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The Cheetah: Nelson Vails

By Kurt Boone

Nelson Vails got his nickname “The Cheetah” from an announcer at a race at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania early in his racing career—a career that includes racing professionally in Europe and Japan, induction into the Cycling Hall Of Fame, a silver medal in the 1984 Olympic Games, and it all began as a bicycle messenger. I met him at Toga Bicycle Shop in New York City, where Nelson Vails was having a party to preview his cycling clothing line and working with a film crew on a documentary film about his life called “The Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story.”

Nelson grew up in 1960s Harlem, on 115th Street and Lenox Avenue in the iconic Northern Manhattan neighborhood. He attended Catholic school and began riding a bicycle like many of his generation, atop a Schwinn banana seat, exploring Harlem with his friends. At fifteen years of age Nelson started developing a love for cycling. By the age of eighteen he knew he could be a successful racer. He joined the Toga Bicycle Club Team and soon after that Larry Preheim, owner of Toga Bicycles, first took him and the rest of the team to the Kissena Velodrome. In addition, Larry would introduce Nelson to an owner of the bicycle messenger company Cycle Service, where Nelson found work as a courier.

It was around this time, in the early 1980s, that I learned that Nelson Vails was a bicycle messenger