Magazine Feature / People

A Denver cycling icon dies

For more than a quarter century, the Denver Spoke, an unassuming East Evans Avenue bike shop near DU, has been an icon of the bicycling world.

Top racers and celebrities flocked to it and championships were earned because of it — successes largely driven by Dong Ngo, a sharp-tongued, effervescent South Vietnamese refugee who built and sold bikes at the shop.

On Dec. 18, more than 300 people gathered in tribute to Dong, whose expertise, energy and no-nonsense prodding had sold them their bikes and fanned their passion for racing.

Dong Ngo — soldier, athlete and craftsman — died unexpectedly Dec. 7. He was 52.

“He was the kind of guy you’d never forget — an incredible salesman. He could sell to anybody,” said Michael Carter, a retired professional rider who won four world master’s hill-climb championships after Dong sponsored and supported Carter’s efforts.

Paired with great salesmanship were an infectious passion for bike racing and a generous nature, Carter said.

“He was a go-to guy. If you weren’t sure about anything, you’d go see Dong,” Carter said.

Thousands of people did, often ending up buying more bike gear than they had intended.

“They all spent more than they expected and were pleased they had,” joked long-time customer Jerry Eckelberger.

Part of Dong’s success, admirers say, came from his bluntness, insistence on doing things his way and distinctive speech. “Dis da bike for you, Bud” was so often heard in the Denver Spoke that it became a shop cliché. Customers were brazenly addressed as “Bud” or “Lady” and told what they needed, not asked what they wanted, even if it ended up costing them thousands more.

Dong’s genius was in fitting a rider to the right bike, Carter said, so customers seldom complained about the hard sell that became known throughout the Denver biking community as “being Donged.”

“He’s the only person in Denver whose name became a verb,” said long-time customer Jay Ogsbury. “Everyone has been ‘Donged’ and we’re all proud of it.”

Dong’s days in Denver began in the cauldron of war. Born in Saigon in 1955, he was quickly folded into the South Vietnamese army at age18, flying helicopters in a rapidly deteriorating cause. When Saigon fell in 1975, Dong flew himself and other refugees to Thailand, where he entered the stream of combatants and loyalists seeking safety in the U.S.

He was eventually transported to a refugee center in Fort Chafee, Ark., then released to the sponsorship of Richard Maier, who as a GI in Vietnam had met and married Dong’s sister, Thu, and settled in Shreveport, La.

“He [Dong] came over here with nothing, with a knapsack on his back,” said Richard Maier.

Three months later, Dong set out on his own, spending time at Louisiana State University, where he was a collegiate tennis standout, before moving to Denver in the early ‘80s to become a “wrench” in area bike shops.

A superb athlete, Dong would log miles on his road bike, stand for nine hours in a bike shop, then go to Washington Park to play tennis. He became a fixture of the Denver tennis community, getting to know top players and competing in major local tournaments including the Denver City Open.

But it was Dong’s skill at fitting bikes to riders at the Denver Spoke that got him noticed and helped make the Spoke in the 1980s “the No. 1 bike shop west of the Mississippi,” Carter said.

Legends of bike racing walked through its doors, including three-time Tour de France winner Greg Lemond, Olympic gold medalist Alexi Grewal and legendary Belgian racer Eddie Merckx.

“[Dong] had a great sense of humor and liked everybody,” said Rochelle Turnage, his companion since 1990.

“He had a gruff exterior, but a very genuine and generous heart,” Carter said.

“To adapt and touch people in a completely different culture,” said Maier, “is truly amazing.”

Visit for information about donations for a memorial bench at Washington Park and a Bikes for Children Foundation.

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