The U.S. cycling team, which overwhelmed its Olympic opponents with space-age hardware and fierce resolve, in the end enjoyed its finest moment not in victory, but in defeat. That is, if a silver medal may be considered a mere consolation prize. Astonishingly, American cyclists had gotten four gold medals, two silvers and a bronze before entering the 4,000-meter team pursuit competition Friday at the velodrome on the California State-Dominguez Hills campus south of Los Angeles. Less than half' an hour earlier, Mark Gorski and Nelson Vails had won the gold and silver medals in the sprint, and only two days before, 20-year-old Steve Hegg had devastated favored Rolf G√∂lz of West Germany in the 4,000-meter individual pursuit, reducing the proud German to post-race pettiness: "If the race had been in Germany," G√∂lz told his conqueror, "I'd have won."
The four-man pursuit team, which included Hegg and individual pursuit bronze medalist Leonard Harvey Nitz, was coolly confident in the wake of America's earlier successes as it awaited the start of its race against an Australian quartet that had had the best heat time, 4:23.56. After all, the U.S. team already had survived more than its ration of ill fortune. In pursuit races, it should be noted, the competitors begin at opposite sides of the track and literally chase each other until one either passes the other or, failing that, reaches its finish line first.
Of all the races on the banked track, the team pursuit is the most esthetically pleasing. A team rides in single file, the three cyclists behind the leader drafting in his slipstream. At every lap or half lap the leader swings up the bank, like a dancer fading into the wings, and retreats to the end of the line, replaced in the "pull" position by the second rider. In this manner each team member shares the burden of pacing and each, in turn, has his rest. At its rhythmic best, team pursuit is a cycling ballet, the riders gracefully exchanging position without losing pace. The Americans, dogged by rotten luck in earlier races, were certain their best had been saved for last.
Their first attempt to qualify the previous day was negated when the rear wheel of rider Pat McDonough's bike came loose. McDonough, strapped to the pedals, toppled off the track, and a restart was ordered. This time though, the Americans would be obliged to ride with only three men, minus the fallen McDonough, placing them at a distinct disadvantage. Shortly after they'd passed 3,000 meters in this second qualifying attempt, Brent Emery, who has a chronically sore right hip, faded off the pace. In slowing down to accommodate Emery—a team's clocking is actually that of its third rider—Hegg and Nitz collided. Hegg was sent sprawling onto the track, and Emery, unable to stop, plowed into him. Emery fell, as cruel fate would have it, precisely on his damaged hip. He lay unconscious for a time and soon after regaining his senses became ill. He somehow recovered for a third try about an hour later, and this time the three-man team qualified. McDonough was allowed to ride in the next round of competition, and the U.S. beat Denmark by .01 second.
August 12, 1984
But Emery, his hip sorer than before, was unable to compete in the final day's racing. His place was taken in the semis—a victory over West Germany—and in the finals by 26-year-old David Grylls, a dominant American pursuit rider of the late 1970s who has been somewhat inconsistent in recent years. In retrospect, Grylls was an unfortunate choice for a team already snakebit; in February he had been run down by a coach's van during a practice session in Arizona. But he had performed well enough in the semis and was anxious to take up the slack for Emery. In the end, he only created more slack.
In his first crank of the pedals in the final, Grylls's left foot came loose from his toe strap and he could do little more than flounder off the track, a desolate figure, head between his knees, as his teammates proceeded without him. "Three!" shouted the third—and now last—rider, McDonough, as he looked behind him and saw no one following. Hegg and Nitz could scarcely believe it was happening again. But they were indeed three, and as Kevin Nichols of Australia would say, "Four against three is a good advantage."
Racing one man short, each of the Americans now had to take eight turns instead of six in the lead and remain there for perhaps 20 seconds at a time instead of 10. "That taxes the body real fast," said Nitz afterward. "I took three full lap pulls," said Hegg, "and I was pretty gassed at the end. Every second I was able to take away from them, the Australians put back. If we could've had Dave for at least four laps and had that extra draft, I know we would've beaten them." But the Australians won by nearly four seconds, 4:25.99 to 4:29.85, earning the first gold medal for their country in Olympic pursuit competition.
The Americans were not, however, without honor. When it came time to accept the medals, Grylls, who had, after all, raced in the semifinals, nobly absented himself. In his place on the silver medal stand stood Emery. Grylls had gone up to Emery before the ceremony and had insisted that he take the medal. "I'd decided even before the race that he should have it," said Grylls. "He rode his heart out yesterday. He deserved it. I feel that all these guys are my brothers. What happened to me could've happened to anybody. I'm just sorry it had to be me. Here I am on a $40,000 bike, and a $10 toe strap knocks me out of the race."
"That," said Emery of Grylls's gesture, "was the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me."
Nothing could keep the U.S. from the gold medal in the sprint. Gorski, America's best sprinter, and Vails, a former bicycle messenger in New York—Street Wise was the name of one of his employers—had so dominated their event that neither had lost a race in the five competitions that led up to the finals, the last two of which were best two out of three. The match sprint is a curious race in that, though the competitors ride 1,000 meters (three laps), they really only race, and are clocked, for the final 200. The rest of their time is spent in a cat-and-mouse game in which both employ a variety of wily tactics to avoid taking the lead before the final rush. A rider will come to a complete standstill—as Vail's semifinal opponent, Philippe Vernet of France, did for 62 seconds—to avoid becoming a frontrunner. Then, abruptly, the tricycle pace will quicken and the two riders will hurtle toward the finish line at speeds exceeding 40 mph.
