At the Pan-Am Games I lost my cool and threw a shoe at Therrio," recalls Jackie Simes, coach of the U.S. Olympic track cyclists. "Later I apologized, and from then on, everything clicked." That was in Mexico City last October, when Simes was trying to mold his four pursuit racers into a winning team. Finally, Ralph (Crazy Horse) Therrio did stop going off by himself, and the team got it all together: Paul Deem, Therrio, Ronald Skarin and Roger Young went out to win a gold medal and Steve Woznick took another in the sprint. Woznick has since retired, but the members of the pursuit team gathered in Allentown, Pa. last month to train, and last week they competed in the Olympic Trials at Northbrook, Ill. There, racing against the clock, they faced real challenges from Joe Saunders and Jim Ochowicz, the latter Young's future brother-in-law and a veteran pursuiter from the 1972 Games.
In the 4,000-meter team pursuit, two teams of four riders racing in close single file compete on opposite sides of a banked oval track. After each half lap of 150 meters or so, the leader of a team shoots up the bank and swoops down behind his last man. This way everybody takes a turn at the "pull" while the other three rest briefly in his slipstream. Thus a pursuit team needs a steady leadoff man, a sprinter for the finish and preferably a powerhouse who can throw in a double pull, leading for a full lap in the middle of the race without slowing the pace. If one man loses contact, the team is allowed to finish with three, but this does not happen with world-class riders.
The man to set just the right starting pace proved to be Deem, from San Pedro, Calif., the youngest of the four at 18 and the tallest at 6'½". They call him "Dependable Deem." "Last year I noticed he was able to go out for the first pull at almost precisely the same time," says Simes. "Always at around 16.5 seconds. So I put him on the team." The 22-year-old Therrio is called Crazy Horse because he is thoroughly unpredictable. "No way I can do a double pull," he may say before a race, then go ahead and do it, even speeding up the pace. On other days, he may not feel like racing at all. Skarin, 24 and four times national champion with the Southern California pursuit team, can keep any tempo going, and he has enough experience to know a thing or two about tactics. Young, who usually handles the final sprint, is 23 and the younger brother of Sheila Young, who won three medals at the Innsbruck Olympics in speed skating and is one of the top U.S. women cyclists as well. Since Young is from Detroit, he is nicknamed Motown Motor, and he is a rare lightweight in cycling. A few years ago, before he grew a couple of inches to reach 5'9", he was called the Gnat. Now he has more muscles and the tactical knowledge to make them pay off.
It is said of American bike racers that they have the muscles and the guts to pedal at 30 or 40 mph, but a racer also needs to be a master of tactics. In that department Americans have been overmatched, and in the Olympics they have a long history of choking or cracking, "popping the cork," as they say. But Roger Young is perhaps the most versatile racer the U.S. has developed, and since last winter he has commanded considerable respect on the European racing circuit. He was national sprint champion in 1973, but his finest performance came last March when he raced 160 Belgians and Dutchmen in the 122-kilometer (75-mile) Het Volk race over Belgium's hilly countryside, at times pedaling on cobblestones in a strong freezing wind. He finished second, just 30 seconds behind the winner. "That was an even bigger surprise than Bill Koch's silver medal in the cross-country ski race at Innsbruck," says Simes.
"I used to be a sprinter," Young says. "I went to the world championships in 1973, but I wasn't fast enough. I went to the worlds the next year, and I wasn't fast enough. At that time I was training by myself, and there was no one to push me to go faster. Now I train a lot for stamina, and I can compete in all kinds of races." Young could have made the Olympic road team, but he opted for the pursuit, and he brings to the event not only speed but an ability to recover quickly in the slipstream. He is also a picture of smoothness and precision when he changes places—his friends in the stands close their eyes when Young comes sweeping down the bank behind the third rider without an inch to spare. "I am always amazed," says rider Larry (Swampdog) Swantner, "that Roger is still there when I open my eyes."
American cyclists have not won an Olympic medal since the Stockholm Games of 1912, when Carl Schutte and his road team took two bronzes, but in this Olympic year there is a sudden ray of hope. Never before had U.S. cyclists arrived at the Trials so thoroughly prepared, nor had they ever had a coach of Simes' caliber. "He was a winner as a racer," said Paul Therrio, Ralph's uncle, "and he knows how to make winners out of them."
"In the team pursuit," said Simes, "we have never been in the top eight at an Olympics, but it's not unrealistic to think that we can get even into the top four, the semifinals, this time. And once we are there, I know these guys will get up some extra steam."
At Northbrook, Simes had three four-man teams racing, but only six riders had a real chance of making it to the Games. "It is difficult to pick the team," he said, "because they all have become my friends. You just have to be objective and go by the figures." Then Therrio eased the choice with a typical Crazy Horse move. He simply dropped out of his race and out of the winning Pan-Am combination. "I just didn't feel like going on anymore," he said, and vanished.
When it was all over, the Olympic team Simes picked consisted of Deem, Skarin, Young and Ochowicz, with Therrio an alternate. With her brother and future husband safely in, Sheila Young hid a happy face behind her hands, and her father, Clair, began to figure out how he was going to get time off to watch yet another of his kids at an Olympics.