Gotham’s Dynamic Duo | Al Toefield, Lou Maltese, and New York City Bike Racing

Originally I wrote this for the July 1986 issue of Bicycle Guide Magazine. This version is slightly different. It’s shorter. And better. You’re welcome.

I have not updated any time references. “Last year” means 1985, “four years ago” means 1982, etc. There was no internet or cable then, and the only bike racing on TV was the Tour de France. This story is based on personal interviews with Al Toefield and Lou Maltese conducted in 1986. They died in 1989 and never, ever got enough credit for what they contributed to the sport of bicycle racing. That’s why I’m posting this. Thank you Lou Maltese, Al Toefield, and Pete Senia.

Copyright ©2017 ©1986 SYDNEY SCHUSTER — All rights reserved

New York is a city of five boroughs and two cycling czars. In the battle of nerves that is Big Apple bicycle racing, Lou Maltese and Al Toefield never blink.

Lou Maltese and Al Toefield each have respected racing clubs in New York City. Both were track racing fiends in their youth, and both love to organize big-time racing events. Before there was ever a Coors Classic, before the Colorado World’s Championship was even a gleam in the USCF’s eye, Maltese and Toefield were showing Americans what a real race is all about. There the resemblance ends and the fireworks begin.

Lou Maltese. Photo © Ted Leyson

Lou Maltese. Photo © Ted Leyson

Depending on whom you ask, the reputation of Lou Maltese’s Century Road Club (CRC) Association ranges from Olympic cadet school to marauding band of rowdies. You can’t be the oldest and perhaps largest racing club in the country without developing a certain cachet. The CRC has been raising dust and more since it was founded in 1898 by Charles P. Staubach.

Central Park is the domain of Lou Maltese and the CRC, as it has been since 1963. Before that he ruled Grand Concourse in the Bronx and Harlem Speedway. When he set his sights on Central Park, it was a rough start.

His storied nemesis was legendary civic builder Robert Moses. A colossal asshole with an ego to match, Moses was the State Council of Parks chairman, Long Island State Parks Commission president, NYC Parks Commissioner, New York State Power Authority chairman, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman, president of — well, you get the picture. Moses championed a lot of causes. Bicycle racing wasn’t among them.

Says Maltese about Moses’ Central Park welcome wagon: “I used to run like an outlaw. Every once in a while the officials would catch up to us and chase us out of the park.” With time came shifts in city politics. Moses died in 1981 and Maltese holds court every Saturday at the Central Park Boathouse, the de facto CRC headquarters.

Maltese was born in 1907. In his halcyon days he was a record-breaker in 3-mile, 25-mile, and century time trials, holding the 100-mile record for more than 30 years. He first joined a club himself in 1922, qualified for the Olympics but missed selection by a hair, and turned pro in 1928. His specialty was motorpace racing, pedaling 55 mph behind motorcycles on board tracks.

The Great Depression and World War II caused the tracks to fold, and many pros returned to the amateur ranks. Maltese didn’t need to. He took up race promotion, developing a talent that served him as well as his racing skills had.

For 27 years he was Director of National Championships for the Amateur Bicycle League of America (ABLA was renamed the U.S. Cycling Federation in 1975, and USACycling in 1995), organizing thousands of races all over the country. He was responsible for the 1955 National Championships and Olympic qualification trials in 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972, all held in New York. He ran the monthly races at Astoria Park for years. In the 1930s he joined CRC and now runs the club’s weekly races in Central Park, as well as the annual Memorial Races and Mengoni Grand Prix.

While Central Park is certainly glamorous, he’ll be the first to tell you it’s no picnic running a sane event there. Educating parkgoers is about equivalent to informing a zombie horde they’re about to be flattened by a rabid pack of bombers. “They run down the middle of the road,” says Maltese in despair, “even with baby carriages! You learn how to ride your bike like a cat walks.”

Public use hours of the park are posted on signs all over. But problems exist despite a raft of precautions that include advance cars with loudspeakers, race marshals, road restrictions, and suspension of riders who drift out of the designated race path. And that’s just for training races.

To make things more lively, the southernmost end of the 6.25-mile race circuit is carpeted with emissions from police horses, carriage horses, and the riding academy horses. The racers call it Marlboro Country. And yet a CRC membership card is still the hot ticket in town. Maltese expects to log over 400 members this year.

Most CRC members are male. Female riders are especially difficult to attract to a club, and the CRC’s few are a point of pride for him. He has but one complaint. “Our women get better, then the other clubs steal them away.”

By “other clubs,” he could mean the Nassau Wheelmen way out on Long Island, or maybe Westchester Velo up north, or perhaps the Century Road Club of America over in Jersey (no relation, he’s quick to add). But all of them are virtually inaccessible to people who spend all their money on bikes instead of cars. What he probably means is the only other club whose races you can get to by bike: Kissena.

The monarch of that Queens domain is, of course, Al Toefield, who has a reputation for never forgetting a name, and for dispensing the same quality of advice to geeks as to stars.

Al Toefield. Photo © Peter Nye

Al Toefield. Photo © Peter Nye

From where Toefield stands, Maltese’s Central Park operation is more flash than substance, and the CRC serves but one useful purpose: prescreening.

“We turn down an awful lot of people,” he says, referring to CRC defectors. “We’ve found through experience that if they’re frustrated in that club, it means they’re looking for something unrealistic. Eventually they’ll be frustrated with us. We don’t want them.”

In a town where talk is cheap and poseurs are the rule, Toefield has become something of an icon to kids with a dream. His Kissena Cycling Club has a stellar rep for mentoring juniors, and the Kissena Bicycle Shop that he owns is about the only one where a serious racer of modest means can get a competitive bike. It also serves as executive HQ for the 200-member KCC.

