Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Did you get the chance to read the article (below) about USI Member Oliver ‘Butch’ Martin? It was published in ROAD the journal of road cycling and culture, Jan/Feb 2013 pages 32-36 (http://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=137399).
Thirty-six years ago Butch Martin helped lead the USA to its best Olympic result in more than half a century. Now the hall of fame coach is helping a new generation achieve international success.
America’s entry onto the international stage of modern cycling could be marked by many high-profile moments, depending on one’s age: George Mount’s improbable sixth-place finish at the 1976 Olympic road race, the best result by an American in more than 60 years; Alexi Grewal and Connie Carpenter-Phinney riding into gold eight years later at the 1984 L.A. games; Greg Lemond pulling on the yellow jersey for the first time at the 1986 Tour de France, the same year 7-Eleven made its inaugural run at the famed race.
But for Oliver “Butch” Martin, 66, a two-time Olympian, U.S. Cycling Hall of Fame inductee and the first national coach of the United States Cycling Federation, the country’s arrival on the big stage was marked by a quiet sip of well-aged brandy shared between a grizzled Dutch federation president, his loyal team mechanic and the much younger upstart coach of the over-performing 1976 U.S. national team that was just weeks away from Mount’s history-making Olympic ride.
The scene followed Quebec’s Tour of the East, a five-day, seven-stage race that served as a warm up for the Olympics, which were limited to amateurs at the time. Mount had placed fourth overall at the race, tied with the big Russian Aavo Pikkuus. Mike Neel had won a stage, and Dave Boll had finished second on the final stage. The team was seventh overall out of 22 nations. It was a great showing for a country that had up until then placed very low expectations on its ability to get international results. Martin and the rest of the team staff were getting the riders cleaned up and ready to take a bus into town the next day when a knock came at the hotel door.
“I opened the door and there is the Dutch national team mechanic,” Martin remembered recently at his home along a golf course outside of Portland, Oregon. “He tells me in his heavy guttural English, ‘The director, he wants to see you.’ I knew who the director was. He was the head of the Dutch national federation. Big guy, about 6-foot-4, 220 or 230 pounds. He had hands that were the size of catchers’ mitts. Big thick fingers, ruddy complexion. I said ‘of course.' ”
The mechanic led Martin to where the Dutch director was overseeing the team’s tear-down activities, and the older man greeted his younger colleague abruptly. “He gets up, and it was like standing next to Michael Jordan. I mean he was a big dude,” Martin said. “He puts out his big mitt and shakes my hand and nods for me to sit down.” The imposing Dutchman said something in Flemish to the mechanic, who hurried off to carry out whatever new directive had been given.
“Ah, American boys, they do good,” the old director said in his very rough English.
“Yeah we have a good team,” Martin replied. “They’re young and strong.”
“Hassink. Hassink is number one,” the Dutch director then belted out, referring to his own team leader, Arie Hassink, who had just won the Tour of the East and was a favorite for Olympic gold.
“Hassink is very good, but I’ve got a couple boys that are pretty good, too,” Martin shot back.
The Dutch director nodded and lamented about how rare it was to see the U.S. team in European races, and he made a point of extending an invitation to the team to compete the following year at the Olympia Tour, one of the top European amateur races at the time. As Martin thanked his colleague, the mechanic returned with three glasses and the bottle of cognac, then poured each man a drink.
“That day was the best day for me, probably one of the best ever, because we got respect, and you know, that’s a biggie,” Martin said. “To get recognition from a gentleman like him, who had produced world champions and Olympic champions. He was impressed with how the boys rode, and that to me was the respect that we took forward, not George’s sixth, that was just confirmation. That day, after that stage race, that was really the big turning point. It was like people looked at the boys differently after that race.”
Martin’s route to that meaningful sip of brandy was as unlikely as the success that brought it about. He was born in 1946 and raised in Harlem, New York, the son of a decorated World War II hero, Oliver Sr. – a medic who earned two Bronze Stars and one Silver Star while serving with the storied Buff alo Soldiers of the all-African-Amercian 92nd Infantry Division – and the Italian wife that the G.I. met and married while serving in Italy.
Despite Martin’s American upbringing, the Italian roots of his mother, Tina, ran deep, and she traveled with her children several times to visit family in the home country. It was on one such trip that young Oliver saw bike racing for the first time as the 1954 Giro d’Italia passed through the town where his grandparents lived. Martin and an uncle went down to main street to catch the race as it moved from the start in Lucca to the finish in Viareggio. The 7-year-old was drawn to the parade-like atmosphere as spectators anticipated the race. And then it came.
