Ridin’ With Nelly

Nelson Vails 1984 Olympian and Silver Medalist
Nelson Vails 1984 Olympian and Silver Medalist

The first time I saw Nelson Vails was ’84.  The first time I rode with him was in ’88.   The first time we connected was ’12.  Today he called.

Pull up chair kids.

The summer of ’84 was a special one for me.  I’d just returned from a church mission to Mexico.  English was a struggle.  Culture shock all over.  No job, free time, the Olympics in LA and this new thing called ESPN 24/7.

I flipped on the tube, and there was Alexi Grewal on the roads of Mission Viejo racing away from all the favorites.  The drama was amazing.  Steve Bauer bridged up to him and Alexi did the road cycling version of the rope-a-dope on La Paz… yes kids, the same La Paz we slug it out on Canyon Velo Long.  Bauer was by far the superior sprinter and would go on to much greater cycling success, including wearing the Yellow Jersey… but, not that day.  Gold for Alexi and America.  Lots more gold and silver and bronze cycling medals would follow.

I was hooked.

I wanted more, and would get it because track cycling was up next.

The track was outdoor, in Carson.  The racing would go on for several days.  The US Team was very prepared, and looked awesome.  All the guys were cool, but one guy stood out…

… the bike messenger from Brooklyn…

… his name was cool, he looked cool, and he was a cool customer.  Check it.

It was a team of standouts, and I was rooting hard for him to do great.

What would it be like to be that fast?

I pumped up the old LeTour and pedaled around the condo complex.  It was old and neglected, but it rolled.  It was a lot like the clunkers I’d ridden in Mexico.  The wind on my face and through my short hair felt sublime… it was freeing.

5 years later, I’d graduated and married and picked up cycling.

We lived in Irvine.  I was on the local team, Canyon Velo.

One day, either on Food Park or Coffee Crew (it was originally a Saturday ride), he was there.

No joke.

Nelson Vails was on the ride.

I’d heard he was in town, and heard he’d been riding the group rides.

And there he was.

So cool.

I was trying to be cool… but, I wasn’t.

We were rolling up Back Bay, in a decent double pace line, and somehow I wound up next to Nelson Vails.

I tried small talk, I’m horrible at small talk.

He just looked at me and said something like man, you gotta keep your thumb and forefinger touching like this… his accent was so Brooklyn… I was star stuck… “like this” he said again, showing me his fingers wrapped confidently around the bar.  Not gripping, just confident.

You keep your hand like you have ’em, hit a bump and you lose control… take us all out.  Got it?  Yep.

I still think of that conversation all the time, and I can honestly say that little tidbit has saved me more than once on and off the road.

20 something years later we became “friends” on FB.  I told him about the advice he’d given, and we laughed about it.  Now he has his Rides with Nelly going, and yesterday I see he’s gonna be at Tour de Tucson Saturday.  I post, C U there.  This morning I see he likes my comment… you can do that on FB, make friends with people and get to know them.

Then my iPad rings.  It’s Nelson.

I’m making eggs.

Yo, what’s up Nelly?

Hey, you want to ride up front at Tucson with me? (I want an accent).

Heck yes I do.

Cool, here’s what you need to do… I listen, I get it.  I’m in.

Now, I can’t tell you more because I have to keep it on the down low… but I can tell you there’s a slight chance you could join us.  Don’t think I’m a turd here, but it’s up to me to make sure you merit starting up front – you’re fast, and you’re safe.

Let me know if you want to ride with Nelly next Saturday.