Monday, February 04, 2008

NelsonVails


February being “Black History Month” I thought I would touch on a piece of history that is just twenty, some odd, years old.

In the 1984 Olympic Games, held in Los Angeles, a young black cyclist who grew up in the projects of Harlem, in New York City, won a Silver Medal on the track in the 1,000 meter sprint.

I get the feeling that there are many cyclists out there who have never heard of Nelson Vails, or if they have heard of him have allowed the memory to slip into the far reaches of their memory banks. As for the rest of the population, who remembers a silver medalist in an obscure sport like sprint cycling?

I remember because I met then 19 year old Nelson Vails in 1979, or early 1980 when I worked for Paris Sport in New Jersey. I worked in the frameshop at the back of Park Cycles, a bike shop owned by Vic and Mike Fraysee. Just seven miles from Manhattan, over the George Washington bridge, cyclists from New York City would ride the bike path over the bridge to visit the bike store.

It was on such a visit that Mike Fraysee brought Nelson down to the frameshop and introduced him as an up and coming young bike racer. Later on many trips I made to Lehigh County Velodrome, near Allentown in Pennsylvania, I got to see Nelson Vails race.

Nelson was the youngest of 10 children and grew up in Harlem; he was a bicycle nut by the time he reached his teen years.

Entering races in Central Park and at the bumpy, aging velodrome in Queens, he raced with an assortment of miss-matched cheap equipment, and worn out clothing with holes. He wore a pair of second hand cycling shoes that were too big for him, but in spite of this would hold his own against well-trained athletes on better equipment.

By aged 19 Vails was married and had children of his own; he had to make a living. His natural choice was that of a bike messenger in Manhattan. Bike messengers carry everything from letters and jewels to wedding gowns and baseball uniforms, all over the town, at terrifying speed.

The more packages a messenger carries in a day the more money they make. They learn to ride at the speed of traffic when it is moving, riding in the slipstream of delivery vans. Squeezing through narrow gaps in traffic whenever it is stopped or moving slow.

One would think an eight or ten hour shift as a bike messenger would be training enough, but Nelson would ride 40 miles in the morning before work, and he would also ride on weekends.

All this training, plus the turn of speed he developed on the streets of Manhattan took him all the way to a place on the US National team in 1982. He won a Gold Medal in the Pan American games, held in Venezuela in 1983.

Then in 1984 came disappointment when Nelson was beaten by Mark Gorski in the Olympic trials. The structure of the 1,000 meter sprint event was that only one rider from each country could compete.

Then world politics took over and changed the fate of Nelson Vails. The Russians dropped out of the Olympics and this opened up a spot for one extra rider. The Olympic finals was a repeat of the trials earlier; Mark Gorski won the Gold, and Nelson Vails the Silver. Tsutomo Sakamoto of Japan took the Bronze.

What I remember about Nelson Vails was his personality; always smiling, always joking. His attitude on the track was the same as when he was a bike messenger in Manhattan. “Stay out of my way; I have a job to do.”

In 1986 Nelson made his acting debut in the movie “Quicksilver” starring Kevin Bacon. Appropriately, a story about bike messengers; he was cast as “Messenger in Maroon Beret.”

Nelson Vails has my utmost admiration. He came from a poor and underprivileged neighborhood in Harlem, and despite this, through hard work and determination made it to the top, in what could be seen as a middle class white man’s sport.

The last I heard Nelson was living in Boulder, Colorado; still riding his bike, cycling in recreational tours across the country. You can read more about Nelson Vails on BlackAthlete.com.


Picture source:
Top picture
2nd. picture
3rd. picture
Last picture


18 comments:

Carl said...

I live in Boulder and can remember Mike Aisner (of Red Zinger/Coors Classic fame) organizing an "all comers" sprint to advertise his race. The sprint was downtown and Nelson was there with his "trick" sprint bike. It had a rear derailleur and two cogs. The derailleur was operated by a brake lever. Upon starting, Nelson held in the lever keeping the bike in a low gear. As he came to speed he realeased the lever and the bike upshifted to a higher, and faster gear. Very cool... and yes, the man was ALWAYS smiling. - Carl N.

Anonymous said...

Dave, great article about Nelson. You made one mistake. It was my brother Les that rode with Nelson on the tandem. It was Jerry Ash and I that won a silver medal at the world championships in 1978.

Leigh Barczewski

Anonymous said...

GREAT STORY ! what a un-sung hero,its good he can be reconized years later.

Dave Moulton said...

Leigh,
Thank you for bringing attention to my error; I was misinformed about the facts and the date. I have removed the incorrect paragraph.
Dave.

mander said...

Woo hoo! More cycling history stories please Dave, I'm loving the blog lately.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Dave, Carl and Leigh for bringing great stories to life. Great blogs have generous readers.
Thanks guys!
Jack

VintageSpin said...

I had the privilege of seeing Nelson Vails and Mark Gorski competing at Morley Field in San Diego in the early 80’s National Track Championships. What struck me about Nelson as we crowded the fence right next to the paved track was how huge his thighs were.
Nice that you chose a less obvious black athlete to honor; this is the shared appeal of cycling: such a great personal experience that can be had by many working class people.

ridebikes said...

great post!

Rich said...

Dave,
Another great story, Dave! Had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Nelson for the first time at this last Interbike in '07 where he had gone just to hang out with some bike friends. Super friendly, all smiles and with a great sense of humor.

As for the "Where are they now?" story, he's an airline pilot flying for (I believe) Frontier Airlines.

db said...

I had completely forgotten about Nelson Vails. Thanks for posting that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dave for posting!

Seeing him and Les racing each other showed good team mates trying to best each other.

I've been to the shop in Ridgefield Park many times.

As a former NYC messenger of 18yrs and racer of 10yrs , it was good to see him make it to the top. Butch Martin is another.

Lenny of Toga and Al Toefield of Kissena are looking downat Nelson saying Thanks!

I say thanks you, Nelson!


S/F,
CEYA!

blackmountaincycles said...

I remember seeing Nelson at Pacific Coast Cycles in Carlsbad, CA (a shop I was soon to start working), where the national team would winter. Nelson, upon finishing the assembly of his new bike, took a ball peen hammer and neatly dented the top tube saying "it's going to happen sooner or later." Thanks for the reminder of a great cyclist.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Any thoughts on Marshall "Major" Taylor, a.k.a. The Worcester Whirlwind, the first African-American world champion in any sport (in this case, track cycling)?

Jon said...

Oh wow! Never realized Nelson Vails was the guy in Quicksilver. Very cool. I am really digging these bike history posts. Always very enlightening and always very well written. Can't wait for the next one.

Ratt said...

Nelson is a true legend in the sport of cycling.. who cares what color he is or was.. the man was & is an animal..by the way.. i'm the photographer who took the 3rd photo & I do ride as well.. though not as well as the Cheetah! lol..thanks for the article!
Ratt

Roman Holiday said...

Nice story.

http://keepitstreetlevel.blogspot.com/2008/02/mean-streets-of-new-york-city.html

Cloudbase said...

Dave,

I awesome blog man!

http://cloudbaseimaging.blogspot.co
m/2008/03/training-update.html

Cheers,

-Alex

Shon Sweet said...

He just was visiting down here in the LA area and came into my shop. I loaned him some pedals for his girlfriend, and a seat bag incase he got a flat. Great guy still to this day. still looking fit and fast! wish I could've taken the day off to ride with him, but was happy to help him out.
Noone else in the shop knew who he was, but that was the fun part.
Go Cheetah!!

Shon
Edge Cyclesports
Laguna Woods, CA