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The Kool-Aid Acid Test: TOUR DEL MAR ’66

Words by Bruce Hildenbrand with images courtesy of the Modesto Roadmen

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What if you put on a bike race and invited the Grateful Dead to give a concert afterward? How about making it a multi-day event and include Quick Silver Messenger Service as a second act at each day’s post-race festivities? And what if it really happened one summer weekend on the Northern California coast in 1966?

That year’s Tour del Mar was all that and more, but it took a strange twist of fate to put it all in motion.  Pedali Alpini was one of California’s most prestigious bike racing clubs in a region that was a hotbed for cycling excellence. It had placed three members on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team and had decided to increase its focus on developing more international-caliber riders. Unfortunately, a number of the more free-spirited members of the club bristled at the new direction and split off to form the Belmont Bicycle Club (BBC). As Pedali Alpini had previously organized two races—the Mount Hamilton Road Race and the Tour del Mar—Pedali took Mount Hamilton and Belmont got the beach.

Enter Tom Preuss as the race promoter. He was part of the splinter group that formed the BBC. “He was enthusiastic, and he was pretty organized to do this. But it was more just sheer enthusiasm and love of doing it,” remembers Steve Lubin, who won the junior category race at the 1965 Tour del Mar. Preuss’ vision was to turn the traditional one-day race into a three-day event and make it not only a bike race but also a folk-rock festival. He even threw in a dance, for those so inclined.

The 1966 edition was held in the sleepy California town of Pescadero, which lies 50 miles south of San Francisco and 2 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. It’s primarily a farming and ranching community surrounded by small, scenic roads that were perfect for cycling. And the IDES Hall in the tiny downtown area was an ideal location for the folk-rock festival and dance.

Preuss didn’t have to look far to find the bands. The Grateful Dead were living in Palo Alto, right next door to Preuss’ hometown of Menlo Park. The Dead had formed the year before as the Warlocks but had recently changed names. As the Grateful Dead, the band had begun its rise to international stardom in January 1966, playing at the Trips Festival that was portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s critically acclaimed novel “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” The acid tests were the brainchild of award-winning novelist Ken Kesey.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s Kesey had taken part in the CIA’s clandestine project, MKUltra, which was designed to assess the potential use of LSD and other drugs for mind control, information gathering and psychological torture. His book “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was partially based on the LSD experiments held at the Veterans Administration Hospital in nearby Menlo Park.

While the details have long been lost, Tour del Mar race promoter Preuss’ family owned a pharmacy in Menlo Park that was supposedly tasked with supplying the LSD to the VA Hospital. While delivering the drug, Preuss had been known to skim a bit of product for his personal use. It’s worth noting that LSD was not illegal in California until several months after the 1966 Tour del Mar.  And it’s safe to say that part of the race promoter’s vision was chemically enhanced.

The three-day Tour del Mar began on Friday with a publicity shindig in San Francisco. A then-15-year-old Gary Fisher, who a decade later would be one of those credited with giving birth to the mountain bike, recalls the day: “We had a big parade, so to speak, which started at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. There were about 35 bike riders, and the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service were in convertibles. We rode down to the Playboy Club. I couldn’t get in [because] I was too young. We then rode back up to San Francisco City Hall and the Mayor at the time gave us the key to the city. Then we rode our bikes down to Redwood City and the mayor down there gave us the key to his city.”

Saturday’s racing featured a criterium around Pescadero, with both the seniors and juniors riding 25 miles. But it wasn’t just your usual criterium. “I remember the presence of the Hertz Ford GT350H pace cars, which immediately gave a bit of status to the event,” says John Gallagher, who competed in the junior event.

After the racing, the bands took center stage. “There were more band people than there were people who came to the gig,” recalls Fisher. “Over the two nights there, maybe 100 people showed up to actually go to the gig.” But that’s not all he remembers. “I went into the hall before the gig started and I met this girl, Girl Freiberg. Quicksilver named a song after her [she was married to the band’s guitarist David Freiberg]. She took me out in the back into a big straw flower field, all these straw flowers out there. And she just starts making out with me and I am like 15 years old!”

The weekend was also an eye-opening experience for Gallagher. “I certainly recall the concert with the QMS and GD, complete with a light show,” he says. “That was the first I had seen; it was an experience to say the least. I have no recollection of where I slept on Saturday night. Camping at the beach, maybe?”

Sunday’s road race stage was held on a 28-mile loop that has been in use now for more than 60 years and includes the hamlets of San Gregorio and La Honda before returning through a stunning redwood forest to Pescadero. On the way it passed right by Ken Kesey’s place—an early commune that was also home to his cohorts, the Merry Pranksters, and occasional band members of the Dead. The senior men rode four laps for 112 miles while the juniors rode half that distance. “Our race was followed by a Ferrari GTO,” recalls Gallagher. “Yes, that kind of GTO!”

The event had an everlasting impact on Gary Fisher who dropped out of racing and went to work for the Grateful Dead; Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and other bands—first helping build their stage sets then doing light shows at the concerts and forming a company called The Lightest Show on Earth. “I was a hanger-on. I was a kid,” he remembers. “That band in that moment was a whole big, huge movement of spirituality and consciousness. Jerry Garcia showed me how to roll a joint. I am still really good friends with Mountain Girl, his ex.”

After four years with the bands it all came to an end for Fisher after the disastrous rock concert at the Altamont Speedway, where the Hells Angels motorcycle club was hired as event security. When an African-American teenager climbed onto a speaker box near the stage where the Rolling Stones were performing, he was pulled down by the Hells Angels; and after he brandished a gun the beer-drinking security guards stabbed, stomped and kicked him to death. The incident, seen as racist, was later memorialized in the Stones song “Gimme Shelter.” As for Fisher, he rekindled his passion for cycling and the rest is, as they say, history.

For race promoter Preuss, a few years after the Tour del Mar, his heavy use of LSD finally caught up with him. “It must have been sometime between 1966 and 1968,” says Lubin. “I was at my parents’ house in Woodside and Tom showed up at midnight. My father was a psychoanalyst and Tom was looking for psychiatric help. He was on an extremely bad trip and I ended up driving him to San Francisco. We were driving up Skyline Boulevard and there was this bright red sunrise and he was convinced we were under nuclear attack. He kind of freaked out—he [later] went through various body cleansings to try to purify himself and he ended up living on the street. People just cut him off, because he was too hard to deal with.”

In the mid-1970s Preuss tried to organize another edition of the Tour del Mar, but he was so incapacitated by drug abuse that he couldn’t get organized enough to bring it off. His former friends recall that he passed away about 10 years ago.

History will record that Michael Pickens of the San Diego Bicycle Club won the senior event and Pedali Alpini’s Lubin won the junior race, but the 1966 Tour del Mar was much more than a bike race.  It was a seminal event in Northern California bicycle racing. Some say it sowed the seeds for the 1971 Tour of California, which brought national and international stars to the Golden State. But it also opened the eyes and changed the lives of many of the participants. One went on to a spectacular career in the bicycle industry, while another, sadly, was consumed by the culture of the time and shone brightly for a moment only to burn out in the end.

From issue 95. Buy it here.