(Zap’s note: this column was originally posted on February 5, 2014 and I might’ve forgotten all about it had I not seen it posted by someone on FaceBook today. Why would it re-surface some seven years later you might ask? Well, three days ago, the person that was the subject of this “blog” – Mike Bell – suffered a heart attack while out riding his mountain bike. Not just a friend, Mike was also one of my biggest motocross heroes when I was growing-up. If anyone I knew was dedicated to two wheels, it was Mike Bell and so as I and so many others mourn his passing, I decided to chase this down and post it again.)
Zap’s (Not A Blog) Blog: Grading On A Bell Curve
I have often said that better than all the travel, all the new bikes, the schwag, and even all the great rides, it is the people who make up this sport who, year after year, have helped me maintain 100% enthusiasm for the job. From the likes of Valentino Campagnolo in his factory in Vicenza to Allen Lim rolling rice cakes in a Temecula hotel during the Tour of California, characters one and all, passion, effort, dedication, humor…mankind. Fabulous.
And then there’s Mike Bell. Many of you are asking, “who?” Bell is lifelong SoCal resident who (unbeknownst to both of us) first entered my life when I sat in the nose bleed seats of the L.A. Coliseum in 1974 and watched him finish second to Marty Smith in the High School MX race that acted as intermission for the SuperBowl of Motocross. By the time I began my own motocross career aboard a Yamaha YZ125C two years later on the local CMC motocross circuit, Mike, the progeny of the famed ’70’s Long Beach Honda tuner Bill Bell, was already a local legend who I was lucky enough to eventually befriend through countless hours hanging at dusty dirt bike tracks like Saddleback Park, Carlsbad Raceway and Ascot Park.
(My favorite Mike Bell motocross story: Back in 1978 during practice at the notoriously rough Carlsbad Raceway I was going down the infamous downhill thinking it would be close to impossible to go down any faster. Within seconds, Mike passed me over a jump and waved while doing so.)
Here’s Mike Bell coming out of the peristyle on his way to winning the mountain bike race held in the Los Angeles Coliseum during intermission for the Superbowl of Motocross in 1987.
Long story short, Mike went on to become both a factory Yamaha rider and Supercross National Champion while I went on to be a law school dropout. However, by 1987 our paths would cross again when I, as the editor of Mountain Bike Action, and he (having quit racing MX due to some bad knees) as an avid mountain bike racer, would share weekends pedaling around at the NORBA Nationals. While I was still a newbie to the sport, Mike had already put himself on the off-road cycling world’s radar when won the Pro class at the Mammoth Kamikaze in 1986 on his custom built Mantis.
(My favorite Mike Bell mountain bike story: As we headed up the chairlift at Mammoth Mountain for some more practice runs on the Kamikaze in 1990, I asked Mike how it was that he went so fast on the notoriously rough fire road descent (sans suspension). As he was looking out the gondola window at the scree fields below, he said without a hint of pause, “It’s easy…just don’t use the brakes.” Oh.)
Life came and went and I would see Mike here and there at various motorcycle re-unionns and such. Two years ago at the memorial ride for my wife, I came upon Mike as he was struggling to make it up the last climb of the 80 mile Mike Nosco Charity Ride. Soon enough I was struggling too – we were both in a world of hurt. At one point, he looked over at me and said, “I wouldn’t be doing this for anyone else but you.” I almost fainted. Between the fact that; A. I had even got to know Mike Bell, B. That some 30 years later we’d still be palin’ around on two wheels, and C. That he would express such a sentiment to me on what was already one of the most dramatic days of my life – it was, well, as the cliche reminds us, an out-of-body experience.
These days Mike is a big-wig at Oakley and after 13 knee surgeries, he just had a set of new knees put in. In typical Mike Bell fashion, he was back on his bicycle as quickly as possible.
What does any of this have to do with the price of some Shimano brakes? On a cycling specific level maybe not all that much I suppose. On the surface, it’s a tribute to good friends – we can never have enough. But in a very personal sense, which I believe can have wider, community implications, it’s simply a tribute to, and an acknowledgement of, the value that each of us can bring to the world through a positive, enthusiastic & encouraging outlook on life. That’s what Mike has and it’s infectious. While those are personality traits that can be found among many of us, I believe that they are at least partially the result of his being a champion, something that separates him from a good many most of us.
Mike’s youngest son Sean has the same sort of determination and talent as his famous dad and is intent on being a Pro road racer some day.
Due to the success he’s been enjoying on both his road and mountain bike, Sean has become a hot prospect among the growing number of young up & comers.
Here’s Mike waaay back in the day at a CMC race at Saddleback Park aboard a exotic Kelvin Franks built Honda CR125.
The day before the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze in 1987, Mike was kind enough to do a photo shoot for me aboard a Fisher Pro Caliber.
A year later Mike joined us for another cover shoot – this time was aboard an early Manitou mountain bike built by Doug Bradbury. And that’s none other than multi-time Motocross & Supercross National Champion Jeff Ward backsliding his way through the inset photo.
For a more complete story on Mike Bell, read the interview I did with him back in 2009 in