Commuter Profile: Nelson “The Cheetah” Vails

Nelson Vails has worn a lot of hats in his exceptional life. He was the youngest of ten children growing up in a Harlem housing project, a New York City bicycle messenger working to support his family, an Olympic silver medalist in track cycling, a TV commentator, a youth biking advocate and, most recently, the subject of a stunning documentary, Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story.

When did you start riding? I learned to ride with training wheels at the age of six. Some friends and I from the neighborhood formed a little bike club—we didn’t realize it was a club until later—and we’d ride around Harlem together.

When did you start working as a bike messenger? I started in the late 70s and worked two years as a full-time messenger. That was in the early days of bike messenger services. I was what was called an “OD”—an “original dime.” We didn’t have cell phones, just pay phones, so you’d drop in a dime and call the dispatcher to find out where your next delivery was. Everyone used messengers back in the day. If you worked, you got paid, and it was good money.

Do you feel like working as a messenger helped develop your racing career? Definitely. I was getting paid to ride every day and riding in that fast-paced environment taught me skills that I could never have learned from a coach or from a book. Anyone riding in New York City knows what I’m talking about! That acuteness stays with you forever, no matter where you’re riding. I live in Southern California now and that heightened sense of awareness and confidence is with me when I ride in traffic to this day, even when I’m biking on the beach.

How did you transition from the daily grind of working as a bike messenger to an Olympic-level athlete? For a while I was riding seven days a week. I worked as a messenger Monday through Friday and rode amateur races on the weekend. I started riding with the Century Road Club Association and eventually met people like Lenny Preheim —owner of TOGA Bike Shop at that time—and an older gentleman named Fred Mangione (who’s still riding around Central Park to this day). They helped coach me and build my career. I’d race at the Kissena Velodrome in Queens on Thursdays and then at the T-Town Velodrome in Pennsylvania on Fridays. Eventually that training and support led me all the way to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Standing on the podium at the 1984 Olympic Games—as the first African-American cyclist to ever win an Olympic medal—what was going through your mind? There was a huge sense of accomplishment. So many people played a part in me reaching that goal. From family, friends, coaching staff and even the people who served me food in the dining hall when I was training—those people know who they are.

Your story has inspired a lot of bicyclists. Who inspired you? My dad. He’s a cool dude. He supported me in whatever I did and played a big role in my development as an athlete. He encouraged me through the way he communicated. The emphasis was on “we” rather than on “you.”

What advice do you have for young cyclists in New York City? My advice to kids is to respect the real and respect your elders. Always be humble for what you have. Even if you’re not well off, living in NYC you have opportunities that a lot of others don’t have. That, and bikes will take them places if they stay on the straight and narrow. It has done it for me, and it can for you, too. I work with a nonprofit based in the Bronx called I Challenge Myself. They encourage city kids to ride, but they do a lot more than that, too.

Your racing career has given you opportunities to travel and ride all over the world. How do you think New York City stacks up as a “bike-friendly” city? I’m very proud of the work Transportation Alternatives has done to bring Citi Bike to New York City. I know bike share is in other cities, but it gets put to its best use here in NYC. I’m looking forward to riding a Citi Bike on this visit.

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