A night person, Toefield can be found most evenings fielding phone calls in this tiny place that somehow holds a vast jungle of racing equipment. In a corner hangs one of his old wood-rimmed tires with “Toefield 1972” painted on it in script. It was a good-luck gift the year he went to Munich as chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee and manager of the Olympic cycling team.

Before that he was the ABLA’s president (1967-1971), and now is the USCF’s first vice president. For the last 12 years he’s been New York State and New York City regional chairman of cycling events for the prestigious Empire State Games. He also ran the Pepsi-Cola Marathon for 12 years, the 1985 Tour of Long Island, and the 1980s Lowenbrau Grand Prix cycling series.

Toefield was born in 1921. He scored his foundational chops during the Great Depression, working as a bicycle messenger for 15 cents an hour and joining school teams. All of them.

“I learned fund raising early by playing as many school sports as possible,” he says of his high school years. “Each coach dispensed lunch on practice days and 25 cents for car fare,” which Toefield squireled away for bicycle equipment purchases. It was a brilliant plan, he says, “except when different teams practiced on the same day.”

By World War II Toefield was burning up the board tracks at the Coney Island Velodrome, the old Madison Square Garden, and the velodrome in Nutley, New Jersey. He joined CRC in the 1950s. His last sprint was in the 1953 Race of Champions at the now-defunct Flushing Meadow track, a six-tenths-mile oval in Queens.

In 1958 he became president of the Eastern Cycling Federation. Now he runs his track races at the Kissena Velodrome in Queens and his road races in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

In the battle of nerves, Toefield is a front-liner and beloved folk hero. It serves him well in Prospect Park, a scaled-down version of Central Park bordered by rough neighborhoods and frequented by airheads shambling and biking where they shouldn’t. But it also has a world-class art museum, fine botanical gardens, a big zoo, a skating rink, and a famous ampitheater. Its picturesque race circuit measures three miles and change. Vehicles are prohibited all weekend, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily in the summer. But that doesn’t stop some folks.

There’s an oft-told anecdote about a car parked in the middle of the road during one of Toefield’s races. The driver had wormed past a police barricade, then proceeded to ignore warnings from club marshals to leave the park. Toefield, a retired police sergeant with 38 years on the force, approached the party pooper himself. Failing to persuade him to go home by being nice, Toefield produced a revolver. The pooper scrammed.

[Author’s note: Toefield famously tolerated no poopage of any kind in his races. Before motorcycles were commonplace in cycling events, he recruited me to run interference for him on mine. I was impressed at how effective it was to sneak up on hosers and bark in their faces, “Al says get out!” The one time it didn’t work, the perp (an unregistered rider who shouldn’t have been racing) threatened to kill me, which I duly reported. Toefield tore off after the f∪cker in his van. That guy never tried it again.]

Kissena Velodrome in 2005. Photo © City of NY

Kissena Velodrome in 2005. Photo © City of New York

The Kissena Velodrome saga

One of the few things on which the two kingpins agree is the circus surrounding construction of the Kissena Velodrome in Queens.

It was intended to replace the old flat track at Flushing Meadow, the one where Toefield rode his last Race of Champions in 1953. Maltese’s eternal nemesis Robert Moses, who demolished a children’s park to build a parking lot for Tavern on the Green and tried to demolish Greenwich Village to build a highway, now wanted to raze the Flushing track to build the 1964 World’s Fair.

“Many good events, starting in ’55 with the National Championships, were held there,” said Peter Senia Sr., a longtime associate of Toefield and Maltese who was a USCF board director, and U.S. team coach for the Pan Am Games and Olympics.

So while the city was still feeling guilty about depriving the racers of their last velodrome, a deal was struck. The cycling clubs would raise funds to build a new track and the city would donate the land — if Toefield and Maltese came back with the money.

And raise cash they did — $10,000. And the Parks Department, who’d expected never to see them again, granted $90,000 and a site for the project after a lot of arm-twisting.

The Parks staff had never seen a banked track, so Maltese had to design the 400-meter Kissena Velodrome himself. The groundbreaking was delayed, however, by bureaucratic red tape; construction prices rose, and with them the cost projections. The city refused to allocate additional funds to meet rising estimates.

According to Toefield, Maltese, and Senia, the city forbade them from privately negotiating with the union contractors who originally bid for the job, and those contractors in turn leaned on other contractors to scare them away.

Pete Senia. Photo © Anthony Van Dunk

Pete Senia. Photo © Anthony Van Dunk

After years of government sidestepping and relentless perseverance by Toefield, Maltese, and Senia, the asphalt arena finally got built in 1963 — over a sewer pipeline in a swamp, thanks to the choice parcel donated by the city. Every year the track sinks a bit, requiring extensive repairs. Local racers affectionately call it The Track With A Hill.

To the surprise of no one, Robert Moses took credit for building Kissena Velodrome. It rests but three blocks away from the Kissena Bicycle Shop, and so Toefield assumed maintenance of it (helped by Senia, with the two often paying for and doing repairs themselves) after a falling-out with Maltese that led to the founding of KCC.

That spat started a few years earlier, driven by differences of opinion regarding CRC policy. U.S. junior national champion Perry Metzler, a racer from Brooklyn, was a CRC rider Maltese wouldn’t help. Toefield personally drove Metzler to the 1957 senior nats in Wisconsin, a trip Metzler couldn’t afford to make on his own. Metzler won, becoming the first African-American U.S. amateur national champion.

