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Nelson Vails: From Bike Messenger to Olympian

By: Kelly Fox  February 25, 2019

For many of the world’s top cyclists, they first get into biking as a hobby, something to do after school or with friends and family on the weekend. But for 1984 Olympic silver medalist Nelson Vails, cycling was much more than a hobby. It was his livelihood.

Vails grew up as one of 10 children in his New York City home, and as a young adult took a job as a bike messenger, pedaling through the city’s congested concrete streets to deliver packages to customers. While his bike and the job itself would eventually garner Vails international fame, at the time it was simply a means of survival.

“I worked as a bike messenger to earn a living,” Vails said in an interview. “It had nothing to do with training. But it was excellent exercise.”

But regardless of whether cycling was a job or hobby at the time, Vails had a much bigger vision for himself. That vision would eventually take him beyond the streets of New York, and eventually to every corner of the globe.

The Olympic Dream

Vails’ plan came courtesy of his bike and it came by putting in extra training in the hours he wasn’t working as a messenger. In addition to the eight hours a day Vails was “on the clock,” after work he would head over to Central Park and put more miles when he was off the clock as well. Then he’d go to bed, get up and do it all over again.

Eventually Vails' cycling took him to velodromes in both his hometown of Queens and in Trexlertown, PA, as well, where over time he caught the attention of the United States National Team coaching staff. In the early 1980s Vails moved to Colorado to train with the team full-time, and it was there where he got the first true coaching, training and nutritional advice of his career.

Under the watchful eye of US Cycling coach Eddie Borysewicz (affectionately known as “Eddie B.” to his young disciples) and his assistant Carl Leusenkamp, Vails continued to blossom in Colorado, training with the best cyclists in the United States. Leusenkamp eventually took his riders overseas where they competed against the world’s best, and to this day Vails still looks back on that time as one of the best of his life.

“Eastern bloc, Western bloc, we traveled the world racing,” Vails said. “We raced day-in and day-out against the best in the world. That was preparation that could not be duplicated.”

It was also preparation that prepared Vails for the important races that were to come in the following few years. Vails went on to win a gold medal in the 1983 Pan-Am Games in Venezuela, before eventually making the 1984 United States Olympic team alongside friend and competitor Mark Gorski.

For Vails it was time to head to Los Angeles for the crowning achievement of his cycling career: The 1984 Summer Olympics.

Earning a Spot in the History Books

While there is pomp and circumstance surrounding every Olympic Games, understand that in Los Angeles in 1984 the vibe was decidedly different than any before or since. The 1984 Games fell in the middle of the Cold War, and because of it, a handful of countries elected not to send athletes or participate in the Games.

But for whatever effect the political climate had at the time, none of it showed up at the velodrome on the day of the 1,000-meter match sprint. For Vails and those who rode alongside him that August day, it was business as usual.

“I feel like the results wouldn’t have been much different if the Eastern bloc countries had been there,” Vails said.

On the track the political unrest was put aside on race day, when Vails put together one of the best performances of his career. With his wife and sister in the stands cheering him on, and hundreds more watching on television back in New York, Vails took home the silver medal, with only Gorski finishing ahead of him. In the process, Vails became the first African-American to ever win an Olympic cycling medal.

It was undoubtedly a special moment in Vails’ life, but even to this day he is quick to deflect the credit to his teammates and coaches. In Vails’ mind, training alongside Mark Gorski, Scott Berryman and Les Barczewski had as much to do with his successes in Los Angeles as anything else.

“I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” Vails said. “My medal is owed to those guys. They pushed me to be my very best. It was so hard just to make the team, that it was easy to win a medal.”

Fast Forward to Now

Nelson is still very much involved in the cycling community.
Nelson is still very much involved in the cycling community.

Even before the Olympic Games were done in Los Angeles, Vails had already begun to write the next chapter of his life. It came on his bike, but it also came on the big screen when Columbia Pictures approached him about helping advise on a movie they were getting set to produce.

“They came to me during the Olympics, and I looked them in the eye...and told them I was busy,” Vails said with a laugh.

Following the Olympic Games, he served as a technical advisor on the movie “Quicksilver.” The film starred Kevin Bacon, Paul Rodriguez and Laurence Fishburne as – you guessed it – bike messengers in San Francisco, and Vails was tasked with teaching the actors the complexities of cycling and everything from proper pedaling to the most efficient way to get on and off their bikes. It was a first for Vails, who also made a cameo in the movie.

“It was fun for everyone,” Vails said of the experience. “It was a first for them and it was a first for me. But that is a memory that we all keep with us.”

After the movie was released, Vails continued cycling competitively, most notably winning three straight titles as a national tandem sprint champion. He turned professional in 1988, where he won eight national track titles and also competed in grueling six-day events in Europe, events in which a new race would start every eighth day, after six days of cycling and one day of rest. Eventually Vails retired from competitive cycling for good in the early 1990s.

With his cycling career behind him, Vails elected to pursue one of his other passions – world travel – and did so by taking on a new career as a flight attendant. For Vails, the new job was just another way to see the world, after having the opportunity to do the same for so many years as a cyclist.

“I had been traveling my whole life, so it just came natural to me,” Vails said. “Working as a flight attendant is not a job, it’s a lifestyle.”

Still, even world travel couldn’t keep Vails off his bike forever. Vails now hosts fundraisers, attends races and gran fondos and is an advocate for growing the cycling community in the U.S.

“I want the cycling community to come together with one easy access point,” Vails said.

From the busy streets of New York to the information superhighway, it certain has been a long winding road for Nelson Vails.

And if the past few decades are any indication, there are still a lot of chapters left to be written.