Considering the expanse of most U.S. waistlines and the expense of filling the family car with gas, it is a wonder that more folks haven't turned to bikes. There is plenty of proof that bicycling will lift our hearts and lower our bills, but for racers there is the extra kick of competition. These elements all came together last week at the National Bicycle Championships in Northbrook, Ill.
Bicycle racing seems to be equal parts Little League and self-sacrifice, a game that catches up entire families and demands stunning hours of daily training. And while the racers don't have a lot of the basics that accompany most other sports—things like bank accounts—they are hanging in there.
This year's competition started two weeks ago in Milwaukee, where John Howard and Linda Stein won the men's and women's road events. Then the racers packed up tents and wheels and rolled on to Northbrook, just outside Chicago, for the track meet. If road racing is the sport's drudgery, the track events, particularly sprinting, are its glamour—and for sprinting one needs explosive speed, courage and guile. Each sprint covers half a mile, but the racers only go full blast over the final 200 yards. Until that burst, the sprint is a war of nerves played with pedals. Occasionally the tactics become physical, a la football. Most competitors figure that whatever you can get away with is legal.
The track competition moves fast through five major categories. For the men, there are events in the kilo (a 1,000-meter time trial), the sprint (a one-on-one race), the 4,000-meter pursuit, 10-mile race and team pursuit. Women compete in the sprint and the 3,000-meter pursuit. And if the competition wasn't fierce enough, all through the opening rounds, which started last Wednesday, Northbrook sizzled under a relentless sun. Cows on nearby farms huddled under groves of trees. Spectators wilted. Between appearances the racers sprawled motionless in their tents along the back-stretch of the velodrome. The temperature was 90° and the sky was cloudless, though a layer of smog dulled the glare. "There's an ozone alert," said ex-world champion Sheila Young. "I guess that means we're not supposed to breathe."
Bicycle racing in the U.S. is still at a stage where a rank outsider can make it to the top in a hurry. Like Mary Jane Reoch. She is 29, from Philadelphia, worked to put her husband through law school and says, "I think housewife is a dirty word." In 1971 her athletic background included nothing more strenuous than high school cheerleading, but then she took up cycling and five months later won the National Road Championship. Since then Reoch has averaged a national championship a year. Last week she won the women's 3,000-meter pursuit title.
Jerry (Legs) Ash is another recent addition to the chain-and-handlebars gang. Four years ago he was surfing off the beaches of Southern California when he met some bike racers and decided to train with them. In 1973 he entered the nationals and "was blown off the track." Last year he finished third in the sprint, and now, at 28, he was considered a threat for the title, a racer who substitutes electrifying speed for experience. "Some guys really have the tricks," Ash said one evening in the infield. Standing with him was Carl Leusenkamp, who has ridden on three international teams. "You should see Carl here in his Roman gladiator helmet and elbow pads." There is a fine line between intimidation and recklessness. The racers shave their legs so the cuts from falls at 40 mph will heal faster. The memories linger.
"I remember one of my first times on the track—Leusenkamp put me over the rail," said Roger Young of Detroit, the 1973 sprint champion and Sheila's brother. "Afterward he told me, 'It's a contact sport, kid. You're going to have to take the bumps.' "
Tactics won't help a rider get by the "wall," that imaginary but all too real moment when the legs rebel, like pistons without oil. A few riders, such as Ash, can blast on through. The Californian is tall and rangy, but most of his strength comes from his 25-inch thighs, which are so bulky that they terrace down to his kneecaps. Some racers call him "Reindeer": there is an oft-told story of an international meet where Ash convinced a group of credulous Russians that U.S. doctors had grafted reindeer tendons into his legs to make him faster.
Another major contender at the nationals was Jack Disney, who had won 21 gold medals in various national championships and was at Northbrook in search of his 22nd. Disney is 45, the grizzled Ponce de Leon of his sport, but this year he was not hoping for too much. He had set a track record in the 200-meter flying start event at the nationals last year, so he still had the speed. But he needed rest. "I don't know if I can do it back to back," Disney said, aware that the semifinals and finals on Saturday night would both be best-two-out-of-three heats.
The development of riders such as defending sprint champion Steve Woznick, Roger Young, Gibby Hatton and Ash is the reason the U.S. is catching up to the rear fenders of the cycling powers. Hatton won the gold medal at the junior world championship in Poland last year, the first male American in 65 years to win an international title and Sheila Young took the 1973 women's sprint. Daniel Morelon of France has dominated the sprint championships for years, probably because the majority of Europeans consider the sport good for something besides outrunning barking dogs. "Even with a sponsor, no one is making money," says Jack Simes, coach of the Pan-American team and a prime candidate, along with Disney, to direct the U.S. Olympic squad. "You can count on one hand the guys who are breaking even. No one has time for a job, except maybe to work in a bike shop. You need all your time for training, especially with the Olympics coming up."
