Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Former Olympian and teacher still an inspiration

This column appeared in the Bay Area News Group papers in July 2010.
Pictured below in 1961 is cyclist Bob Tetzlaff (left) with Nevada City Bicycle Race founder Charlie Allert. The photo was taken in Nevada City, the first year of the race. Tetzlaff took first place. He returned in 1962 to win the race again. He went on to many victories, was inducted into the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2003, and in 1974 founded (with his wife Lorine) the Cat's Hill Criterium in Los Gatos, a race that continues annually.

In 1962, two years after competing as a cyclist in the Olympics in Rome, Bob Tetzlaff taught his first class of elementary students.

Throughout his 40-year career, he had a knack for sharing stories that served to teach and inspire. I know this because I was in his class in the fifth grade.

Picture a 1967 classroom in Los Gatos, California. The pencil sharpener is full of fresh shavings. In front of the classroom stands a graduate of UCLA, 32 years old, born in Milwaukee, clean-cut in a suit and tie.

His passion for teaching fills the room. We learn more than arithmetic or grammar. We learn that opportunity can present itself even in the most unusual circumstances.

Mr. Tetzlaff teaches us this as he tells about a day when he was training with a bayonet in 1958 in the pouring rain at Ford Hood, Texas. A sergeant shouted to him to come forward. Thinking he was in trouble, Tetzlaff learned that the Army knew he was a cyclist and arranged for him to compete for Team USA. This led to placing sixth in the Pan American Games and competing in the Olympics. In that moment in the army his life was changed.

After school, I look up the Olympics in our family’s encyclopedia. I imagine the discipline it would take to become a cyclist or marathon runner. I decide that tomorrow at recess--instead of playing tetherball--
I'll run across the expanse of lawn of the school yard to the far fence.

The next day in class, Mr. Tetzlaff doesn’t tell us that his nickname was “King of the Road” after winning so many road races or that in 1959 he won the national “Best All Around” rider award and took sixth place in the Pan American Games in Chicago.

Instead, we’re learning history. He knows that details about his victories are not what matter. What matters is that he knows our names and cares about us, that he is teaching us to write and to think, and that we are the reason he comes to work every day.

I learned well from him, since today I have a passion for teaching and cycling that I can trace back to Mr. Tetzlaff. He is listed in my roster of great teachers, and after I moved away from Los Gatos, I often wished I’d thanked him. As time ticked on, I feared I might miss my chance.

Then last month I was in Grass Valley visiting relatives for Father’s Day, and Nevada City was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its classic bike race. The newspaper said several prior race winners would be on hand at a reception the evening before the race, including the 1961 and 1962 champion, Bob Tetzlaff.

Seeing opportunity in the unusual circumstances, I invited my 18-year-old daughter to make the short drive with me to Nevada City. As we walked toward the theater on Broad Street, I wondered how much he may have changed with time. Stepping inside, I instantly recognized Mr. Tetzlaff.

“That’s him,” I told my daughter. We had to wait only a few moments. Because of the noisy, crowded lobby, I leaned in to say I’d been one of his students. Emotion caught me off guard as I told him I’m an avid cyclist and distance runner, and that I’d been inspired by him.

We chatted for a few minutes and my daughter took a picture of us. We met his wife, Lorine, and we learned that he still teaches part time, even in retirement.

So Mr. Tetzlaff, on behalf of all the students who never got the chance to say so, thank you for being a great teacher, for being a role model, and for the difference you’ve made in our lives.

Jim Ott with his teacher Bob Tetzlaff, taken in Nevada City in June 2010. Photo by Melissa Ott

NOTE: This column generated many emails from people who knew or competed against Tetzlaff. Here is a sampling of the emails I received:

Mr. Ott,

Thanks for your story about Bob Tetzlaff and for remembering him as I do. I too had "Mr. T" as a teacher. 1973/74, 5th grade, Daves Ave School in LG and I remember him fondly. His name comes up when I'm asked the "best teacher you ever had" question.

Remember the old "Cat's Hill Bike Race" he organized every year? Good times.

I often think of him, especially during the Tour, and glad you tracked him down to find him well. Funny though. All these years I have thought of him as a Mexico City Olympic athlete. Thanks for setting it straight.

I too am an avid road cyclist and marathoner and like to think Mr. Tetzlaff has inspired me to compete and enjoy doing it.

Thanks again. Your story made my day.

-Ben Clayden
Danville, CA

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Nice article on Bob. He's still the king.

George Mount
[Note: George Mount is an American former professional cyclist. Mount was sixth at the 1976 Montreal Olympics road race which launched his professional career and propelled the US into post-war international cycling. He raced professionally in the US and Europe, the first American to break into European road racing. Mount was inducted to the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame.]

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Wonderful essay on Bob Tetzlaff. I raced against him a few times in the 60's, and I can say that it was not only his classroom students who learned a lot from him and were inspired by him. I personally was very motivated by his example and, as a result, have found great satisfaction in my brief racing career and as a life-long avid cyclist.

Hope to see you on the road!


John Nidecker
Team Alameda
Santa Rosa CC
ex-Berkeley Wheelmen
ex-Pedali Alpini

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Thanks for the great tribute to Bob. I met him in 1964, my first year of bike racing. Indeed, he was a well liked mentor to many of us young bikies.

Bob and Lorine have been regular attendees of our annual Old Farts ride, now in its 30th year. My wife, Tena, keeps the email list of some 200 riders, and she sent the link to your column to everyone. I'll forward some comments from Skip Cutting who was a member of the '68 Olympic team.

BTW, I'm also an adjunct anatomy teacher at Las Positas College. And I was in Nevada City for the race on Father's Day. As a spectator, of course. I had read about the reunion of previous winners in the same newspaper.

John Gallagher

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Skip Cutting wrote the following to Tena after she sent out the column through email:


Thanks for sending this out. Bob is such a kind person, and of course, was a wonderful cyclist. I managed to beat him in the sprint finish at the Tour of Solvang in 1963 - my first 'big' win - and I was so excited to have beat the King.

Afterwards, we ran into each other in the bar at Mattie's Tavern, where the finish was, and Bob bought me a beer (of course, I was only 17 and didn't drink beer - but what the heck...). I was blown away, that this guy I just beat would do such a thing. One of my first great lessons on true championism.

I spoke to Bob on the phone a couple of years ago -- it was wonderful to talk with him, and reminisce....

He is a guy who, in my opinion, should not be forgotten for a myriad of reasons. If you see him, please render our best wishes.

Regarding the Ol' Farts ride, can't make it this year, but please keep me on the list - one never knows about the next.... I am riding, really training pretty darned hard. My training partner is younger and we are getting him prepped for the Master's Natz in a couple of weeks in Louisville. So everyday, we follow the training schedule that I have concocted - and every day he works me over. My wife says it is just another example of poetic justice....

Because of the article on Bob, I am forwarding this email to the guys from the '68 Olympic Team that I have addresses for. Thanks again.

Best, Skip

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