“Being the first African American to win an Olympic Cycling Medal and one of the first to race on the international circuit I never looked at color because I was just a member of the team. I was a member of the US National Team and a member of the Toga Team. There never really was a color barrier for me because I didn’t see beyond that as being the only black guy racing at the time.” –Nelson Vails
and an Olympic Team hopeful. Nelson became good at courier work, bringing in at least $500 a week and earning the reputation as the fastest bicycle messenger in his company. He was also attracting the attention of the New York media.
“It was like reality TV today, pretty much,” Nelson says. “It was the pressure of maintaining my focus on my racing and my training to prepare for the next race. So I always worked on staying focused on that.”
Long before the widespread use of fixed gear bikes on the street, Nelson rode an old Bianchi frame with a single gear and two working hand brakes to work on his cadence while on the job. By combining training with the Toga Bicycle Club and working as a bicycle messenger, where he had to stay alert and very aware of his surroundings in the hectic and dangerous New York City traffic, Nelson became an accomplished regional racer.
Racing in New York City he competed in road and crit races and all nine track disciplines, leading him to national success at sprint events and culminating in a silver medal in the match sprint at the 1984 Olympic Games. Nelson’s podium achievement made him the first African-American to win an Olympic cycling medal. While competing in the 1984 Olympic Games a movie producer from Columbia Pictures contacted him about the upcoming movie production “Quicksilver” eventually casting him as a bicycle messenger opposite Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne, further securing his ‘80s cycling courier legacy.
“I trained [the other actors], so we were in a situation where I would tell them how to ride their bikes with a little bit of technique,” he says. “That was kind of cool.”
Nelson moved to Belgium and turned pro in 1988, living in Europe for the next eight seasons while pursuing his racing career. During the off-season he would go to Australia, then back to Europe, Japan and the United States to race. From the six-day circuit in Europe to Keirin races in Japan, he travelled the world competing until his retirement from the professional ranks in 1995. The US Cycling Hall of Fame recognized Nelson’s accomplishments with his induction in 2009. After some time away from the bike, these days you can find Nelson out riding and at events across the country sharing his love and knowledge of cycling with the next generation.
Visit www.nelsonvails.com for more information and a gallery of historic images.