Considering the expanse of most U.S. waistlines and the expense of filling the family car with gas, it is a wonder that more folks haven't turned to bikes. There is plenty of proof that bicycling will lift our hearts and lower our bills, but for racers there is the extra kick of competition. These elements all came together last week at the National Bicycle Championships in Northbrook, Ill.
Bicycle racing seems to be equal parts Little League and self-sacrifice, a game that catches up entire families and demands stunning hours of daily training. And while the racers don't have a lot of the basics that accompany most other sports—things like bank accounts—they are hanging in there.
This year's competition started two weeks ago in Milwaukee, where John Howard and Linda Stein won the men's and women's road events. Then the racers packed up tents and wheels and rolled on to Northbrook, just outside Chicago, for the track meet. If road racing is the sport's drudgery, the track events, particularly sprinting, are its glamour—and for sprinting one needs explosive speed, courage and guile. Each sprint covers half a mile, but the racers only go full blast over the final 200 yards. Until that burst, the sprint is a war of nerves played with pedals. Occasionally the tactics become physical, a la football. Most competitors figure that whatever you can get away with is legal.
The track competition moves fast through five major categories. For the men, there are events in the kilo (a 1,000-meter time trial), the sprint (a one-on-one race), the 4,000-meter pursuit, 10-mile race and team pursuit. Women compete in the sprint and the 3,000-meter pursuit. And if the competition wasn't fierce enough, all through the opening rounds, which started last Wednesday, Northbrook sizzled under a relentless sun. Cows on nearby farms huddled under groves of trees. Spectators wilted. Between appearances the racers sprawled motionless in their tents along the back-stretch of the velodrome. The temperature was 90� and the sky was cloudless, though a layer of smog dulled the glare. "There's an ozone alert," said ex-world champion Sheila Young. "I guess that means we're not supposed to breathe."
Bicycle racing in the U.S. is still at a stage where a rank outsider can make it to the top in a hurry. Like Mary Jane Reoch. She is 29, from Philadelphia, worked to put her husband through law school and says, "I think housewife is a dirty word." In 1971 her athletic background included nothing more strenuous than high school cheerleading, but then she took up cycling and five months later won the National Road Championship. Since then Reoch has averaged a national championship a year. Last week she won the women's 3,000-meter pursuit title.
Jerry (Legs) Ash is another recent addition to the chain-and-handlebars gang. Four years ago he was surfing off the beaches of Southern California when he met some bike racers and decided to train with them. In 1973 he entered the nationals and "was blown off the track." Last year he finished third in the sprint, and now, at 28, he was considered a threat for the title, a racer who substitutes electrifying speed for experience. "Some guys really have the tricks," Ash said one evening in the infield. Standing with him was Carl Leusenkamp, who has ridden on three international teams. "You should see Carl here in his Roman gladiator helmet and elbow pads." There is a fine line between intimidation and recklessness. The racers shave their legs so the cuts from falls at 40 mph will heal faster. The memories linger.
"I remember one of my first times on the track—Leusenkamp put me over the rail," said Roger Young of Detroit, the 1973 sprint champion and Sheila's brother. "Afterward he told me, 'It's a contact sport, kid. You're going to have to take the bumps.' "
Tactics won't help a rider get by the "wall," that imaginary but all too real moment when the legs rebel, like pistons without oil. A few riders, such as Ash, can blast on through. The Californian is tall and rangy, but most of his strength comes from his 25-inch thighs, which are so bulky that they terrace down to his kneecaps. Some racers call him "Reindeer": there is an oft-told story of an international meet where Ash convinced a group of credulous Russians that U.S. doctors had grafted reindeer tendons into his legs to make him faster.
Another major contender at the nationals was Jack Disney, who had won 21 gold medals in various national championships and was at Northbrook in search of his 22nd. Disney is 45, the grizzled Ponce de Leon of his sport, but this year he was not hoping for too much. He had set a track record in the 200-meter flying start event at the nationals last year, so he still had the speed. But he needed rest. "I don't know if I can do it back to back," Disney said, aware that the semifinals and finals on Saturday night would both be best-two-out-of-three heats.
The development of riders such as defending sprint champion Steve Woznick, Roger Young, Gibby Hatton and Ash is the reason the U.S. is catching up to the rear fenders of the cycling powers. Hatton won the gold medal at the junior world championship in Poland last year, the first male American in 65 years to win an international title and Sheila Young took the 1973 women's sprint. Daniel Morelon of France has dominated the sprint championships for years, probably because the majority of Europeans consider the sport good for something besides outrunning barking dogs. "Even with a sponsor, no one is making money," says Jack Simes, coach of the Pan-American team and a prime candidate, along with Disney, to direct the U.S. Olympic squad. "You can count on one hand the guys who are breaking even. No one has time for a job, except maybe to work in a bike shop. You need all your time for training, especially with the Olympics coming up."