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.
As a teenager in the 1950s one of the highlights of my year was during the Tour de France when I would order copies of a French sports paper called “Le Miroir des Sports.”
It would arrive in the mail, a newspaper size publication printed on glossy paper. All in French so I couldn’t understand the captions, but I didn’t need to, I could pick out the riders names and the photos themselves told the story.
Over the years my copies got lost, then some time ago I discovered bicycle history enthusiast Aldo Ross has a large collection of these papers. Most people with such a collection would keep them to themselves, but Aldo Ross generously shares these images by posting what he calls his “Pic of the day” on the Wool Jersey site.
I use the word “generously” because scanning and posting these pictures is a time consuming exercise. The pictures give me a great deal of pleasure, especially when occasionally I will remember a picture from my youth. Like the one below of Swiss rider Hugo Koblet on his way to his 1951 Tour win.
You can see from the picture, the road conditions were atrocious, and punctures were a frequent occurrence. Race regulations back then did not allow a wheel change and Koblet’s team is changing the tire. These are tubular tires, glued to the rim.
Often the riders changed their own tires if their mechanic was not close at hand. You can see the spare tire laying at Koblet’s feet; this was probably wrapped around his shoulders, which was a typical way to carry a spare back then.
A second spare tire is neatly folded and strapped under his saddle. Incidentally, that is probably a Brooks B17 leather saddle; I say that because almost the entire Tour de France field rode on a B17 during that era.
Koblet’s bike has a regular pump in front of the seat tube, and a CO2 pump behind it. (Yes, we had CO2 pumps back then.) The bike has steel cottered cranks with Simplex rings. It has early Campagnolo front and rear derailleurs, operated by bar end shifters. (Not shown in this picture.)
There is no derailleur hanger, the gear is clamped to the rear dropout, and there were no braze-on cable stops. The bike has a full length cable from the handlebar gear lever to the rear derailleur, held to the frame with clips. There are fender eyelets on the rear dropouts; this bike would be used for racing and training.
Koblet’s eyes are focused down the hill, looking to see who is coming up. He was probably leading when he punctured; tall and slender, he has the ultimate climber’s build. He is reaching in his pocket for food, it is almost impossible to eat on a climb like this, so a rider would use a forced stop like this the grab some nourishment. Note that the jersey has front pockets as well as rear, and these are also stuffed with food.
Another puncture in this next picture; (Right.) Koblet is now wearing the race leader’s Yellow Jersey. Even though the picture is not in color I know it is the Yellow Jersey because it has the initials HD embroidered on the chest, for Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour de France who died in 1940.
Again, his face stuffed with food, Koblet checks his watch to see how much time he has lost.
In the final picture, Koblet has a spare tire crossed behind his back and looped around his shoulders. He has his goggles on his arm, as his pockets are no doubt full of food. Because he has a pump on his seat tube, a second water bottle is mounted on his handlebars.
Plastic water bottles have not yet arrived, these were made from spun aluminum, with a real cork for a stopper.
There are more pictures from Hugo Koblet's 1951 Tour victory on Aldo's page here.
My post on Fausto Coppi last Thursday brought the following comment:
“Coppi was a legend but before making an idol out of him, we have to remember he himself admitted several times that "you don’t win a bike race on mineral water alone"
Interpretations are open but doping was quite rampant.
To read the rich cycling culture from the pages of history is great but it’s not possible to look up to these people anymore, at least for me.”
It was not my intention to bring up the dope issue; I didn’t mention it in any of the pieces I have written about cyclists from the 1940s and 1950s. I felt I covered the topic pretty well in my Historical Perspective on Dope. However, since it was brought up I will touch on the subject again.
European professional cyclists taking amphetamines was an open secret in the 1950s. I knew it as a teenage kid in England, and if I knew, the governing body of cycle racing (the UCI) knew and so did the cycling press. Everyone turned a blind eye, and did or said nothing.
