and admitted his guilt. Kinda makes it hard to believe anything he says. I think he was just way outta his league and got caught up.
PEZ: Are there US riders who were ‘ones that got away’ in your eyes?
I’ve seen many. Unfortunately the sport costs a lot of money. The equipment, and here in the US, the travel costs are much higher than in Europe. Bicycle racing mainly attracts kids from upper middle class families who can afford the travel and equipment. After a couple of years they usually see that they have better opportunities to go to college and get a ‘real’ job with a salary much higher than they could make in cycling.
PEZ: And if you did all again – what would be different?
I think I should have stayed in France with my original director and really concentrated on my pro career. Looking back, I guess I was probably one of those riders who were torn between his roots in North American cycling and the lifestyle you have to assume to make it as a pro in Europe.
All photos from David Mayer-Oakes’ personal archive.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,200 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.