“I stood back a little bit, about 100 feet from the road with my uncle,” Martin said, recalling that he was too short to see when he stood near the road. “I remember all the cars and motorcycles coming through, and then the bike racers with all the jerseys, the greens, the blues, the yellows. It was like, oh my god. And then I remember even more particularly were the team vehicles. They were all U.S. Army Jeeps. All open, with the mechanics standing in the back and the team director driving. And they each had a few spare bikes. I remember this huge caravan, and that really stuck. It really, really stuck, this spectacle on wheels. I had never seen so many bicycles in my life.”
It was a lasting impression, but one that faded when Martin returned to the United States and its enthusiasm for traditional ball sports. He took up one after another: football, baseball, basketball, even speed skating. But a chance encounter at age 14 with a pair of New York City cyclists changed his trajectory for good. The sight of the two brightly decked-out racers on their sleek machines reignited the exhilaration he felt at the Giro. He quickly borrowed a friend’s bike and followed the riders as they made their way to Central Park, where Martin discovered the city’s cycling scene.
“We went into the park and there was this area there that was just full of people with bikes,” Martin said. “And I was like, ‘Wow. This is unbelievable.’ All these fancy bicycles and jerseys. And Italy kept popping up. I didn’t know anything else about the Tour de France or anything. I did a half a lap with them, and then at 110th Street I knew that I could leave Central Park there and head home.”
Martin returned to the park the next Sunday at 6 a.m. on the borrowed bike to watch some actual racing. There were about 60-70 riders competing that day, which Martin described as “unbelievable.” He started bugging his parents for a racing bike, and eventually they relented. He bought his first racer, a Frejus fixed gear, for $119 at a nearby shop. It was near the end of the season, but Martin competed for the first time in a 25-mile time trial, finishing fourth. Over the winter he worked at a bike shop and made enough to buy his first true road bike, a Peugeot PX10, for $149. “It was cherry,” he said.
In 1963, at the age of 16, he joined the Unione Sportiva Italiano club, one of several that allowed black members. Martin’s success racing against adults continued, and he made the 1964 Olympic cycling track team in the men’s Team Pursuit and the 4,000 meters when he was barely 18. Then he followed his cycling dream back to where it started, traveling across the pond in February 1965 to take a spot on the highly regarded Soceita Ciclistica Corsica amateur team in Northern Italy. Martin, or “Il Americano” as the tifosi called him, sprung an upset first thing out of the gate by winning the prestigious Busto Arsizio from a field of 100. He followed that up with17 finishes in the top five and 30 in the top 12, including a win at the Gran Prix Final.
After two seasons in which he saw his team cut from 22 riders the first year to just four during the second, Martin returned to the states in the fall of 1966, hoping to eventually follow his remaining three teammates from the Italian club into the pro ranks. But the Vietnam draft put an end to that. Martin went into the Army in 1967, eventually getting a “special services” assignment with the Army cycling team. He was transferred to San Pedro, California, with just seven weeks to train for the 1968 Olympics. He earned a spot on the road race squad but ended up riding the 100km team time trial instead as a last-minute substitute.
Martin left the Army in 1969, returned to school and continued to race domestically until 1973, when he retired with more than 50 wins to his credit. He was asked to coach the national team in 1974, a time when Americans were known for finishing last in international competition – if they finished at all. Or, as Martin put it: “America had been getting its ass whipped all over the place. And I was a part of that when I was racing. And then when I went to Europe I saw a whole different world.”
He wanted to bring a new attitude to the team, and that meant changes. Riders who had been satisfied trying to make their third or fourth Olympics or win their “18th national title” were cast aside in favor of younger, hungrier riders who wanted to win against the best in the world. “So 1974 was the last of the of old group,” Martin said. The group Martin chose for the 1975 Pan Am games didn’t include the recently crowned national champion, causing ripples and hard feelings among people he considered friends. “That was hard for me,” Martin continued. “John Alice, I had gone to two Olympic games with him. He was a friend. It was tough, and I got a lot of criticism, but we wouldn’t have had the ’76 result if I had stayed in the mold.”
Above Photo: 1975 Junior World Trials – Somewhere near San Jose, CA. Jim Phillips Held By Butch Martin
Part of breaking the mold was placing faith in riders like Mount and Neel, a California hippie who had cut his teeth in Europe and was not well-known on the U. S. scene when he made the team in ’76. “They had attitude and resiliency; kids who could live off a jar of peanut butter in Mexico for a week,” Martin said. “These were kids who could live in a shitty hotel – that toughening process that a lot of the guys weren’t willing to make or suffer through. And to be a really good international rider you had to suffer through all the ups and downs.”
