People who inspire us: Nelson Vails

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)

4 Responses to People who inspire us: Nelson Vails

  1. Philippe Alberola June 10, 2020 at 11:57 pm #

    A true icon. He also appears in the movie Quicksilver.

  2. Hervé Poussier June 11, 2020 at 5:15 am #

    In America , you hug . As a french man ,i’d like to kiss him … on the cheek !

  3. DaveS June 11, 2020 at 11:07 am #

    I meet Nelson years ago on the “Ride the Rockies” week long ride. He gave several talks and presentations on his experiences of Keirin racing in Japan. He is a good speaker and story teller. Like you Jan, he is an inspiration for me.

    On a side note, are you going to have a “People who inspire us” blog on Major Taylor? I consider him to be the greatest cyclist of all times.

    • Jan Heine June 11, 2020 at 12:16 pm #

      Major Taylor’s story is amazing in every way. In this series, we’ve covered people we’ve actually met in person. We may do something about others in the future. There are also several excellent books about Major Taylor…