Like your mother always said, “It’s only fun ’til someone gets hurt.” That’s how it was with the doping issue, nobody cared until Tom Simpson died. Then the cycling press who for years had kept quiet, were among the first to cry out for the UCI to do something.
What is, and what is not acceptable in our society changes constantly; smoking is a good example. Fifty or sixty years ago, drunk driving was not the serious issue it is today; people tended to look the other way if someone a little tipsy got behind the wheel. One can hardly go back and criticize a person who did that back then. It doesn’t make it right that society accepted it, but that was then, and this is now.
Think of recreational drug use in the 1960s and 1970s. It was illegal but accepted, not necessarily by all of society, but certainly accepted among pier groups of like-minded people. Dope taking by professional cyclists was much like that; accepted as the norm by the pros and fans of cycling alike.
Street drugs today have become nasty, dangerous stuff; crack cocaine, and methamphetamines; drugs used in the 1960s were mild by comparison. Dope in sport too has escalated. It used to be stimulants only, like amphetamines, now it’s blood doping, steroids, and other body altering chemistry.
A person wouldn’t necessarily denounce their parent or grandparent because they did drugs in the 1960s. It is wrong, in my opinion, to go back and condemn great riders like Fausto Coppi and the others from that era because they took amphetamines. It doesn’t make it right by today’s standards, but it was open and accepted at that time.
If Fausto Coppi on dope rode away from the rest and finished minutes ahead of the others, I can guarantee those chasing him were on the same dope. The playing field was level. Today doping is banned so to do so is cheating; in the 1940s and 1950s the taking of amphetamines was an open secret, so by not taking them a professional rider was cheating himself.
When Fausto Coppi made the statement, “You don’t win a bike race on mineral water alone.” He was being honest, but in doing so, he discredited himself and other riders of that era. They are now judged by today’s standards, and the present anti-doping mindset.
Amphetamines or not, these were tough, hard men. Take a look at the above picture and consider this: These cyclists rode as much as 170 miles a day, on dirt or gravel roads sometimes over three mountain passes. They did this on bikes weighing 25 or 26 lbs, carrying some of their own food, water, tools, and spare tires. I am not advocating the use of stimulants, but it could be argued such a feat was not possible on just mineral water.
I neither condone nor judge the riders of the 1940s and 1950s era, and I don’t pretend that doping didn’t take place. Having said that, they were the heroes of my youth, and they still have my admiration today. Maybe a person has to be of my generation to understand that.
Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi was one of the most successful and popular cyclists of all time.
Like Gino Bartali his career was interrupted by WWII; however, the big difference was, he was five years younger than Bartali; Coppi was 25 when war ended, Bartali was already past 30.
His pre-war successes came early, he won his first Giro d’Italia in 1940 at age 20; to this day the youngest ever to do so.
During the war in 1942 he set the world hour record (Unpaced.) at the Vigorelli Velodrome, in Milan.
He covered 45.798 kilometers (28.457 miles.) in one hour. (Picture left.) A record that would stand for 14 years until broken by Jacques Anquetil in 1956.
One year after setting this record Fausto Coppi was in the Italian army, captured by the British, and held as a prisoner of war in North Africa; where he remained until the war ended.
Coppi’s post war career in the late 1940s and early 1950s is the stuff of legends. When on form he was unbeatable, many times simply riding away from the opposition to finish solo often minutes ahead.
For example in the 1946 Milan-San Remo race; Coppi attacked with nine other riders just 3 miles (5 km) into the 181 mile (292 km) race. On the climb up the Turchino, Coppi dropped the nine riders and went on to win by 14 minutes over the second placed rider, and by 18:30 over the rest of the peloton.
Anyone who has raced knows how difficult it is for a solo rider to stay ahead of a group of riders working together. To take 14 minutes out of such a group is phenomenal.
Fausto Coppi won the Giro d’Italia five times; a record he shares with Alfredo Binda, and Eddy Merckx. He won the Tour de France twice in 1949 and in 1952, both times, dominating the competition and winning both the mountains jersey and the overall race.
