I was casually reading the January Cascade Courier the other day, thinking about rides for the upcoming year as well as important education and advocacy issues, when I literally jumped up.
“Nelson Vails is coming to REI!” I excitedly told my family.
Now, I doubt Nelson will remember me, but he was one of my heroes growing up. In high school, I spent all my spare time around bikes, and one of the most exciting activities was racing at the velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. As intermediates and juniors we would make the weekly trip to the track, race two or three races, and rub shoulders with world-class athletes.
Nobody had more talent, charisma, and just plain old class than Nelson Vails. Nelson was a consummate showman. You never knew what he would do for fun, but you could count on it. I remember Nelson warming up with little “killer bee” antenna buzzing around his helmet. One time, holding onto the wall of the track before a race started, Nelson reached down near his front hub and mimed the pulling motion to start up his engine; after a few pulls his imaginary motor started up, and the race was off. It wasn’t all goofing around; Nelson could switch to “business time” with the best of them and race his heart out.
But one experience with Nelson stands out beyond all others; I remember it as if it were yesterday. Track racing can be pretty intense. You are at your limit banging around, touching wheels, and occasionally watching sparks fly under the lights as people occasionally go down. That smooth looking concrete can be brutal. In the intermediate and junior races, you also have the invulnerability of youth in the mix.
Trexlertown had a great tradition that really mixed up experience. Everyone got two or three races a night in their particular category, so everyone from kids to masters to pros could battle it out at their level. The final, however, was reserved every night for everyone who had a top two or three finish in their earlier races; this is where Nelson comes in.
I was a middle of the pack kid most of the time. Then one night, I ran a pretty good miss-and-out, and I found myself lining up in the final with the icons of the sport. Holy smokes! I was probably 110 pounds soaking wet, and I’m lining up with Olympians. I mean these were guys who were not posing when they wore the stars and stripes jerseys. To say I was a little nervous was an understatement. You do not want to do something stupid and take out a pack of these guys going to the Olympics.
As I slowly rode from the infield to the track, Nelson silently rode up next to me, gently bumped into me, flashed that huge smile, and said, “Hey, just sit behind me, kid.”
No kidding, he tucked me under his wing for a good 40 laps and kept me out of trouble. What a guy.
When he is here talking about his experiences and the Major Taylor Project, a kid could do worse than listening to Nelson and just getting behind him.
Ticket sale proceeds will benefit Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation’s Major Taylor Project, a year-round youth development program focused on creating access and opportunities for youth in diverse and underserved communities. Produced by the Cascade Bicycle Club Education foundation, the project promotes cycling as a form of exercise, recreation and transportation while integrating the importance of leadership, community activism, bicycle maintenance, safety and working toward individual goals.