Many of the riders camped out at the nearby Glen View Naval Base to trim expenses. "It's not bad," said Jim Novara, whose daughter Sue is the defending women's sprint champ. "We eat in the mess hall for $1.20. And we can take showers." Several others took advantage of private housing. Simes and Woznick doubled up for $8 a night in a motel unit that offered a kitchenette where they could cook meals. "Stop by and see how the other half lives," said Simes dryly.
Woznick comes from Miami but moved to Ridgefield Park, N.J. to be closer to Simes' stopwatch. The pair arrived in the Midwest a week early to train for the finals.
Out west, Disney had spent the last month training Gibby Hatton and Sue Novara near his Sunnyvale, Calif. home. "Everybody's a fanatic about training," said Hatton. "You're supposed to die. Which you do."
Novara is the teen angel of U.S. bike racing. Only 19, she is pert and skittish, with a bright smile and hair down to her waist. She walked around smiling and confident, saying "Neat" and "Yeah, man," and joined in the prevalent familial mood by cheering on her favorites. But her high spirits changed when she grabbed the handlebars. Then Novara was all nasty. Her admirers call her the fastest woman racer in the world, though Tamara Piltskova of the U.S.S.R. beat her by .01 of a second in the 1974 world championship. "That's this much," Novara said, holding up two fingers to indicate a space of less than an inch. "She's 28. Do you want to know how to spell her name?"
All of the bike racers have the confirmed look of dedicated athletes, the skin taut across their faces, their eyes clear and bright. Just listening to Novara's training schedule would tire out most people. The farthest she ever has ridden in a day is 200 miles. It took her 13 hours. "I want to beat the men," she says. "I don't want people to say, 'She was a good woman sprinter.' I want them to say I was good, period. No one ever had to push me in this. I've always loved it. I like to go fast. I like racing. I like the people. And I like to win. That's the most fun. I want to win the world's and then I want to win it a couple more times. I want to win it more than the Russians have. They've dominated it too long."
Novara's chief foe in state, national and international meets has been Sheila Young, of Olympic and world speed-skating fame. But this year Young is concentrating on skating, a sport in which she has chances for several more gold medals. She entered both the pursuit and sprint at Northbrook, but allowed, "in sprinting you need that aggressive attitude and I don't have it anymore." She shrugged. "Once the fight is gone...."
Young ultimately finished fourth in the pursuit, the event won by nonhousewife Reoch, but surprised a lot of experts by surviving to make the sprint finals against Novara on Saturday night. Some night. Rainstorms had delayed the day's activities and the races went on long after Illinois had gone to sleep. This time, inexplicably, the attitudes of the two principals were almost reversed. Young was carefree and blasé ("Oh, well, I hope she doesn't beat me by too much"), while Novara was intense and withdrawn ("I'm so nervous," she whispered to a friend).
But Novara had not lost a race all week and she crushed Young in straight heats. Afterward, someone noted that it had been two years since Young had beaten Novara. "And that's the last time she's going to beat me," said Sue.
In the men's division Ron Skarin beat Ralph Therrio for the 4,000-meter pursuit title, Leroy Gatto took the 10-miler and Woznick won the kilo. Woznick, who started by racing at the longer distances and gradually moved to shorter rides, is nicknamed the Bull for his strength and determination. "When it comes right down to the winning and losing, it's 80% mental," he says. Before each race, Woznick slowly crisscrossed the infield on his bike, staring into space. The move is known among racers as his "infield psych."
Both Ash and Hatton were quarterfinal casualties on Friday night. Leusenkamp beat Hatton in straight heats with some skillful riding, while Roger Young, who had been erratic earlier this year, regained his form against Ash and won easily, despite the fact that earlier in the day he had told a competitor, "It's all over for me."
Woznick and Disney joined Leusenkamp and Young for the semifinal round Saturday night, and Woznick quickly put out Young. In the other semi the crowd was pulling for Disney, but his legs were tired and Leusenkamp was too smart. The younger man applied the pressure and won twice by less than a bike length. "I just didn't have any suds tonight," sighed Disney. Later in the evening he raced Young for third place, lost again and walked wearily off the track, limping on strained leg muscles, his face gaunt, his breath wheezing. Sue Novara looked at him and almost cried. "He's still tops in my book," she said.
Woznick was in the infield, telling himself over and over that he would win—and thinking back to 1972 when Leusenkamp had bottled him up and beat him with crafty tactics.
But now, on his first ride in the finals, Woznick jumped from behind early, surprising his rival, and went on to an easy win. The next trip, Woznick led from start to finish. The riders say that no one passes the Bull when he takes the lead. They said that once about Jack Disney, too. But that was 20 years ago.