The major race of the U.S. cycling Olympic trials began last weekend as the biggest road jam in the history of New York's Central Park, and ended as the most exciting sporting event ever held in that oasis of metropolitan greenery.
There was a jolting 45-mile-per-hour smashup on a downhill S curve two minutes after the 120-man field had crowded its way past the starting line. There was a four-hour battle for sustenance as the racers sucked on sugar cubes soaked in cr�me de menthe, snatched plastic bottles filled with everything from German beer to orange juice from obliging trainers on the roadside, and even dined alfresco on lamb chops and cottage cheese. And there was the climactic half minute when six sprinting riders, fighting for four places on the Olympic team, swarmed to the finish line in a single second.
"Like I told ya," shouted a man who had been praising cycle racing to a skeptical friend, "ya can go to Aqueduct for a month and ya ain't going to see a finish like that."
The winner was Robert Tetzlaff, 24, a blond, blue-eyed UCLA graduate who now races for the U.S. Army. For five months he had been training with his Army teammate George Koenig, 24, a Stanford architecture graduate who is known as cycling's bridesmaid. Koenig missed qualifying for the 1956 Olympic team by a single place in a trial event and the same thing happened to him at the 1959 Pan American Games trials. But Sunday, Koenig finished fourth, qualifying at last. Second was Wes Chowen, a string bean 19-year-old from Woodland Hills, Calif., and third was Billy Freund, 19, from Detroit.
For Tetzlaff, victory came as no surprise. The day before he had been sitting on the grass of Central Park, irritated that 120 pedalers had been allowed to enter the 112�-mile trials race. "They're here to fall down in front of good cyclists," he said. "To win, I'll not only have to be strong, I'll have to be lucky. I know I'll sprint well at the end, if I don't get tied up before then."
Sitting with him was Koenig, explaining how important it is for a cycle racer not to be forced to lead but to tuck in at the rear of a pack letting front runners break the wind. "But if a man in front should fall and there's a jam-up, your race is over," he said. In a 120-man field the risk of laying back can be extreme.
On race morning the New York City police stopped all traffic through Central Park for the first time in 103 years. "We're legal at last," whispered a member of the race committee. "Every Sunday we come out here and race 25 or 50 miles. It's illegal. We're sporting bootleggers. We come between 6:30 and 8 a.m. while the cops are changing shifts. It's a secret, kind-of. But look at today. Five hundred cops, all on our side."
By 9 a.m. the contestants were warming up and their families were taking choice positions along the roadway. Among them was Koenig's wife, Paulette, a handlebar-high brunette who was doubling as his trainer. She had given him a typical racer's breakfast: "tiger's milk" ("a horrid concoction of brewer's yeast, orange juice and milk"), broiled liver, boiled eggs and hot cereal. Under her arm was a cloth bag filled with lunch: a partially peeled banana, plum, nectarine, oatmeal cookie and fig new-ton. Her job was to hook the strap of the bag on her husband's outstretched arm as he whipped by at 40 mph looking hungry. "What a way to serve a meal," she said.
Tetzlaff and Koenig followed a racing strategy developed the day before. "The field will move in packs of 50, first fast, then slow like swarming locusts," Koenig had said. "We'll stay in the first pack unless a sprinter gets too far ahead."
For 15 of the 18 laps they stayed in the first pack. "By then a sprinter had taken a long lead," said Tetzlaff later. "I tried to get the pack to chase him. They were very uncooperative [cooperation on chasing sprinters is one of cycling's strange tenets], so a few of us took off alone."