Coppi was 1.87 meters (6’ 1 ½”) tall, and weighed 76 kg. (167 lbs.) obviously a great athlete with a huge rib cage that no doubt housed a large heart and lungs. However, he was fragile physically with brittle bones, brought on by malnutrition as a child.
He suffered no fewer than twenty major bone fractures from falls while either racing or training. At different times, he broke his collarbone, pelvis, and femur, as well as displacing a vertebra.
He also had a sensitive immune system and suffered several serious illnesses over the years. As a result, there were sometimes large gaps in his career when he was either injured or sick.
Fausto Coppi also suffered a personal tragedy in 1951 when his brother Serse Coppi died from a head injury after he fell in the finishing sprint of a race. This happened just five days before Fausto was to ride the Tour de France. Deep in mourning with his mind not on racing, he finished in tenth place.
There is speculation even to this day that had it not been for the war, the injuries and the other setbacks over the years, Fausto Coppi’s career may have equaled or even surpassed that of Eddy Merckx.
He was around at a time when there were so many other great riders. Bartali, Kubler, Koblet, Bobet, Robic, Geminiami, to name but a few. On his day Fausto Coppi was head and shoulders above all of them.
Above: Fausto Coppi with Ferdi Kubler leading by a nose.
With Hugo Koblet.
With the diminutive Frenchman Jean Robic on his wheel.
Sometimes rivals, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi share a drink.
Made out to be arch rivals, Bartali and Coppi in real life were probably friendly rivals. Bartali was certainly instrumental in helping the young Fausto early in his career. Taking him on as a domestique in his team, and when Bartali crashed in the 1940 Giro and lost hope of winning, he assisted the young Coppi to his victory.
One has to understand the mood of the Italian people at that time. Coming out of a terrible war and a long dictatorship, the nation was crushed both physically and morally. They looked for redemption, and found it in their cycling heroes. Bartali and Coppi were unofficial ambassadors for their country.
There were two factions that the Italian press played on; Fausto and Gino became symbols of divisions within the country. Two opposite, and sometimes irreconcilable points of view.
The push for modernization and new thinking on the one hand, and the importance of traditions, mainly linked to the Catholic religion on the other. So it became “Gino the pious” verses “Fausto the sinner,” at least in public opinion. Italy’s sports divisions in the 1950s reflected the country's social ones.
Further strengthening pubic opinion were some facts of Coppi’s private life. Right after he won the World Road Championship in 1953, Fausto, a married man, was seen with another woman. Giulia Occhini, known in the press as La Dama Bianca. (The Lady in White.)
In late 1959, Coppi went on a hunting trip in North Western Africa, where he contracted malaria. He became ill on returning to Italy; the disease was treatable even at that time, but was miss-diagnosed by doctors. Fausto Coppi died on January 2nd, 1960; he was 40 years old.
So came a tragic end to the life of a great cyclist, one of the best there has ever been. Today in Italy Fausto Coppi is mostly remembered as Il Campionissimo or “The Champion of Champions.”
Pictures from: .Progetto Ciclismo
To view more great pictures (Including some shown here.) go to www.FaustoCoppi.it Click on "Cartoline," chose number of pics per page (9, 15, 30, 60.) Click on "Guarda" to enlarge.
Gino Bartali born in Florence, Italy, in 1914 had a cycling career that spanned both sides of WWII.
He was 24 years old when he won the Tour de France in 1938; then the war robbed him of his peak athletic years, from his mid twenties to his early thirties.
He came back ten years later in 1948 to win the Tour a second time. He also won the Giro d’Italia three times, in 1936, 1937, and again after the war in 1946.
Bartali was a great climber and won the Giro Mountains Jersey a record seven times. He was also the first to win both the Mountains Jersey and take overall victory in the Tour de France in 1938, then repeated the feat in his 1948 win.
