He had been slightly injured in spills before, but this time when he regained consciousness in a Danish hospital the doctors were stitching up one eye; he had a broken nose, a severe skull concussion and so many track burns, bruises and open cuts that they had overlooked a shoulder fracture in the great rush to put the rest of him back together. He remembered his name first—Jackie Simes—and next that he had come from somewhere in the U.S. to race against the world's best amateur bicyclists. The general expectation had been that the Europeans would take him apart. They had done precisely that and, lying there looking up with one eye through the surgeon's working fingers, he thought: "Now I get it. Now I see how they do it. Next time I'll know." It was June 25, 1962, he was 19 years old and this was his graduation speech.
Twelve days later, laced full of staph infection ("The Danes have this wonderful strain of pure staph that will absolutely murder you"), Simes went home to Closter, N.J. and stayed around the house, mending and brooding and taking monster doses of penicillin. By August he was feeling strong enough to race again. He entered a six-day bicycle race in Fair Oaks, N.Y. and crashed in the first hour, adding a few new cuts and a broken clavicle. That was the bottom. From that point on, Sime's career has run wild with success.
Young Simes—he is Jack Simes III in a family of three bike racers, the others being named Jack Simes I and Jack Simes II—has just finished a whirlwind two weeks. The first week he beat all the top riders in the country to win the national championship for the first time and wound up the second week by beating them all again to make the U.S. Olympic cycling team for the second time. He emerged as one of the world's fastest and fiercest racers—with the acquired cunning of the French, Italians and Belgians, who have always dominated the sport—and as perhaps the best rider this country has ever produced.
He is now 21 years old and chronologically a man, but he still looks like a brooding and handsomely freckled boy. In a sport where (at least in Europe) men reach their prime between 27 and 30, he is growing bigger and stronger every year, an awesome prospect for the future. He is quiet and given to extreme courtesies in a soft voice, and after sprinting to a fantastic finish to win the national title, he apologized: "You'll have to forgive my hands trembling like this. It looks ridiculous, I know, but I've just burned up all my blood sugar, and I'm a little bit shaky."
The Century Road Club of America and the Amateur Bicycle League of America regard Simes as faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and as America's foremost hope for a medal when the Olympic races are staged in Tokyo. This dream has a touch of Walter Mitty in it, considering the fact the U.S. has not brought back a cycling gold medal for 64 years. At the 1960 races in Rome, the Italians—naturally—won five of the six gold medals; Russia took the other one, plus four bronze medals. The U.S. entered four men in the 100-kilometer event and came in 11th. America's Allen Bell finished 13th in the 1,000-meter time trial, and everybody else—including Simes—was wiped out before the finals in other events. But at the championships and the Olympic trials in Kissena Park in Flushing, N.Y., ABL Chief Otto Eisele growled to those standing nearby: "Now, I just want you to watch this kid's final snap." And then he stood as stunned as everyone else when Simes burst through from the three-quarter mark across the finish line, going an astonishing 48 miles an hour, a blur against the background.
The snap in cycling is what it sounds like; it is the final kick that Snell and O'Hara give in track when they see—or sense—the tape. In track this involves considerable thrashing of arms and legs; runners often close with heads thrown back, Adam's apples, neck tendons and rib cages etched out in bold relief. Then they collapse with a rasping sob, they almost always collapse with a sob, into the arms of a trainer. In cycling the snap is no more complicated but considerably prettier to watch, and if the trainer gets in the way he will get killed in the rush that carries the rider halfway again around the track before he can slow down. The bicycling snapper comes home in a furious rush wearing steel-insoled shoes and a 19-pound machine strapped to the bottom of these. He is arced down over the handlebars in an airflow position, arms taut, and everything else is a fine flash of spinning chrome spokes and kneecaps.
The closest Simes comes to free-form poetry is when he is talking about this or doing it. "It is like...mm, boy...it is like an explosion of everything inside of you," he says, holding his hands clenched into fists in front of him. "You have your bike adjusted so that you are not riding it at all. You are running on the pedals. The tension is building, building there inside of you. Then someone makes his move—the snap—and there is the big, wild blur. The tires are going zsssssh, and they sound like white noise!"
When he is racing, listening to the white noise, Simes wears a deceptively dreamy expression, turning his head first to check the rider in front of him, then the man in back. When he is exploding toward the finish line the look changes abruptly (his mother cannot stand to see him this way and seldom attends the races) to one of happy savagery. His head is pulled back until it comes directly from his shoulders with no neck; his teeth are bared and clenched, his eyes slitted.
"Oh, he is fierce," sighed James Rossi of Chicago, a tired 28-year-old and for five consecutive years the national champion until Simes knocked him off this season. "I saw Jackie coming on strong years ago and I always beat him, but I couldn't hold him off this season. When you are the champ everybody expects you to win, dammit. But I couldn't.
"In the Olympics," Rossi continued, "Simes will finish second and bring home a medal. Nobody else in the world can beat him. But one. Jackie is not quite strong enough yet to beat Patrick Sercu of Belgium. But he will be—in time—and he could become the world champ."