Nelson Beasley Vails was arguably my first cycling hero. I'm not exactly sure how I became so interested in cycling in the early 80's. I remember as a young kid becoming a fan of Eric Heiden during his record breaking performance in the 1980 olympics and learning about his participation in cycling as well during those broadcasts. Around that same time I stumbled upon the legendary El Dorado Park Tuesday night training races which further peaked my interest. But it wasn't until 1983 when I learned of this African American bike messenger who had a chance to make the U.S. Olympic team that my love for cycling was really born.
It was an amazing story, a poor kid from the streets of Harlem had worked his way to the elite level of cycling partly by working as a bicycle messenger in NYC. He earned a chance to shock the world and become the first ever African American to win an olympic cycling gold medal. Though he came up just short and had to settle for a silver, his position as a hero to millions of fans the world over was cemented. As was his place in my cycling memory as the coolest cat to ever turn a pedal in anger. It mattered not that the field was watered down that Olympic year thanks to the Russian boycott, he was a beast on the bike and as far as I was concerned had nothing further to prove.
He looked more like a linebacker than a cyclist and had huge thighs with shoulders to match. He was like no-one I had ever seen on a bike before, and thanks to the uniqueness of his story and his look; I became further enamored with the sport. I've had the pleasure of meeting and speaking to Mr. Vails on a couple of occasions, each time he was easy going and approachable and spent just enough time to allow me to regale him with the story of how he set me down the path to a cycling obsession that continues to this day. Can't wait to see him again and tell him the story one more time.