Rather than abandon CRC’s 1898 charter declaring it a club exclusively for white men, Maltese reportedly told everyone Metzler was a Mexican, a Puerto Rican, or an Indian. By 1963 Toefield and Senia had had enough. They started their own club in Queens, KCC, to develop talented young riders of all skintones while Maltese headed to Central Park to get pounded some more by Robert Moses.

Despite the city’s bad behavior and Maltese’s departure, Kissena Velodrome’s season still creaks to life every May, with the faithful arriving on Wednesday nights for racing at dusk.

Kissena Velodrome, National Championships in 1964. Photo © Untapped Cities NYC / Stepanie Geier

Kissena Velodrome, National Championships in 1964. Photo © Untapped Cities NYC / Stepanie Geier

Above: Kissena Velodrome in 1975, © Paul Sery. The “hill” is clearly visible at 0:55.

New York City club wars

Club membership in New York City is a microcosm of the general population: You’ve got your schoolkids, your banshees on gaspipe bikes, your affluent Baby Boomers scrounging around for lost youth, your Gen X-ers who are “serious,” at least until they acquire mortgages. The common fabric is racing fever and a unilateral resentment of joggers who think $150 shoes make them athletes.

The mere mention of the New York Road Runners Club is enough to foment a cyclist shitstorm. Founded in 1958 with 47 members, NYRR now has 25,000 members who also have races in Central Park on Saturday mornings, effectively inflating the club’s influence there as well as its sense of property rights.

CRCA Hincapie Classic in Memory of Lou Maltese, Central Park. © Bicycle Racing Pictures

CRCA Hincapie Classic in Memory of Lou Maltese, Central Park. © Bicycle Racing Pictures

It didn’t take long for the rift between runners and riders to become the biggest undeclared war since Vietnam.

Maltese, Toefield, and Senia were excited to be awarded the 1960 Olympic cycling trials, scheduled to be held in Central Park. They were unhappy when it took six months to get consent to close the park to cars for four hours. So they organized a coalition of clubs that lobbied the city into closing all parks to cars every weekend. What they had in mind was more bike races. What they got was quite different.

After the weekend car bans began in the late sixties, the Road Runners overran both Central Park and the city’s major events calendar. Says Senia, “They’re allowed to use the park as much as they want. We’re not allowed a permit except for the Mengoni race.”

The NYRR got pretty much the whole city shut down for the 1976 New York City Marathon, while the CRC was ordered to hold their weekend Central Park races at dawn, so as not to inconvenience any runners training for it.

Ask Toefield about the park wars, and he’ll tell you an epic combat story. “A certain corporate mogul and major political contributor likes to run off his hangovers in Central Park. He gets the finger from cyclists. He gets four-letter words shouted at him. They run him off the path — aim at him! And he calls up Eddie [Koch, the mayor]. He calls up Henry [Stern, the Parks Commissioner]. How are you going to fight that?”

Cyclist-versus-runner turf wars rage nonstop. The clubs hate each other, but Maltese denies it. “It’s not the Road Runners Club that gives us any problem. It’s the general public. The runners have one inside lane, and the riders have two outside lanes. The [rest of the] public thinks they own the park.”

Bill Noël, Executive Director of the Road Runners, agrees, explaining how a coalition of eight civic groups is trying to draft ceasefire guidelines and failing utterly. “It’s extremely slow going. It’s very complex. Things that are not very practical are being tossed out on the table.”

Meanwhile, during one particular CRC race, an errant yuppie was plodding in the cyclists’ lane instead of the runners’. The pack saw the jogger and parted like the Red Sea, all except for one novice at the back who did the unthinkable: He creamed what turned out to be a lawyer. The case went to court. The CRC won.

Politics & payola

Everyone agrees racing costs money, lots of it. It will always live in a financial Twilight Zone between municipal and corporate dependency.

For those who promote it, American bicycle racing at its best is a nightmare of permit applications, insurance hassles, and scheduling conflicts. Arguably the toughest problem is how to simultaneously satisfy sponsors, who mostly want love, and politicians, who mostly want… well, something else.

Sponsors, they’re easy. Anyone asks them for a donation, they’ll ask what they’re getting for it. Fair enough. Mainly they want uncritical publicity. If they’re into bike racing, they’re often good with whatever ya got for ’em.

Politicians, they’re different.

Witness the 1978 Apple Lap, an ambitious plan by Maltese and Toefield for a 75-mile race in which 300 riders would cut through all five boroughs. Incredibly, New York City was on board! But based on the success of the recent Citibank Marathon, the city insisted on not 300 riders, but thousands.

Toefield says, “I finally convinced city fathers that there would be a massacre with 10,000 riders racing.” So it was on, again. But then the police didn’t like the idea of 600 cops guarding 300 riders. And with that, the Apple Lap was history before it even began.

Given the logistics, it’s not hard to understand why corporate sponsors are more willing to commit time and money to lesser events in remote places; it’s just easier and cheaper. But Toefield believes big cities like his have unlimited superior talent reserves begging to be showcased.

“You could sell horseshit in New York City if you package it right,” he says, quoting his ad exec friend on Madison Avenue. “Why should they create markets when they’re already here?”

The answer is kind of sad. Access to Central Park — what little of it there is — goes mostly to Maltese, possession being nine-tenths of the law. The outer boroughs have many fine venues, but they suffer from a lack of recognition as commercial race sites for much the same reasons that cycling itself is slow to be recognized as national sport: They have a reputation of being dull, dangerous, and small-time.

Even though Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was designed by Central Park architects Olmsted and Vaux (and is widely considered more beautiful), racing sponsors always demand Central Park. Toefield says, “I forfeited a blank check from Cinzano because I couldn’t deliver Central Park for a Sunday afternoon race.”

