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Now 77, bike-riding artist often leaves his younger companions far behind HOWARD COUNTY


When the guys first set eyes on Gino Manelli, they figure he'll slow them down. He is a smallish man well into his 70s, about to ride bicycles with men half his age.

"Everybody wonders: 'How fast is this guy going to ride?' " says Tony Neenan, one of the riders. "Then he ends up dropping half the people going up the hill."

Mr. Manelli, 77, has been leaving riders behind for more than 60 years. He was a professional racer, a champion, in Italy before World War II.

Now he rides 30 miles to 40 miles of a Sunday morning with a group of men who meet behind his art studio in Ellicott City. Mr. Manelli is also an accomplished artist.

"This guy is incredible on a bike," says Mr. Neenan, 44, who has ridden with Mr. Manelli for three years. "Pound for pound, he's the best rider out there, bar none."

The youngest in this informal group of a couple of dozen is 17, just the age Gino Manelli was when he started racing in Italy. He turned professional at 18 and raced throughout the country until, at 21, he was forced to join the Italian army at the beginning of the war.

During his three racing years he won plenty, as the clippings in his scrapbooks attest. One describes how he beat the world champion in a sprint.

Mr. Manelli thumbs through the scrapbooks on a gloomy day in his studio on Old Columbia Pike, about halfway up the hill from Main Street. His accent is thick. But he makes himself clear when he says bicycle racing is "the sport of the poet."

He describes riding into the Italian mountains and seeing a field of cows high above. And then he reaches the field, rides higher and finally gazes down upon the cows.

"Like a bird," he says.

These hills around Ellicott City, they are nothing.

"To me, this is no hill," he spits. "Too much flat, flat, flat."

He returns to Italy about once a year to ride with his old friends as well as the young ones who regard him as the master. After his trip two years ago, he told Mr. Neenan he had entered two races and won one -- at age 75.

One of his sons, Bernie, who owns Manelli's luncheonette on Frederick Road in Paradise, says his father is "like a little kid" when it comes to bicycles. They ride together occasionally.

"I'll be home on the couch, and the weather's bad, and he'll call," the son says. "This 77-year-old man is on the phone saying, 'Well, are we going or what? . . . Oh, come on, what are you, chicken?'"

Mr. Manelli's racing career was cut short by World War II. He was forced to join the Italian army which, of course, fought with Hitler's Germany. But he was loyal to the Allies. He'd been born in Philadelphia. His parents had emigrated to the United States around the turn of the century. His father was a tailor.

The Depression chased the Manellis back to Italy when Gino was 8 years old. He studied art and learned to race his bicycle.

During the war, he says, he was trained on a horse for the cavalry, and then he was trained on a motorcycle. But whenever his superiors threatened to send him to the front, he ran away. He ran many times, he says, "until the war finished."

The last time saved his life. When the Germans occupied his town, he says, he was arrested for disloyalty. He probably would have been shot, he says, except that he told his captors: "I'm a painter. I'm a painter."

So he painted their portraits until, eventually, he escaped again.

Mr. Manelli raced very little after the war. He and his wife, Cristina, had two sons. He opened a dry-cleaning business, played drums in a jazz band, worked as a caricaturist for a newspaper and painted.

He and his family moved to the United States in 1956. His brothers had come before him and settled in Baltimore. Mr. Manelli got a job in a tailor shop and moved into a house in Catonsville.

About 15 years ago he bought and renovated his art studio in Ellicott City. He occasionally gives lessons. His paintings hang in many places, including restaurants in Baltimore's Little Italy.

"I can't be rich," he says. "But I like it."

His painting is for the soul, his son says, and his cycling for the body.

Mr. Manelli shows a photo of all the riders posed outside his studio one fresh summer morning. "The friendship when you bike," he says. "They look like brothers, all of them."

The riders share the sentiment. Mr. Neenan says that sometimes he'll pedal up next to Mr. Manelli, pat him on the back and say: "When I grow up, I want to be just like you."

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