In the high-tone community of Northbrook, Ill., an expensive enclave located just off Chicago's northwest tentacle, family dogs barked and bristled and jumpy motorists tensed last week. The traffic tables had turned and they were outnumbered by their natural enemies. Those hard-pumping, gear-shifting, lightweight-riding bicyclists were in town, clearing the air, abating the noise and pedaling their sport.
The occasion was the Amateur Bicycle League of America's national track championships, four days and nights that tied tenacious men and women to delicate machines in a torturous shakedown. It was the essence of pure sport, finely attuned athletes challenging the limit where muscles agonize and the mind hallucinates. And from all the blood, sweat and tears grew both elegant triumph and solemn defeat.
Roger and Sheila Young, brother and sister from Detroit, brought sibling rivalry to its finest hour with victories in the men's and women's sprints. For Sheila, the accomplishment brings special sports status: she also is the world sprint speed skating champion, having emerged from the meet at Oslo last year with three gold medals plus two new world records set in Switzerland. And now she represents the strongest U.S. threat ever for the world cycling championships later this month in Spain. In the men's sprint event Roger thwarted the gritty comeback attempt of Jack Disney, at 43 the graying patriarch of the sport. The Californian was striving for his eighth national title but the Wonderful Week of Disney ended with Young's two straight victories in the best-of-three-match finals Saturday night.
For those who would put us on wheels instead of behind them, cycling is an antidote and a cure-all, a panacea for fatty arteries and clogged cloverleafs, a pollution solution loved by the long-haired hip as well as lithe old ladies from Pasadena. For years cycling lay fallow in America, but the dread epidemic of thickening waistlines and short-circuiting heartbeats triggered a revival. Last year we bought more bikes than automobiles, well over 14 million two-wheelers, more than twice the number sold in 1970 and easily 10 million more than were purchased a decade ago. Outfitted with parkas and electric socks in cold weather, pith helmets and shorts in hot going, the cycling enthusiast finds his lightweight 10-speed a supreme way to fend off boredom and a wrinkled mind. Obviously we are going cycledelic.
Balancing on the crest of the movement are the racers, wingless birds pumping their legs in furious flight. They came to Northbrook to gather at a concrete, banked oval track, its infield heavy with the tangy odor of liniment and the melodic sound of spinning wheels, a place warm with the bonds of friendship. The racers were a family. They lent each other spare parts and free advice. They camped together in the meadow of a nearby park, building a small tent city. They congratulated each other in victory and commiserated in defeat.
For Clair Young it was an association he held simply and comforting, like a house key turning smoothly in a lock. He is the 55-year-old father of Roger and Sheila, an earnest, principled man who works in the traffic department of a Detroit automotive-parts plant. Since his wife died in 1962, Clair Young has devoted his leisure time and money to his children's athletic pursuits. He has a four-year-old station wagon with the wear of 167,000 miles on it, and at the national championships he was up at five a.m. each morning to cook breakfast for his retinue. "Look at this," he said fondly, gazing around the track infield early in the week. "Isn't this wonderful? This sport keeps me broke. But I wouldn't put it in dollars and cents. This is what kept my family together, a terrific influence in bringing up my kids. This is my life, and I love it. If I die today, I die a happy man."
Sprinting is the marrow of track cycling. It demands the obvious talent of strength, but a sprinter also must be a tactician, for much of the 1,000-meter race is spent maneuvering, with a final high-speed burst in the last 200 meters. "You can't run into them, but you can scare them," explained Sheila Young.
The fierce rivalry between Sheila Young and Sue Novara was the highlight of the week. Both girls were from Michigan, Sheila from Detroit, Sue from Flint, and both were young, Sheila 22, Sue 17. Sheila won the 1971 Nationals, then skipped them last year when Sue won, in favor of the world cycling championships. As recently as last month Sue upset Sheila in the finals of the Michigan State meet after Sheila made an equipment adjustment, changing gear ratio, that disrupted her rhythm. "I feel pretty good now, but I might blow it," Sheila cautioned early in the week. "I get so nervous and when I get nervous I go blank. Then again, I don't know what Sue is going to do. She might surprise me."
Originally Sheila took up cycling to complement her career as a speed skater. She finished fourth in the 500 meters at the Sapporo Winter Olympics and since then has "improved about 100%." More recently she was third in the world cycling meet in France, cracking the Russian women's domination of the sport, and now divides her year-round training between bicycles and skates. "I love the feeling of going fast," she says.
Sheila's concern over her opponent's deception seemed gratuitous in view of Sue's innocent, childlike appearance. Novara is tall and blonde with blue-green eyes and skin yet to be furrowed by worry. For most of the week she breezed around the infield and breezed through her competition, crossing the finish line with a disdainful backward glance. "I want to win the world's title," said Novara, who probably will join Young for the competitions in Spain. "And I want to set a bunch of records before I quit. There's a lot of pressure here, from everybody out to beat you, from everybody who expects you to win. When it comes down to the big one, I'll be scared to death. If you want it bad enough, that's what counts. We're all just about as fast. It's the one who wants it the most who will win."
Besides speed, the confrontation evoked images of danger. The previous weekend in the national road-race championships, 20 riders were involved in a grotesque chain-reaction crash, and eight were carted off to the hospital. At North-brook frequent spills during the track races kept the medics alert, although there were no injuries more serious than one broken nose and one broken collarbone. "You're coming through the corners, side by side, both going all out and it's easy to wipe out," said Novara. She came to Northbrook with a match-race record unsullied by a 1973 defeat. "Some girls you can intimidate. You can play with them, especially if they're afraid."
There was little chance of intimidating Sheila Young, according to Peter Schotting, her speed skating coach and boyfriend from Holland. In fact, overaggressiveness almost cost her the title. In the first ride of the best-of-three finals Saturday night Sheila was in control coming out of the final turn when she forced Novara up on the banking, illegal on the last stretch, and was disqualified. Sue tried to put the pressure on in the second ride, taking the lead and forcing the race, but Sheila's powerful drive caught Novara in the final turn, and she passed on the outside for victory. The seeds of doubt had been sown. In the final race, Sheila hung back for most of the first lap, then saw an opening and cornered Novara, forcing her opponent up high on the bank and thus blunting her attack. Sheila controlled the last 200 yards.
"She's really fast, but she's inexperienced," her father said after the decisive final ride. "She gets shook up, I think. Before the last ride I could tell she was really nervous just by looking at her. So I tried to act real calm...even though I was as nervous as she was."
Later, while Sheila and Roger held their rose bouquets and slipped into the National Champion jerseys symbolic of their triumphs, the crowd called for Clair Young to come out onto the track. He did, suffused with pride, and they put him up on a bicycle and he took a victory lap with his children, side by side, the old man doffing his cap in gratitude to the applauding stands. It was a simple moment all too rare.