Then there’s the other spoiler, which is way thornier.

According to Toefield, Bloomingdale’s agreed to sponsor a race four years ago. The bill from the Parks Department was $25,000 for the use of Central Park. That’s in addition to, you understand, salaries, security, equipment, insurance, prize money — the race itself. Bloomie’s was horrified. They coughed up the dough, but backed off from race sponsorship for the next three years.

“Anybody comes up with $100,000 for me to run a race, I’d gladly give Central Park $10,000,” maintains Toefield. “But if Central Park knew I had a $100,000 budget, they’d want $50,000.”

Toefield is one of the few promoters who will talk about payola. It isn’t pretty. [Read my story from Spy Magazine about the 1989 Tour de Trump, which also addresses this subject. — ss]

A few years ago he provided cyclists and technical advice for the film Key Exchange, which features footage of racers in Central Park. The producer agreed as payment to sponsor another, real race in Central Park. When Toefield filed the permit applications, the Parks Department discovered the film’s backer was Manufacturer Hanover’s Trust. They had a question. Just how generous a contribution to the Central Park Cultural Foundation were Kissena Cycling Club and the fourth largest bank in the country prepared to make?

MHT threatened to back out, but the movie did get made. And eventually Toefield had his real race, but in Prospect Park rather than Central Park. And MHT never sponsored a cycling event again.

It’s easy to argue that until cycling is considered mainstream in the U.S., getting sponsorship will be difficult. Getting sponsorship requires a guarantee of publicity, and getting publicity requires the guarantee of sponsorship. Cycling will never become mainstream without them. This is the Catch 22 of the sport’s future.

That said, it’s worth noting that when the Europeans showed up in Colorado last year for the Coors Classic and this year for the UCI World Championships, the national media lapped it up. And with Greg LeMond, Steve Bauer, and Andy Hampsten proving to the world that North Americans are fierce contenders, the international focus may shift as well. Whenever that happens, America is ready because Toefield and Maltese showed us just what to do. Catch 22 just slipped a toestrap.

Long Meadow, Prospect Park. Photo by Hua Chen (c) 2006

Long Meadow, Prospect Park. Photo by Hua Chen (c) 2006

Copyright © 2017 SYDNEY SCHUSTER — All rights reserved

Author’s note: Shortly after this piece was written in 1986, Century Road Club management was taken over by the membership. They created a board of directors, wrote new bylaws, officially renamed the club CRCA, and became the inclusive organization they are today. Lou Maltese remained CRCA chairman until his death in 1989. Al Toefield remained the head of KCC until his death in 1989. KCC incorporated as a nonprofit that year and is ongoing today. The club still manages the operation and maintenance of Kissena Velodrome.

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Memo from the Dead Zone | 1986 World Cycling Championships

Let’s take a trip back in time. The year: 1986 — the last and only year the US was allowed to host UCI World Cycling Championships since 1893. You’re about to find out why.

In the mid-1980s I was a columnist for the greatest cycling magazine ever, Bicycle Guide. They sent me to cover the Worlds in Colorado, and the following is my report. Consider it a little taste of what to expect next year when, for better or worse, the Worlds return!

That’s right, in 2015 the World Cycling Championships road race is scheduled for Richmond, Virginia — a state with hurricanes, tornadoes, hazardous seismic activity, toxic waterways, 31 Superfund sites, doctors in tents instead of modern clinics, a governor convicted of 11 felony corruption counts, and police who tried to force a teenager to have an erection to prove they saw it in private emails they spied on illegally. Yup, Virginia is for lovers. And, uh, racing.

 ★★★

MEMO FROM THE DEAD ZONE
originally published in Bicycle Guide, January/February 1987
Text and Photos Copyright ©1987, ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

Colorado Springs, America’s largest small town, wasn’t quite ready for the Worlds. After all, who else would sic police dogs on the World Pursuit Champion and ask you not to ride your bike in their hotel rooms?

***

I’m no good with small towns. I need large quantities of food at odd hours, department stores open ’til 9, all-night newsstands, winos who wipe your windshield because gas stations won’t, and 24-hour greaserias serving rotgut coffee. I’m a New Yorker. Bite me.

In the pantheon of small towns that should be avoided, Colorado Springs may be America’s largest. Its population, mostly somnambulant, consists of 375,000 tropes who seemed utterly unaware they were hosting a major international sports event.

Upward of 100,000 bikies had been making World Championships-related reservations since the previous January, but by August the Springoids remained staunchly oblivious even as cycling interests mainlined $10 million into the local economy. Few area businesses benefitting from this windfall reciprocated by donating primes to the Wheat Thins Mayor’s Cup street races, pretty much the only recreational entertainment available (and organized by David Pelletier, a savvy non-USCF East Coaster, natch). Because, you know, … duh.

Me, I saw the planets lining up upon my arrival at my fancy B&B, which was more like a dorm in hell. The headmistress saw our bikes and demanded to know — wait for it — if we intended to ride them in our room. Huh?!

I tried to imagine her scenarios: The next track session is three hours away and every restaurant in town is closed (yes, that happened): “Honey, I’m bored. Let’s ride bikes around the room!” Or I’ve just met some interesting people who also shlepped bicycles along, like the Italian team (that happened, too): “Hey, let’s have some fun riding bikes around my room!”

Soon the headmistress found out I was press, which resulted in surveillance of my “gourmet breakfast” plate. Her “inn” publishes and sells a collection of its “special recipes” (too special to actually waste on guests, apparently; I was never served any). My leftovers (ie, everything — hippie moderne crap!) elicited a stern lecture from the management, who considered that a smart way to avoid bad publicity.

