Nelson Vails drew an impressive and diverse turn-out for Cascade Bicycle Club’s monthly presentation series. Attendees included the Rainier Riders Bicycle Club and students from Highline’s Global Connections High School Major Taylor Club. Scheduled to coincide with Black History Month, Vails’ fame as the first African American to medal in cycling was of special significance. The 1984 Olympic Silver Medalist in the individual 1000-meter Match Sprints, Vails included time for questions and answers as well as personally interacting with members of the audience following his presentation signing autographs and posing in pictures.
A documentary is in the works, and Vails said Friday evening that he is also working on a book. He opened his presentation sharing that he grew up in Harlem, New York, the youngest of ten children. A bicycle rider as a kid, it was his experience as a bicycle messenger in New York City that led to his racing career. As a matter of fact, anyone who has seen the 1986 movie, Quicksilver, staring Kevin Bacon, witnessed Vails’ breathtaking riding maneuvers as the “messenger in the maroon beret.” Vails showed clips from the movie as well as from several of his races including the 1984 Olympics.
The New York City messenger clip brought gasps as well as oohs and aahs from the audience. His daring tactics both on the track and in the movie clip brought one young listener to ask if he was ever afraid of crashing. Nelson Vails responded that in racing there wasn’t time to think about it, and as a bicyclist today, he still feels more comfortable riding with traffic than in bike lanes. He explained that the awareness he cultivated during his messenger days benefitted him as a racer, and is a skill that is important to all bicyclists.
Much of Vails career was in Europe as he raced the world circuit. He shared with the audience how as the only American racing the circuit at the time, he was cared for by the team. As an African American, he experienced no prejudice, saying, “There was no color barrier.” Continuously through his presentation, he talked about the team, with somewhat of a mantra, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘We.’” When asked what it felt like to stand on the winners’ podium in the Olympics, he responded with a big grin and arms in the air in victory, adding “Great.” He also stressed that making the team itself was the biggest challenge. He closed by saying, "Stay happy and pedal nicely."