History lesson

April 28, 2019 § 9 Comments

I was standing on a crowded shop floor, cyclists milling as cyclists mill, awkwardly, not sure where to put legs that aren’t positioned on pedals, talking about things that cyclists talk about, falling off bicycle incidents, today’s ride, friendly and familiar but still Cyclist Awkward.

There was a knot of people standing around the burly man in the back and he was holding court; it was his day, he was the king, and surrounding him were the princes of the national amateur cycling scene. In a few minutes he was going to talk.

When Nelson Vails began to speak, everyone shut up and listened. But that doesn’t last long with Nelson because pretty soon he had us laughing, then clapping, then looking on in amazement as he trotted us through a highlight video of his extraordinary life.

It’s a story that anyone who knows anything at all about U.S. cycling has heard repeatedly, but this time it was with the commentary that only Nelson himself can provide. He may be old, he may be long retired, he may not ride more than 20 miles at a pop, but when he glares at you and jokingly says “Sit the wheel!” you stiffen up and only laugh a few seconds later. Passing Nelson in a tight bunch on a velodrome was not for the faint of heart.

The youngest of ten children from a Harlem family, he started racing bikes, became a bike messenger in NYC, attracted the attention of the national team, and rode his way to a silver medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Vails is the first and still the only African-American to have won an Olympic medal in any cycling event, and as he reminds anyone who cares to listen, that’s not going to change anytime soon because “there ain’t nobody in the hopper.”

It’s not a slight to the two dominant African-American racers Justin and Corey Williams, it’s a slight to what Vails still calls “the federation.”

But the point of the evening wasn’t to deliver a rant on the failings of USA Cycling, and Nelson didn’t make it one. The point was to roll out his new clothing line, produced by Rapha, the Nelson Vails Collection. And he was blunt: “The great memories of riding in this kit will remain long after the pain of the price tag has gone.” I bought a jersey and bibs, rode in them the next day, and although they are the best looking, most comfortable bike clothes I own, it’s going to take a few more memories.

What was striking about Nelson’s talk was what he said and what he didn’t say. He didn’t talk about racism and discrimination in cycling, about hurdles he’d had to overcome, about the prejudices baked into such a pristinely white sport as track cycling in the 70s and 80s. Instead, he started his speech with a code word, the invocation of Marshal “Major” Taylor, America’s first and greatest world champion in any sport, before or since.

When African-American cyclists mention Major Taylor, they are telling you something. It’s subtle, and you either get it or you don’t. What they are telling you is that this sport you love and idolize so much, studded with names like Merckx, Hinault, Bartali, Anquetil, and Coppi, was first dominated, controlled, and ruled with invincible legs and will by an African-American named Major Taylor. And he didn’t do it to the adulation of the masses in what was the world’s most popular sport, he did it in the face of hatred and racism that are our American legacy.

Whatever you think about the conquests of your heroes, they pale compared to the achievements of a slightly-built man born in 1878 who became world champion, multi-national champion, and crusher of foreign professionals on their home turf in the face of physical violence, constant abuse, overt racism of every conceivable sort, and, when none of that worked, rule changes that excluded African-Americans from the nation’s cycling organizing body.

Taylor retired at age 32, unable to withstand any longer the punishing racism that was heaped upon him wherever he raced. He died penniless.

What does any of this have to do with the unveiling of the Vails Collection by Rapha? A lot, in fact …

First, by invoking Taylor and saying plainly that as the only African-American to win an Olympic medal in cycling, Vails is continuing in his tradition, it invites us to examine the history of cycling without actually coming out and saying “racism.” What does it mean to continue in the tradition of Taylor? You can’t know that unless you know your history, and once you do, you have to ask yourself why Eddy is your hero instead of Major? And to continue the question, why is it that the most influential and accomplished athlete in what was at the time the biggest competitive sport on earth, cycling, is not part of every rider’s tradition? Why doesn’t every Cat 5 racer know the Taylor story? Why is he not celebrated a thousand times more than Vince Lombardi or Babe Ruth?