Despite the program’s upward trajectory, by 1978, Martin said, he could see the writing on the wall, and it wasn’t good. He had stepped on a lot of toes since 1974, and there was a strong move to bring a European coach into the program. “And so they found Eddy B. painting a bridge somewhere in New Jersey,” Martin said. “I’m not a political animal. I had my supporters of course, and they fought for me and everything, but I had told too many people off over the years, and I felt like the weight was really against me.”
Martin stayed on for another season as the women’s team coach, but he moved on in 1979. He continued coaching privately and met Steve Bauer while working for the GS Mengoni trade team in the early 1980s. The coaching relationship withGreg Lemond’s teammate and one-day classic specialist lasted more than 10 years, and Bauer remembers the time fondly.
“Typically I would bring Butch in to tune me up mentally and get me thinking right before the big races,” said Bauer, who wore yellow in the Tour de France for 14 days. “He’s a positive mentor. He’s all about positive influence and getting your game face on the right way and your belief systems. He’s definitely a good guy to have on your team to put you in the right mindset to try and win bike races.”
Martin also worked as the head of national sales for a bicycle component maker and worked as race director for events in Northand SouthAmerica. He even had his own line of “Oliver Martin” cycling clothes, but when opportunities started to dry up, and with a family to support, he was forced to look outside cycling for his income.
He took a job with Kinkos in the computer services department and was transferred to Portland in 2000. Martin, whose wife Rebecca is a high school teacher and track coach, eventually took an early retirement and settled in for a well-deserved rest. But he couldn’t sit still for long. After discussing the matter with his wife, Martin decided to start a regional amateur team in the Northwest. After several seasons of success in the senior ranks, Martin turned his attention toward some of the promising juniors in the area, bringing them on board his adult team at first but creating a juniors-only squad by 2008. Martin’s Hammer-CMG team featured four Oregon riders that first year: Marcel DeLisser, Austin Arguello, Ian Boswell and Jacob Rathe. All four riders competed with the Junior national team in 2008 and 2009.
“I picked that age group because it’s sort of a transitional group,” Martin said. “The next step up is big boy racing. Any younger than that and they don’t really know if they want to be bike racers. By 17 or 18, they’re like, ‘Hey, I like this.' ”
Boswell and Rathe were two riders who really liked it and excelled. Bothgraduated to the U23 Continental development team ranks at Bontrager-Livestrong and Chipotle, respectively. Boswell, who finished second at the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege this year, signed a three-year deal withTeam Sky at the end of the season, while Rathe, who was third at the U23 Paris-Roubaix and won a stage at the Tour of Portugal in 2011, signed a two-year deal with Garmin-Sharp last fall.
Rathe has been working withMartin since he was 16 and believes the seasoned coach’s involvement was “vital” to his success. He said Martin’s depthof experience immediately changed the way he viewed cycling, and the coach’s intensity helped him focus. “He’s not a guy who will waste time with anyone who’s not all in,” Rathe said. “He’s a full-time coach and puts a lot of energy into it, and he expects the same out of you, which I think is fair.”
Max Durtschi, who rode on the U.S. national team and on Garmin’s development team for the 2010 and 2011 seasons before moving to Europe this year with Saxo Bank devo squad, joined Hammer-CMG in 2009 and got off to a very slow spring. Martin took him aside one day, and they talked for several hours. “He basically said, ‘You’ve got to let go. You’re riding like you’re almost in chains or in a cage. You need to break out and ride to your capabilities,'” Durtschi recalled. “And ever since that point it just kind of changed the way I thought about cycling and the way I’ve thought about everyday life.” Durtschi went on to win national championships in both the road race and criterium later that year.
Since throwing his hat into the junior ranks, Martin has shepherded a continuous stream of riders onto national teams and beyond. Four current and former riders competed for the United States at the world championships in 2011. Alex Darville, who will move on to Bontrager-Livestrong next year, was the top American finisher in the 2012 junior worlds road race. And Martin has also started working with Garmin’s Nathan Haas after director Allan Peiper asked him to lend the young Aussie a hand when he got off to a slow start. Haas finished second overall at the tour of Britain by the end of the year.
And that’s where Martin gets his satisfaction during this second time around for coaching: watching talented young riders break through often-times self-imposed limits on what they can accomplish. If there were only one message he could pass along to aspiring young riders, it would be to “roll the dice.” Champions must risk losing it all to get a taste of victory, Martin emphasizes, and he likes to point out that Eddie Merckx lined up for 220 races the year he won 50 times.
“A lot of them can’t throw the dice because they are afraid they’re going to fail,” Martin said. “But you are going to fail more times than not. To be able to grasp that and know, I’ve got to swing the bat 100 times to connect one good time. You have to get that much time in. There will be pop ups and ground balls and missed bunts. All of that shit. You want to connect, and that takes stick-to-itiveness. You got to stand in there. Good days and bad days.”