I have to tell you, this grub nouvelle was everywhere, like acid rain. And they couldn’t even get that right. Hungry bikers turned militant as they searched in vain for bacon and eggs and burgers, and starved altogether from 3 to 5 pm and after 9, when Colorado Springs rolls up its streets — even when 100,000 tourists blow into town, dying to burn $10 million.

The city has exactly one diner (which I discovered on my way out of town) and barely enough late-night eateries to count on one hand. These establishments are distinguished by religious graffiti in the restrooms and menus featuring airbrushed, highly idealized photos of food-like matter. The pictures came in handy when the Japanese team (whose English was better than ours) failed at verbal communication with the waitresses, who eventually took orders by pictures. That is, after they finally stopped laughing and got up off the floor.

Where's the beef?

Where’s the beef?

Basic math

Ever notice how the ratio of small brains to small towns is in direct inverse proportion? I went sightseeing by bike and a local passed me in a tricked-out RV, yelling “Go Germany!” The jersey I wore was yellow, with my New York City club’s name on it. The Germans wear silver ones (East), or white (West). With German words, usually. Go figure.

I was luckier on my ride than others. Another hayseed drove his car over Olympic track star Shaun Wallace, and the police sicked an attack dog on world pursuit champion Tony Doyle. (Said Doyle after winning the pursuit gold with the teeth marks still visible on his calf, “I’ve got three legs he could have bitten. I’m glad he chose the one he did.”)

The Russians rode their bikes over to K-mart and were orgying inside when some hoods swiped their rides parked outside. Their bikes were recovered only because sharp-eyed neighbors noticed the $2,000 custom Colnagos with Cyrillic decals parked beside the Carrillo’s trash. [$2000 was a LOT of money in 1986. — ss] Sensing something not quite right about that, they called the cops, who clearly need all the help they can get. They never did find the $25,600 worth of equipment stolen from Campagnolo’s service truck.

Colorado Springs — a national treasure

No, really. Where else would contractors build bleachers to seat 8,000 by balancing them on little piles of sticks and sand? Where else would an elite international audience be expected to sing “Home on the Range”? Where else can you spend $100 on dinner and get food poisoning? (The Broadmoor, y’all — plan accordingly.) Where else would the Soviets end up in the Satellite Motel?

It’s somehow fitting that the United States Cycling Federation* is HQed in Colorado Springs. As small-time as small-town operations get, the USCF was unfortunately the organizer of this event, and mired in provincialism to the bitter end. First they blew a deal for network TV coverage. Then they let sponsors paint advertising directly onto the brand-new, state-of-the-art track surface at the US Olympic Training Center, on which many racers subsequently slipped and crashed. They mounted signs on all the velodrome’s rails, blocking most paying folks’ view. They recruited redneck road marshals who’d never seen a bike race before, much less hoards of hardcore bike racing fans, with whom they interacted like the Berlin border patrol. There were a lot of fights.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.

Judging by how late the town got the event memo, I’m guessing the USCF dropped the ball on publicity, too.

The one thing that was micromanaged was the press. The Federation demanded that we send in passport pics for mandatory photo IDs, which the Federation immediately lost. Then the USCF generously reshot them, thoughtfully providing a broken laminating machine to seal the magic passes. I call them magic because, although they looked alike, women’s prohibited them from bringing anyone inside the press area, while men’s allowed access by their entire families plus their analysts, stockbrokers, refreshment dealers, Akita trainers, et al.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.

A night out in paradise

Every convention has its party scene and this Worlds was no different. The only thing was, utterly no entertainment was provided for athletes or press, so improvisation was necessary. The trick was finding a decent location for a party.

One nightclub deejay proudly informed me, “I’m from Iowa, and we’re at the same level musically as New York.” Sure. Whatever. He demonstrated by spinning up a stupefying disco cacophony of stuff listened to in New York by people who wear vinyl pants and shower caps.

I pounded the buckaroo meat beat until I struck gold. Everyone else seemed to have found it first — including the hardhats, food designers, RV fans, waitresses, merchants, graffitists, thieves — even the deejay from the other club was there. One townie flew at me out of nowhere, shrieking that I better dare not take the empty barstool that was obviously hers because she’d left her wallet on it while she was gone. Like, to reserve it. I am not making this up.

The track events had just concluded and the biciclisti were there, too, boogying with a vengeance. The crème de la crème of sports proceeded to rout the scum de la scum of Colorado Springs. By midnight the townies had retreated in disgust.

Closing time came and went (too many receipts to skim). The morals squad came and went (not enough paddy wagons). Into the wee hours the bikies danced on the tables, danced on the chairs, danced on the bars. Had there been rafters, they’d have swung from them. No big deal, our clueless bartender assured us. “It’s always like this on Ladies’ Night.”

The next day I called it quits. A simpatico native asked to beam up with me.

“The people who live here think the UCI championships are an annual local event,” he told me, incredulous. “They’re already talking about next year.”

Call it a hunch, but I’ll bet it’s a cold day in hell before Colorado Springs hosts another Worlds. And that’s just fine with me.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.

Text and Photos Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
May not be reproduced without permission.
*In 1993 the USCF was incorporated into USACycling. It didn’t help.

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HELP WANTED | The Myth of the Mighty Bicycle Messenger

Back during The Great Bike Boom of the 1980s, I wrote for an assortment of cycling publications. Mostly I covered racing.

At that time there was this inexplicable American obsession with big-city bicycle messengers — or rather, the idiosyncratic romantic heroes Americans imagined they were.

