The U.S. cycling team, which overwhelmed its Olympic opponents with space-age hardware and fierce resolve, in the end enjoyed its finest moment not in victory, but in defeat. That is, if a silver medal may be considered a mere consolation prize. Astonishingly, American cyclists had gotten four gold medals, two silvers and a bronze before entering the 4,000-meter team pursuit competition Friday at the velodrome on the California State-Dominguez Hills campus south of Los Angeles. Less than half' an hour earlier, Mark Gorski and Nelson Vails had won the gold and silver medals in the sprint, and only two days before, 20-year-old Steve Hegg had devastated favored Rolf Gölz of West Germany in the 4,000-meter individual pursuit, reducing the proud German to post-race pettiness: "If the race had been in Germany," Gölz told his conqueror, "I'd have won."
The four-man pursuit team, which included Hegg and individual pursuit bronze medalist Leonard Harvey Nitz, was coolly confident in the wake of America's earlier successes as it awaited the start of its race against an Australian quartet that had had the best heat time, 4:23.56. After all, the U.S. team already had survived more than its ration of ill fortune. In pursuit races, it should be noted, the competitors begin at opposite sides of the track and literally chase each other until one either passes the other or, failing that, reaches its finish line first.
Of all the races on the banked track, the team pursuit is the most esthetically pleasing. A team rides in single file, the three cyclists behind the leader drafting in his slipstream. At every lap or half lap the leader swings up the bank, like a dancer fading into the wings, and retreats to the end of the line, replaced in the "pull" position by the second rider. In this manner each team member shares the burden of pacing and each, in turn, has his rest. At its rhythmic best, team pursuit is a cycling ballet, the riders gracefully exchanging position without losing pace. The Americans, dogged by rotten luck in earlier races, were certain their best had been saved for last.
Their first attempt to qualify the previous day was negated when the rear wheel of rider Pat McDonough's bike came loose. McDonough, strapped to the pedals, toppled off the track, and a restart was ordered. This time though, the Americans would be obliged to ride with only three men, minus the fallen McDonough, placing them at a distinct disadvantage. Shortly after they'd passed 3,000 meters in this second qualifying attempt, Brent Emery, who has a chronically sore right hip, faded off the pace. In slowing down to accommodate Emery—a team's clocking is actually that of its third rider—Hegg and Nitz collided. Hegg was sent sprawling onto the track, and Emery, unable to stop, plowed into him. Emery fell, as cruel fate would have it, precisely on his damaged hip. He lay unconscious for a time and soon after regaining his senses became ill. He somehow recovered for a third try about an hour later, and this time the three-man team qualified. McDonough was allowed to ride in the next round of competition, and the U.S. beat Denmark by .01 second.
But Emery, his hip sorer than before, was unable to compete in the final day's racing. His place was taken in the semis—a victory over West Germany—and in the finals by 26-year-old David Grylls, a dominant American pursuit rider of the late 1970s who has been somewhat inconsistent in recent years. In retrospect, Grylls was an unfortunate choice for a team already snakebit; in February he had been run down by a coach's van during a practice session in Arizona. But he had performed well enough in the semis and was anxious to take up the slack for Emery. In the end, he only created more slack.
In his first crank of the pedals in the final, Grylls's left foot came loose from his toe strap and he could do little more than flounder off the track, a desolate figure, head between his knees, as his teammates proceeded without him. "Three!" shouted the third—and now last—rider, McDonough, as he looked behind him and saw no one following. Hegg and Nitz could scarcely believe it was happening again. But they were indeed three, and as Kevin Nichols of Australia would say, "Four against three is a good advantage."
Racing one man short, each of the Americans now had to take eight turns instead of six in the lead and remain there for perhaps 20 seconds at a time instead of 10. "That taxes the body real fast," said Nitz afterward. "I took three full lap pulls," said Hegg, "and I was pretty gassed at the end. Every second I was able to take away from them, the Australians put back. If we could've had Dave for at least four laps and had that extra draft, I know we would've beaten them." But the Australians won by nearly four seconds, 4:25.99 to 4:29.85, earning the first gold medal for their country in Olympic pursuit competition.
The Americans were not, however, without honor. When it came time to accept the medals, Grylls, who had, after all, raced in the semifinals, nobly absented himself. In his place on the silver medal stand stood Emery. Grylls had gone up to Emery before the ceremony and had insisted that he take the medal. "I'd decided even before the race that he should have it," said Grylls. "He rode his heart out yesterday. He deserved it. I feel that all these guys are my brothers. What happened to me could've happened to anybody. I'm just sorry it had to be me. Here I am on a $40,000 bike, and a $10 toe strap knocks me out of the race."
"That," said Emery of Grylls's gesture, "was the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me."
Nothing could keep the U.S. from the gold medal in the sprint. Gorski, America's best sprinter, and Vails, a former bicycle messenger in New York—Street Wise was the name of one of his employers—had so dominated their event that neither had lost a race in the five competitions that led up to the finals, the last two of which were best two out of three. The match sprint is a curious race in that, though the competitors ride 1,000 meters (three laps), they really only race, and are clocked, for the final 200. The rest of their time is spent in a cat-and-mouse game in which both employ a variety of wily tactics to avoid taking the lead before the final rush. A rider will come to a complete standstill—as Vail's semifinal opponent, Philippe Vernet of France, did for 62 seconds—to avoid becoming a frontrunner. Then, abruptly, the tricycle pace will quicken and the two riders will hurtle toward the finish line at speeds exceeding 40 mph.