It cannot be said that the United States melted everybody's spokes in the 75th annual World Cycling Championships at Montreal, a 12-day affair that ended last Sunday. Sheila Young, America's best-known cyclist, lost her world sprint title. In the 109-mile individual road race, the U.S. men all bombed out. And the American tandem team of Jerry (Crash) Ash and Steve Woznick looked sweet until their rear wheel collapsed in one heat and the Russians buried them in the next.
But Sheila's countryperson and archrival Sue Novarra, riding at times with the dash of her near-namesake Ramon, who was the original cinematic Ben Hur, won a silver medal in the women's sprint, and three of the top six finishers in that event were Americans. Four U.S. road racers reached a modern U.S. men's high-water mark when they finished ahead of 14 other countries (and behind only eight) in the 100-kilometer team time trial. And Ash succeeded, he claimed, in persuading some Russian riders that the twin scars on his legs were traces of an operation in which deer tendons had been implanted in his thighs.
The championships were dominated by well-financed Russians, West Germans and Dutch; by comparison the U.S. delegation was ragtag. Still, when it was all over, the major powers were talking to the Americans with more respect than they did two or three years ago. Don't be surprised if the Russians start looking into this deer-tendon idea. In cycling, the U.S. is an emerging nation.
This development can only be seen as healthy. For the active enthusiast, cycling affords good exercise and an alternative to automotive gas consumption, thereby strengthening this nation's hand against heart disease and the Arabs. For the spectator the sport provides excitement and strange effects.
The track events of the championships were to be held in the velodrome now being constructed in Montreal for the 1976 Olympics, but what with one thing and another the velodrome was not ready in time. So a 285.714-meter track was hastily constructed from Canadian spruce in the outdoor stadium of the University of Montreal sports center.
On these temporary but esthetically pleasing boards representatives of 51 nations pedaled. They went at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. They would go so high on the steep banks of the turns that they were almost horizontal. Then, to make their swiftest rushes, they would peel off downward like gulls diving. They also fell a lot, breaking their skin, and the way they rode it was a wonder they didn't fall more and break their necks.
In the professional final of an event called the motor-paced, or demi-fond in French, each rider followed half an inch or so behind a roaring motorcycle for a solid hour. The motorcycle was steered with knee pressure by a driver in a baggy black leather suit, standing rigidly like a dummy to provide the greatest possible slipstream. It is possible to hold speeds up to 50 mph in this strange setup, and the fastest pro of them all in Montreal was Cees Stam of Holland. The derivation of demi-fond is obscure, but if by any chance it is translatable as "half-bottom" it may refer to what the rider has left afterward.
If the demi-fond and bike racing in general enjoyed the long-standing popularity and importance in the U.S. that they do in Europe, we might now have a man planning to follow Evel Knievel across the Snake River Canyon on a bicycle. But even though today there is twice as much expense money around for U.S. amateurs as there was two years ago, the riders still lead a hand-to-mouth, cycle-bum existence. Unlike almost all the others in Montreal, the U.S. team had no masseur, little concerted training, not even a team doctor. It used the Russian doctor a couple of times.
The American team did, however, have good athletes and emancipated women. Toto Gerardin, the coach of France's great Daniel Morelon, whose eight-year domination of the men's sprint was ended in Montreal by the Russian Sergei Kravtsov, said that the U.S. was bound to evolve into a greater cycling country. The rich American combination of different ethnic strains produces the best athletes in the world, he opined, and American women are much less limited by the public's sense of what is properly female than European women are.
Last year, Sheila Young became the first non-Russian ever to win the women's sprint. She won bleeding, after falling and laying her head open—and having the cut stapled together so she could continue. She decided to quit bike racing and train all year for speed skating, in which she was also a world champion. "The sprints are pretty dangerous," she said a year later in Montreal. "I have had some pretty close calls. When I crashed I said, 'That's it,' but then people said I might be an inspiration to other girls, so I stayed in another year, defending my title. But I don't think I had the right attitude. On my first ride this year I fell and got a concussion."
And on her last ride this year in Montreal she was edged out by the width of a tire by three-time world champion Galina Tsareva of Russia, who is built like an NFL guard. Sheila put back on the floppy red hat she had been wearing between races, walked over to Tsareva and congratulated her. The Russian doctor translated Tsareva's friendly reply: "Thank you. But I can't skate."
It turned out that Tsareva couldn't ride a bike as fast as Sue Novarra, either. Tall and rangy, her long blonde hair streaming in the wind, Novarra cranked out the laps and came from up high on the boards to tear past Tsareva on the inside. After dismounting, she hollered, "Boy! I got her, didn't I? I waited for her to turn her head and I went ptschooo." Sue restlessly answered questions from the press and then declared expansively: "If anybody wants to know, I'm 18 years old."
But another Russian, Tamara Piltsikova—28 years old, if anybody wants to know—beat Sue in the finals. Sue's father, Jim, a former trumpet player who helps run an Italian restaurant in Flint, Mich., looked on from the stands. He thought—a lot of people thought—that Sue had won. But the scoreboard showed Piltsikova as the champion.
"Mamma mia," said Jim Novarra.
The Italian 100-kilometer team might well have said the same thing a few days later, when, along with such other traditionally strong entries as Belgium and France, they were beaten by the ninth-place U.S. quartet of John Howard, Wayne Stetina, Rich Hammen and Jim Ochowicz. The race—in which the U.S. finished 21st last year and 14th in the Munich Olympics—amounts to pedaling as hard as possible for more than two hours along a level stretch of pavement, in this case a closed-off length of the Trans-Canada Highway.
Each team goes off separately, so it is a matter of fighting the clock, the hot sun, the wind and the coasting instinct. Team members take turns leading, cutting through the wind for the others; they switch rhythmically every 15 or 20 pedal strokes. But just keeping up is grinding work; the lactic acid builds up in the legs and "it's a horrible feeling," says Howard, the team's strongest puller most of the way. "You have to be constantly telling yourself that suffering is more noble. I finished just totally shattered. Which was what I wanted to do."
The Swedish team shattered at a somewhat higher pitch and won the gold. The Russians were second, but one of them was taken away in an ambulance.
For the U.S., however, the individual amateur road race was a bigger ordeal. The route took the riders up and around steep Mount Royal 14 times. Belgium's fabled Eddy Merckx, who won as expected over the same course in the professional road race the next day, called the course "murderous."
"I just blew completely apart," said John Allis of Boston. "I looked down and there were no legs there." And he was the one American, of six entered, who finished the race. He came in 64th.
"They're strong enough," said U.S. Road Race Coach Butch Martin, 27, who is half black and half Italian—cycling's answer to Franco Harris—and who drives a cab part time in New York. "What the Americans lack most is international experience."
Two Poles, Janusz Kowalski and Rizard Szurkowski, finished one-two in the individual amateur road race. "Now the Poles are telling American jokes," was a line that went around.
But there may be a last laugh. Wait until the Poles hear the one about the deer tendons.