I knew many New York City bike messengers and was mystified by the out-of-towner’s fascination with them. Romance, my ass. We were in a recession, and they were just a bunch of good kids making a bad living the hard way. In 1987 Cyclist magazine asked me for a report. Here it is. Enjoy!

HELP WANTED
Originally published in Cyclist Magazine, August 1987

Copyright ©1987 ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Let’s start this thing off with a fairy tale that came true. The prince is Nelson Vails — Olympian, film star, and officially New York City’s most famous ex-bicycle messenger.

Popular legend holds that Vails was snatched from obscurity by Fred Mengoni, the US Bicycling Hall of Famer who founded GS Mengoni USA. That’s the NYC farm team that produced international champions Alexi Grewal, Leonard Harvey Nitz, Mike McCarthy, Steve Bauer, and George Hincapie.

The story goes that one day Mengoni spotted the Harlem native chasing racers on a beater bike in Central Park. Profoundly impressed, Mengoni was moved to buy Vails his first good racing bike. The rest — Olympic stardom, product endorsement deals, film role, nice house in fancy neighborhood — it’s all history now. From ghetto to Gollywood on the express track.

Vails became the first African American to win an Olympic cycling medal (the silver), back in 1984. He also won a gold medal at the prestigious Pan Am Games in 1983. Not for nothing, but Vails’ messenger nickname was The Cheetah.

In the press, Vails’ story sold like ice water to bedouins. Hollywood couldn’t resist. So instead of making a movie about that, Columbia Pictures pandered to the appetites of drooling yahoos enraptured with idealized urban rebels (or the idea of them, anyway). The result was the fawning 1986 tribute to bicycle couriers, Quicksilver, about a fictional white stockbroker played by Kevin Bacon. Vails had a cameo. He played a bicycle messenger.

The best part of Quicksilver is the exciting opening action scene: a street race between Vails on a bike and Bacon in a cab. (Saw it or not, you know who won.) The movie goes downhill from there. New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman wrote: “Quicksilver is as much fun as a slow leak.”

No doubt about it. Bike messengers are hot stuff. But are the genuine items really the scruffy-yet-lovable street urchins portrayed in the media? Or are they slumming yuppies like Kevin Bacon, or sports champions in training, or something else? Who the heck becomes a bicycle messenger, anyway? And does the reality live up to the hype?

Nelson VailsNelson Vails delivering the bacon.

☆☆☆

At a spartan loft space one flight up from Park Avenue’s glitz, you’re welcomed into Amazing Racing Messengers by a scrawled Kilroy with a hole in the plaster instead of a nose. A crazy quilt of receipts, bike frames, posters and flags is the backdrop for Stella Buckwalter, a former racer. She looks like a fashion model, talks like a corporate executive and manages the business like an air traffic controller.

Most messengers, including Buckwalter’s, work part-time, furnish their own equipment and get a commission. Buckwalter’s are independent contractors who keep the standard 50 percent of what each trip nets, which is about $10. Buckwalter feels they don’t get compensated enough and loads them down with quarters out of her own pocket, she says, “to make sure they call for pick-ups.”

Not far away from Amazing Racing Messengers is its competitor, Born to Run. On the surface it seems antithetical to the standard courier company model. There are no random arrangements of tire tracks and chain grease. Floating amid glowing oak floors and pristine white walls is the only decoration: a landing strip of a desk covered with phones. Born to Run looks like an art gallery, sans the art.

“We just moved in,” apologizes owner Shelly Mossey, a former messenger with some great stories to tell.

While back office decor may differ, the function served by bicycle messengers stays the same. Or as Mossey puts it, couriers accommodate “anybody who can’t fax their package across town.”

Even with the proliferation of telecommunications and overnight air delivery, the cyclists’ immunity to gridlock and AT&T strikes makes them tough to beat.

Road to Riches! (Not)

Just so you know, messengers don’t get rich doing this. For 40 or so miles of daily riding, the average week’s messenger pay is a modest $250 to $300. A little ambition guarantees $450 to $600, and $1,000 weekly isn’t impossible for top earners.

But employee turnover is rapid — a messenger’s career is as spasmodic as a cabbie’s driving. And while they may have transformed communications, New York’s 3,000-plus messengers haven’t endeared themselves to the man on the street.

Despite superior bike-handling skills and a competitive attitude (plus any bull you’re asked to believe by Hollywood about stockbrokers-turned-messengers), these are not all middle-class bike racers.

The reality is that a relatively lucrative job with limited educational requirements is flypaper to immigrants and the underclasses. The racer look is often just vigorous posturing by wannabes with every reason to emulate athletes and no reason to take a driving test or learn vehicular law. Language comprehension and social graces are not givens, either.

The picture New Yorkers see frequently looks like this:

• A messenger zigzags the wrong way down a one-way street and then peels south on Madison Avenue, which goes north. He hits a pedestrian, who lies unconscious in the intersection. As a crowd gathers, he takes off without so much as a wave. Don’t want that pizza to be late!

• Joey is famous for his delivery uniform and style, which includes a hockey helmet complete with goalie’s mask. “He’ll ride the wrong way up Fifth Avenue, weaving in and out,” laughs Mossey. “At full speed. He’s totally crazed!”

• A non-English-speaking messenger drops off a package at the wrong address. The client is desperate. The frantic dispatcher tries to reconstruct the messenger’s trip. “Where did you come from?” he asks the messenger. The reply: “Cuba.”

• A messenger cuts off a bike commuter, hops a curb, scatters a gaggle of terrified pedestrians, and is stopped. A shouting match ensues. The messenger reaches into his pants as if to seize a weapon. Lycra doesn’t lie, clearly indicating the limitations of his defense options. Bewildered but relieved victims close in.