Gino Bartali is probably best known for his epic rivalry with Fausto Coppi, another great Italian cyclist. (Picture below left, Coppi nearest camera.) Bartali from Florence in the Tuscany region, was a devout Catholic and deeply religious; this earned him the nickname of “Gino the Pious.” Coppi, on the other hand, was from the industrial north, was not religious at all.
The rivalry between these two in some ways divided a nation, but both riders gave Italy much to celebrate, and this was a country that needed cause for jubilation at that time. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Italy was still recovering their defeat in WWII, and the rest of Europe was still slow to forgive.
It has been said that Gino Bartali’s 1948 Tour de France win helped subdue political unrest in Italy, even possible civil war.
Bartali took the yellow jersey in the first stage with a win in the finishing sprint.
In the following stages the lead was taken by Lousion Bobet, a rising young French star riding his second Tour.
Bobet emerged from the Pyrenees with a nine minute overall lead, and Bartali was some twenty minutes down.
Meanwhile back in Italy, Palmiro Togliatti, Secretary of the Italian Communist Party had been seriously wounded in an assassination attempt, which resulted in large scale civil unrest, protests, and rioting in the streets throughout Italy.
Bartali received a phone call from a friend, Alcide de Gaspari, a Deputy in the Italian Christian Democratic Party. He told Gino of the unrest back home and told him he needed him to win a stage. Such a win would distract the population from the political turmoil.
Bartali told him, “I’ll do better than that; I will win the whole race.” The next day was Cannes to Briançon, and included three major climbs, the Allos, Vars and Izoard. It took Bartali just ten hours, nine minutes and twenty eight seconds to cover the 274 kilometers, (170 miles.) crossing the three mountain passes with a total climbing amount of over 5300 meters. (17,388 feet.)
It was more than six minutes when the second rider came in. When Bobet finished, in twelfth place, over eighteen minutes had passed, and Bartali was now second overall, just 1min. 6sec. behind his young French rival.
This was only the beginning of Bartali’s softening up process; he dominated the race the following day. Major climbs, over the Col du Galibier and the Col de la Croix de Fer before a final attack on the Col de Porte saw him finish in Aix-les-Bains once again six minutes ahead of his nearest rival. Bobet's tenure on the Yellow Jersey was over; Bartali now led by over eight minutes.
Stage 15 to Lausanne, and Bartali was again a solo victor; he was totally dominating the race. Gino Bartali had gone from twenty minutes behind in Cannes, to an overwhelming lead of 32 minutes. He lost time in later time-trail stages but still came away the clear winner by 26 minutes at the end of the Tour.
Winning a total of seven stages, Bartali won with one of the most dominant displays ever seen in the Tour de France.
The population of Italy watched enthralled and by time Bartali arrived victorious in Paris, the political heat in that country had noticeably cooled.
De Gaspari's instincts had been right, Bartali had won the Tour, and in doing so, provided a distraction from his country’s political unrest. Never can a race have mattered so much.
It wasn’t until after his death that his family discovered he had been a member of the Italian Resistance movement during WWII, and was instrumental in helping Italian Jews escape to safety from German occupied Italy.
He used his fame as a racing cyclist to act as a courier; the authorities knew who he was and let him come and go as he pleased.
On his training rides, he would smuggle forged documents, hidden on his bike, to and from various convents where the Jewish fugitives were hidden.
In later years, Gino Bartali only mentioned these episodes to his sons in passing. It wasn’t until after his death when researching his diaries for a biography was the full extent of his war-time resistance involvement revealed. A movie was later made about these exploits, but as far as I know, it has not been shown outside of Italy.
The latter years of Gino Bartali’s career were somewhat overshadowed by a younger Fausto Coppi. (Whom I will write about later.) However, I have touched on the earlier part of his career before Coppi came into his own, in the hopes of showing he was a great rider in his own right.
He was another of my cycling heroes from my youth; turned out to be a real life hero and a great deal more than just another cycling legend.
Additional picture source: Tiscali.it, and La Repubblica