The answers are uncomfortable, for some more than others.

Second, by invoking Taylor, Nelson was also pointing to himself. He too had multiple national professional titles, a financially lucrative multi-year career as a keirin racer in Japan and 6-day racer in Europe, and broke ground as Nike’s first ever sponsored cyclist. Flamboyant, fast, and able to deliver the goods on a global stage, where was the enthusiasm in America’s national governing body to discover and develop more young boys and girls from poor communities into the next generation Nelson Vails? Why was the path blazed by Taylor, then re-blazed by Nelson, left so quickly to overgrow with the same weeds and thorns of preconception and prejudice that had matted it for decades?

Third, by invoking Taylor on the sales floor of a high-end clothing store in Santa Monica, Vails was calling attention to a history of a different sort: The first time that a clothing manufacturer with the global, Pro Tour, luxury cachet of Rapha was partnering with a legend of cycling to put African-American prowess in cycling where it belongs: Front and center.

And for me, it was in some ways this third thing that meant the most, simply because the cycling community is so quick to mouth support for diversity, yet often so embarrassingly slow to put its money where its mouth is. Because no amount of hand-holding and nodding in agreement can make up for the fact that the first part of equality has to do with sharing the money–to clap a retired hero like Nelson on the back and tell him how much you admire him? Meh. To partner with him over a year-long process to design and develop a beautiful, comfortable, luxury riding kit that exceeds every standard there is?

Now you’re talking.

I got mine. You should get yours. There are worse things in life than collecting memories.



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§ 9 Responses to History lesson

  • Mike Hancock says:

    A few years back I was riding in Mississippi with a Wednesday group ride. I was talking with one of the riders, an African American Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force (no small feat- top 1% of all enlisted personnel), and mentioned Taylor. He gave me a blank stare. He knew who Merckx was. He was riding a bike with Jan Ullrich’s name on it and could rattle off his palmares, but Taylor or Vails? Never heard of them. I was shocked and more than a little saddened.

    The next time I saw him, he thanked me for the tip. Knowing him, it will be passed on a thousand times more. These are names every American cyclist should know, long before they can pronounce names with far too many consonants in a row or the random “j” thrown in for good measure. It isn’t a pretty history, but it is our history.

  • Gary A Cziko says:

    Great history lesson.

    I learned further from the Rapha video that Vails and I have at least two things in common: riding as a youth in New York City and doing it on a Peugeot PX10. I bought mine in 1969 and still use it today as my principal city transportation bike, now living as a fixie (the bike, that is, not me).

  • alanardeng says:

    To this day, every time I have a run in with an aggressive driver, I remember Nelson’s cautioning words to me many decades ago as we rode together in Central Park, and I went into a rage when we were harassed by a taxi driver; “ Alan, cool it, I’m a messenger and I have to deal with this on the streets every day of the week, and you’ll never win”. Many years later when we met in LA I told him that his words must have saved my life countless times.

    Just look at that beautiful smile, and think that Nelson emerged from one of the toughest projects in NY, had a stunning career, and now has transformed himself into a personalized industry. No one could deserve it more.

  • There are a number of clubs around the country named for MT, so he isn’t completely unknown. I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with a development team out of Brooklyn that represents MT with pride and knowledge. In his day, cycling was THE sport, and he won on the biggest stages. Remember, the Madison is the Madison because of Madison Square Garden, and that is the premiere event in 6 day racing today. There were tracks in every major US city, and many minor cities as well. Hell, there was a track in little old Nutley New Jersey. MT tore those races up.

    Great posting. Thanks

    • fsethd says:

      You are right, he is far from unknown and each year more cyclists learn about his achievements.

  • flehnerz says:

    Phenomenal post, Seth!

  • downwinder says:

    Great video. Seems like the media values rappers and basketball players as black role models. When I’ve watched Williams win the Manhattan Grand Prix there was low attendance and a tiny check to the winner. How many of you cyclists attended?

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