Despite the inherent chaos, it’s wrong to assume all messengers are guerillas. You’re just as likely to find gentle folk who can’t abide suits, or need flexible hours for auditions or classes. A cross-sampling of employees discloses lots of moonlighters from other trades: musicians, students, writers, artists, models — yes, even bike racers.

One of the latter is Craig Cook, a USCF-licensed junior racer. At 17 he’s more articulate and self-assured than your garden-variety teenager (or even your garden-variety racer). He looks like a choirboy from the waist up and a power sprinter from the waist down and doesn’t wear weird outfits.

Initially Cook was attracted to messengering by its mystique. That was before the pick-up that turned out to be a stack of dining chairs.

“But it also looked like a way to combine race training with a summer job,” he says. Now he finds that riding in fits and starts all day is stressful, and after-hours laps and Saturday races feel redundant. “By the end of the week,” Cook admits, “you’re sort of sick of bicycles.”

An interesting messenger subset is the small but growing contingent of women invading what’s considered male territory, because of the risks. One of them is Julia Ashcroft. Her purple locks are souvenirs from her last job, writing for a rock music publication in London. This American adventure junkie shifted to bike messenger mode, she says, “because the pay is better than a staff journalist’s, and I love riding.” She also loves the undeniable glamor of being a road warrior.

That last part, of course, comes with a downside.

Wild Kingdom

“It’s not an easy job, and it’s dangerous. It gets pretty wild for them out there,” insists Buckwalter. She estimates Amazing Racing Messengers’ crashes at one per week, “mostly minor. We try to get them to wear helmets.”

Trouble is a messenger’s shadow. Car doors open unexpectedly. Pedestrians cross against the light. One time a chicken-playing bus driver intentionally broadsided Mossey.

“Compare it to skydiving,” he suggests, remembering a messenger who lost two front teeth in an accident. “Take your eyes off the road for one second, you end up under a truck.”

Cook was prepared for bad surprises like oversized deliveries and rushes, but not certain others, like getting hit by a limousine that ran a light.

Casualties, which have doubled over the last five years, are a touchy subject. Sizable taxes and licensing fees are derived by the local government from commercial delivery activities, and the city doesn’t want the negatives publicized. But in 1986 there were 2,629 injuries and 7 fatalities in bike/motor vehicle accidents in New York. Pedestrians in the wrong place at the wrong time numbered 617, one of whom checked out permanently.

Who’s minding the store? The city claims courier services are responsible for insuring their messengers. Services claim their messengers are responsible for insuring themselves.

Just call it a free-for-all, because that’s what it is. Tired of dodging two-wheeled projectiles, irate citizens and businesses lobbied for citywide bike control several years back. City Council members and even Mayor Ed Koch jumped in, although Koch would jump into a vat of boiling Afrosheen if a camera was there. Steady streams of damning legal documents flowed between lobbyists and City Hall. Guess who was hired to deliver them.

The upshot was a toothless commercial regulation passed in 1984, Local Law 47. It requires company uniforms on messengers and identification plates on their equipment, so they can be more accurately fingered in the event of mishaps.

With messengers pretty much left to police themselves, compliance is unsurprisingly lax. Improvised head protection and comic book onesies rule. A courier named Juda authored and distributes a handout entitled Safe Cyclists Code [sic] in a sincere (if bone-headed) attempt at self-government. The Code dispenses jewels of advice like this one: “Don’t run red lights or ride against traffic without giving everyone else the right of way.”

So are couriers above the law, or what? Let’s just say they’re in a grey area of enforcement. This fact contributes substantially to their fearlessness, or foolhardiness, depending upon your vantage point.

One fellow sure to take the long view was standing on Wall Street recently, minding his own business, lost in thoughts of blind trusts and insider trading when one of Mercury’s own zoomed out of nowhere. Pedal and knee connected in a mighty crunch. David Stockman, former bad-boy budget director of the Reagan administration, went straight to the hospital. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Legends die hard, especially ones about blue-collar workers in day-glo Spandex. Andy Warhol said that in this, the Electronic Age, everyone will be a celebrity for 15 minutes. It’s been a long trip from anthropological footnote to media darling, but for better or worse, the bicycle messenger’s quarter-hour has arrived.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

New York City’s 1992 Team Breakaway Courier. From left to right: Craig Cook, architect; Mike McCarthy, 1992 World Pro Pursuit Champion; Kurt Gustafsson, competitive skier; and Rafe Diaz, MIA. Photo © 2014 Kevin Hatt

☆☆☆

Sydney Schuster rides bikes, lifts weights and battles computers in New York City. She was hit by a bike messenger once. He is expected to recover.

Text Copyright © 1987, © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
Photo of Nelson Vails © 2014 Nelson Vails
Photo of Team Breakaway Courier © 2014 Kevin Hatt
Photo & Video from Quicksilver © 2014 Columbia Pictures

Breaking: A new documentary about the life of Nelson Vails will premiere in New York City on February 15, 2014. It’s called Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story. For tickets, go to Vails’ info page.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll really like my book Dead Spot!

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Women Riders Now Rocks!

Many thanks and a big shout-out to Women Riders Now, who included my novel Dead Spot in their holiday gift guide. Check it out! http://www.womenridersnow.com. This hip website targeted to female motorcyclists has something for everyone.

