One of the highlights of last year’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show was meeting Nelson Vails. I saw him walking by, and I thought: “That is Nelson Vails! I’ve got to shake his hand!” We ran after him… He turned out to be a most charming gentleman. Natsuko was surprised that Vails speaks Japanese: Few people know that he spent many years in Japan as a Keirin racer after winning the silver medal in the track sprint at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Vails is a cultural icon. He grew up in Harlem and decided to become a bike racer while he was in high school. In Central Park, he rode with big-name local racers and found that he had no trouble keeping up “despite not knowing what I was doing.”
Nelson Vails became a bike messenger while he chased his racing dreams. On the streets of Manhattan, he earned his nickname ‘Cheetah’ for his lightning speed. The 1980s – before fax machines and electronic data transmission – were the glory days of bike messengers. And Vails was the icon of messenger culture – independent, goal-oriented and fast.
The fixie movement also traces its origins to Manhattan’s bike messengers, so I was surprised to learn that Vails did not ride a fixed gear as a messenger. In an interview for the book Fixed, he explained that at his speed, he needed brakes and the ability to coast to survive in New York traffic: “That’s how intense I was.”
You have to love his honesty, even though the answer must have disappointed the authors!
Vail’s Olympic silver medal was just one highlight of his career. He won the Pan-American Games, four U.S. national championships and even became world champion in the tandem track sprint in 1985.
It was an honor to meet him and chat with him for a while. He inspired me when I was just starting to ride and race, and he continues to inspire me today.
Photo credit: Graham Watson (tandem)