Vails had extended Gorski before—notably to a third-race photo finish in the 1983 nationals—but he'd never beaten him. He didn't this day either. Gorski won by a bike length in the first heat, riding the last 200 meters in 10.49 seconds, the fastest time in these Olympics, and by half a bike length in the clinching second heat (10.95). At the finish the two joined hands and carried an American flag around the track as 8,000 fans cheered. Gorski, a Midwesterner transplanted to Costa Mesa, near Los Angeles, and Vails, from Harlem, one of the first black American sprint cyclists, are bosom pals. Vails, who has the Manhattan skyline emblazoned on his helmet, is a showman off and on the track; Gorski is all business, but he has a wry manner. Reacting to the scores of questions directed at Vails regarding his days as a cab-dodging messenger, Gorski told reporters, "I want you to know that I'm planning on becoming a bicycle messenger and a cab driver in preparation for the '88 Olympics." Said Vails, "I never drove a cab. I just ran into a lot of them."
The two sprinters are mutually respectful. "I couldn't have lost to a better guy," said Vails, who admitted he didn't figure to beat Gorski just yet. "Nelson has pushed me to a new level," said Gorski. "Without him I wouldn't be here today." Gorski was a member of the 1980 Olympic cycling team, and was so disillusioned by that year's boycott and by a subsequent head injury suffered while racing in Japan that he dropped out of competitive cycling for a year. He and his wife, Mary, biked through Europe on a protracted vacation. Then, while camping out in France, Gorski watched a race pass by. "Hey, I miss this," he decided. His only regret this time was that another boycott kept East Germany's Lutz Hesslich and the Soviet Union's Sergei Kopylov out of the L.A. Olympics. "I could've beaten them," said Gorski matter-of-factly.
In winning his gold medal in the individual pursuit, Hegg so intimidated the favored G√∂lz that G√∂lz, a silver medalist in the 1982 world championships, almost dropped out of the race. It had been "my week," said Hegg. It had. In an earlier heat he had raced to the fastest American and Olympic time ever, 4:35.57. He beat G√∂lz at 4:39.35. G√∂lz had done 1:10.47 for the first 1,000 meters in an attempt to put distance between himself and Hegg and to quiet a partisan crowd. "I made the mistake I always make," G√∂lz admitted. "I went out too fast. It made me kaput." Said Hegg, who looks as if he might have stepped out of an old Judy Garland movie, "With five laps to go, I knew I had enough energy left to put it to him. When I caught up he got discouraged." So discouraged that G√∂lz says he will now give up the track events for road racing.
Hegg might also have a choice to make. He's still a member of the U.S. ski team, having decided only last December to eschew the Winter Olympics for the Summer Games. "Eddie B. [national cycling coach Eddie Borysewicz] told me he could count my ranking in cycling on the fingers of one hand," said Hegg, "but in skiing he would need both hands and both feet. I told the ski team I'd be in touch with them this month, but I don't know now if I will." Still, on the eve of his win, he dreamed of skiing on one of Europe's downhill courses. "It was all in slow motion, and it was the race of my life," he said. "There's so much going on in my mind between the two sports that it's mind boggling."
Hegg, as did all the U.S. pursuit cyclists and a few from other nations, rode a futuristic bike that had a solid disc for a rear wheel—a carbon fiber-laminated Kevlar honeycomb disc, to be exact—which looks more like a long-playing record than something you'd find on a bicycle. This revolutionary device is partly the creation of the Huffy Corporation's Technical Development Center in Dayton, Ohio, a city where two other bicycle builders, Orville and Wilbur Wright, got their start. As Huffy technician Michael Melton explains it, the solid wheel, composed of material more commonly used in bulletproof vests, "creates less turbulence because it has no spokes. Every spoke creates its own turbulence. Wind tunnel testing has shown that the disc wheel has 30 percent less drag than the spoked wheel." The spokeless wheel only recently won the approval of cycling's ruling body, Fédération Internationale Amateur de Cyclisme (FIAC), after it was determined that it wasn't a device to shield spokes but rather a single spoke in itself—or actually two spokes, one on each side of the wheel.
The disc wheel, and bike frames of aluminum alloy, have given American cyclists an unusually light (11 pounds) and swift, if expensive, toy to play with. Melton estimates that the bike is worth one second per kilometer.
"It's a head trip knowing you have the best equipment in the world," says Hegg. The innovative bike is also representative of a new surge in U.S. cycling, brought on in large part by the support given the national program by large American corporations. "The Europeans are walking around shaking their heads," said Gorski. "I wonder if we all realize the magnitude of what's happening here."
Corporate sponsorship also keeps champions like Hegg on their bikes year-round. "My job is to ride," says Hegg. "The Raleigh Company [a division of Huffy] flies me around the country and picks up my hotel bills." The Soviet Union and friends may have skipped these Olympics, but their Western counterparts seem to have learned something from them about the care and feeding of athletes. "We're almost at the stage now where we're being taken care of by corporate sponsors the way the Eastern bloc governments take care of their athletes," says Hegg happily.
Well, it beats working, and after the American team won a bronze medal in the 100-km road race Sunday, the record speaks for itself: The U.S. had never before won a gold medal in Olympic cycling; it hadn't won a medal of any kind in cycling since 1912. Now it has a whole bunch.