Copyright © 2012 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorsed any third-party advertising that may appear on this blog, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Let’s Make a Deal | Bicycle Guide

I’m proud to say I used to write for Bicycle Guide, the world’s greatest sports magazine. It broke every mold by being irreverent, funny, and always on the mark. It was like Top Gear (the fun UK one, not the clueless US one), except for being a magazine instead of a TV show, and about bikes instead of cars. Bicycle Guide never wasted editorial space sucking up to superstars or advertisers. I don’t know about them, but every other cycling freak loved it!

The magazine was run by Ted Costantino, the coolest editor of all time. His own writing was so astute and witty and flab-free, it made me laugh and cry at the same time. He had as many fans as Madonna and looked way better in Lycra.

I had a huge crush on Ted. I even saved all his letters, including the first one in which he doubted I had anything special to offer his magazine. (This was before the Internet, when people communicated by killing trees.) I wrote regularly for Bicycle Guide for the next couple of years.

This was in the 1980s, a truly exciting time in the sport. The US hosted Olympics and (for the first and only time) the World Cycling Championships. There were spectacular pro events like the Coors Classic and Wheat Thins Series. Greg LeMond became the first, second, and third American to win the Tour de France. Women were finally allowed to compete in Olympic events involving bicycles, so I got one.

Back then I spent roughly three hours a day on my bike, and I do mean roughly. I rode it to my job in Manhattan, through the slums of Brooklyn, and over busted glass and potholes to do a few laps in Prospect Park before dusk or D races on weekends. My daily misadventures involved cabs, crack heads, thieves, cops, flats, furious building supers, antifreeze spills, and unleashed dogs. And that’s what I wrote about for Bicycle Guide.

Ted gave me my first publishing break in 1985. But more important, he encouraged me to cruise on the edge and never look down.

———

The following article originally appeared in the November/December 1986 issue of Bicycle Guide.

LET’S MAKE A DEAL
Copyright © 1985 © 2011 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Racing? she asked. Who’s got the time or money? Then somewhere along the way, I decided tread marks would make a great conversation starter and a few new enemies wouldn’t make an appreciable difference. I took the bait.

Once upon a time, I was a mere twit in art school. Painting was then the fashion and so was unbearable pressure on all us art twits to paint. I preferred constructing weird fetishes out of garbage. Frankly, smearing colors around a canvas that took two weeks to prepare was beyond my attention span.

I did eventually bow, ever so reluctantly, to administrative intimidation. Surprisingly, I didn’t mind painting so much. The results were even kind of likable. A good thing, because otherwise I’d still be there. But there were some unexpected bonuses: lessons in lightwave theory, timber framing, and creative b.s. techniques. All served me well in subsequent endeavors.

Likewise, I once detested Star Trek, Mexican food, most of the Rolling Stones, brassieres, New Yorkers … the list is endless. The only reason I mention this is because I seem to have developed a pattern regarding tastes that are acquired, a category into which bicycle racing fits neatly.

I certainly liked the idea of it, but my early impression of racers was that most were overbearing jocks who I didn’t care to emulate, and I didn’t know any women who raced. Then I started accompanying a friend who competes in local events. To my eternal gratitude, there were women there. Fast women.

One weekend the 7-Eleven team was in town. They made an appearance at a New York City training race, and my friend got dropped by national champ Cindy Olavarri. He was only impressed. I was dazzled.

Meanwhile, I graduated to a “serious” bike. I rode it briskly to watch the races.

One day I inquired as casually as possible of my competitive friend whether I might make a good racer. I figured he should know, having personally been used and abandoned by the 7-Eleven women. He gave me The Look. I dropped the subject faster than Olavarri dropped the weenies.

But at the park and on my way to work, I noticed cycling women crawling out of the woodwork. I initiated as many conversations as possible, most of which gravitated to what we perceived as pressure to compete. I kept hearing this whiney voice grousing about being run down by speed demons half her age, or making new enemies for being too bossy. The whiney voice turned out to be mine.

It was convenient to let it convince me that waking up at 4:30 a.m. to train is demented, and redirecting beer money to replace crashed bike parts is sick. I heard you need an Italian bike just to train, and a custom job for the real thing. Who’s got time, much less the funds?

But somehow, somewhere along the way, I conceded that bicycle tread marks on my face might make a fine conversation starter, and a few new enemies wouldn’t make an appreciable difference. I’d heard that nothing enhances one’s sense of immortality quite like crashing and spending. I could always live on credit cards.

The bottom line was this: Could racing be any worse than painting, or jalapeño peppers, or William Shatner?

I decided to accept the challenge. That Saturday I traded the week’s grocery money for a team jersey, the promise of high-speed thrills, and a blurry newsletter. In short, I joined a road racing club.

I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting into. Fabulous prizes! Juicy gossip! Tight pants! Deal me in.

My new club’s D riders were a particularly desultory group. I fit right in.

I wasn’t expecting to win, of course; there are more important things in life than winning. By now I’d been making circles alone in the park for so long, what really mattered was the prospect of camaraderie, meaningful conversation, and a wind block.

The big day, as they say, had arrived. My wheels were true. My new cleats finally pointed in more or less the right direction. Even my two bikes were almost paid for.

The Ds lined up for the gun. The race was launched! Up the first hill with Herrera, Argentin and Muffy! Around a series of treacherous curves I stuck with the pack! Okay, so I was at the back, but I was there.

Things were going smoothly — too smoothly. On the next hill I shifted up to honk; everybody else shifted down and spun merrily away.

Well, I didn’t win my first race. Someone said it’s not whether you win or lose that counts, it’s how you lay the blame. But hey, who cares? Didn’t I meet a swell bunch of new people, get treated with more respect than usual, and get dropped by some first-rate tushies? Not a bad rush for a pink-cheeked pledge. Think I’ll go back next week.

All content Copyright © 2011 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.