Until last month Encino, Calif. was known as the home of John Wayne, Mickey Rooney and the 1,000-year-old Living Oak Tree. Then the cyclists took over the town. Not your Hell's Angels, but a bunch of wiry, dedicated guys who push bicycles around the 34-degree banked turns of a velodrome for kicks.
Until their arrival amateur bike racing had ranked alongside jacks in the U.S. sporting spectrum, but with the advent of the U.S. Grand Prix, the first international meet ever held in the U.S. (excluding the Los Angeles Olympics), the sport finally got some cachet and Encino a new claim to fame.
The event's promoter was Chuck Pranke, a former cyclist and Mr. California, who had help from his wife Jeanne and Ron Packham, who will always be remembered for his role as (not in) the French Connection.
Last September, while vacationing in Israel, Packham heard from Pranke, who said he hoped to promote U.S. cycle racing by staging a first-class international event, and what did Ron think? Packham, an ex-cyclist, did not waste time thinking. He up and went to France, his home country, to discuss the idea with famed Coach Louis (Toto) Gerardin. Surprisingly, Gerardin said oui, he would bring sprint stars Daniel Morelon and Pierre Trentin and, oui, he would personally recommend that other top cycling countries participate. Three days later Packham walked into the Prankes' Santa Monica home and announced, "I have the French." If Pranke had been promoting a finger-painting contest, the promise of Picasso would have had no greater impact.
Thus the race was on, and it turned out to be first-class on all counts. Denmark's three-time world kilometer champion, Niels Fredborg, came, which awed Pranke. In turn, Fredborg was awed. "You treat us too well," he said as he lounged by the pool at the Encino Hilton. "We never have it so nice in Europe. I hope you get a good rate."
While the world champions were impressed with the surroundings, U.S. cycling nuts like Dick Berg of Northbrook, Ill. were excited by the champions. The winner of the first (and last) U.S. stock bicycle title in 1945, Berg now operates a chain of nursery schools. "I never saw a world bike champion before," he said.
Since he lives across the street from the cradle of America's recent speed-skating success, premier athletes are not foreign to Berg. "I watched speed skating go from nowhere," he said, "and I think it can happen in cycling too."
Gerardin was even more to the point. "You only need the international competition to develop your talent," he said.
World-class competition is essential in cycling as tactics are as important as speed. An early lap of a sprint race, for example, may come to a halt while the racers wait for someone to take the lead. Teamwork is important, too. Inexperience in these respects was evident at Encino in a 5,000-meter heat when John Vande Velde sprinted out front, only to find that his own teammate was leading the charge to catch him. Dispirited, Vande Velde finished last.
"There is much we have to learn," admits U.S. Coach Jerry Rimoldi, "but I have no doubt we will do better than we ever have in the Olympics."
Rimoldi is on fairly safe ground. There are few sports which allow the kind of improvement available in U.S. cycling. Americans have not won an Olympic medal for 60 years. Rimoldi believes this year's Olympic team could come through in the 200-kilometer road race and the 4,000-meter team pursuit.
John Howard, a Missourian, is our long-distance hope, having won the gold medal at the 1971 Pan-American Games. He finished fourth in the 50-kilometer at Encino. "The distance was much too short for me," he said. "I don't really get into a race for about 50 or 60 miles."
Howard is like a lot of U.S. cyclists in that he entered the sport after failing to excel in others. "The best athletes aren't usually in cycling," he admits.
Gerardin also believes the 4,000-meter pursuit team, headed by Vande Velde, could do well at Munich. Improvement in this event since a 15th-place finish at Mexico City in 1968 has been rapid. The U.S. was ninth at the world championships in Italy last year.
A number of U.S. cyclists plan to compete and train in Europe as part of their Olympic preparation, among them Skip Cutting and Gary Campbell. Cutting, 25, is muscular in the Danish style. Campbell, only 20, is not as powerful, although his shaved legs accentuate his musculature. Despite his youth, he finished third behind the two Frenchmen, Morelon and Trentin, in the 500-meter at Encino, and ahead of several heralded foreigners.
Campbell is the reigning U.S. sprint champion and he believes he can win an Olympic medal. "It used to be I only wanted to beat Cutting," he said. "Now that I know I can do that I'm really going after the international guys."
Cutting, too, is confident, but his and Campbell's Olympic ambitions do not conflict since there is room for both among the 10 track riders on the 18-man U.S. team. A nine-year veteran with road and team-pursuit experience before he became a sprinter. Cutting won a bronze in the 1,000-meter and a surprising silver in the 50-kilometer at Encino.
The U.S., which provided nearly half of the 39 entrants from nine countries, took full advantage of its numerical superiority, taking nine medals overall, including Vande Velde's gold in the 4,000-meter individual pursuit, where the competition was not topflight.
The biggest winners at Encino—aside from U.S. cycling—may have been Pranke and Packham, who, with an average attendance of 4,000 a day, could recoup the $10,000 they personally invested. Moreover, a national network was said to be considering televising the event next year, and an enterprising public-relations man, who specializes in sports marketing, was heard to say after his first look at cycle racing, "The thing has a future."