The competitors are poised at the starting line and motionless until the gun. Then they're off, eyes fixed straight ahead, Lycraswathed thighs pumping rhythmically. They hold fast to any aerodynamic advantage as they fly around the oval, knowing that milliseconds can mean the difference in winning a medal....
Or, in the case of some athletes, two medals. Let's play the tape again. If the scene unfolds at a Winter Olympics, the race determines the finest speed skaters in the world. When it evolves at the Summer Games, it sorts out the world's best track cyclists. Again and again since the late 19th century, a number of athletes have earned worldwide distinction in both sports, flashing blades or sitting astride a bike, depending on the season.
Cycling's links with speed skating are many. Just like a skater negotiating an iced track, a match sprint, pursuit or time-trial cyclist has to develop explosive speed out of a still position, endurance to maintain the agonizing pace, a knack for sensing lap times and the reserve to sprint to the finish. Speed skaters actually refer to the racing position—body bent forward at the waist, hips angled, back parallel to the ice—as "sitting." Few cyclists train by speed skating, but most speed skaters cycle as part of their off-season regimen, even if they don't cycle competitively.
Of course in skating there is no seat to settle into, and that's one reason those who have plied both sports consider skating tougher. "Skating is such a technical sport that it's very difficult to acquire a high level of skill at an older age," says Connie Paraskevin-Young, who skated for the U.S. in the 1980 and '84 Winter Games, rode to a bronze medal in the match sprint at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and will be competing in that event in Barcelona as well. Because of those precise technical demands, it's much more common to find an ex-skater cycling than an ex-cyclist skating. "In cycling you're relying on a machine to do much of the work for you," says Paraskevin-Young. "You can reach a certain level simply by being fit."
Adds the Netherlands' Bart Veldkamp, who won the speed skating gold medal in the 10,000 meters in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville and will be in Barcelona as a member of Holland's 4,000-meter pursuit team, "The secret to skating is how deep within you you can go for the last few laps while still maintaining your technique. Cycling is more mindless. In a criterium I get bored after 15 minutes."
The circumstances of skating, too, require a hardier constitution. "My toes froze so many times I couldn't feel them," says Paraskevin-Young. "Certainly I had a work ethic instilled in me a long time ago that carried over. And I'd have to say that in some cycling circles, I don't see that same work ethic."
Among the cyclists in Barcelona who will be drawing on their character-forging experience on ice:
?Paraskevin-Young, 31, is a four-time world champion in the match sprint. During three of those championship years (1982, '83 and '84) she also held at least one national speed skating title. "I still consult with one of my skating coaches [at the Wolverine Sports Club in suburban Detroit]," Paraskevin-Young says. "I don't do much training on ice anymore, but I still do a lot of workouts off-ice that I began doing for skating. At first, cycling people would say, 'Are you nuts?' I've won four world championships, so I can't be too crazy."
?Veldkamp, 24, could make history in Barcelona. That's because with the Winter and the Summer Games henceforth set to alternate at two-year intervals, he could be the last person to win a medal in two Olympics in the same year.
?Ingrid Haringa, a 28-year-old policewoman from the Dutch town of Velzen, skated competitively until 1989, when she finished fourth overall at the world championships. She's a favorite in the match sprint after winning two world cycling titles last summer, victories that shocked the bicycle cognoscenti, who evidently hadn't allowed for the 13 years Haringa spent on a bike as part of her skating training.