For Terror-of-the-Streets Nelson Vails, L.a. Is the Place to Deliver His Message

updated 04/30/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/30/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is a sight with which most New Yorkers are familiar. A cycling messenger careers up one of the avenues, sack slung loosely over one shoulder. With equal parts speed and recklessness he darts between cabs and buses, swerving to avoid potholes and, when so inclined, unwary pedestrians. As they say in the postal service, neither snow nor rain nor traffic lights will keep this high-speed Hermes from his appointed rounds.

Of the thousands of pedal-pushing messengers in Manhattan, only one of them has gone on to become a world-class cyclist—Nelson Vails. For two years Vails maneuvered his trusty bike through Manhattan's teeming streets, rarely wearing a helmet. Messengers are paid according to how many deliveries they make, and Vails made enough to bring in as much as $400 a week. Pedaling eight to 10 hours a day, the 5-foot 9-inch, 190-pound cyclist forged massive 26-inch thighs and a street sense he finds invaluable in competition.

"You gotta watch," declares Vails, 23. "You blink, you miss it all. You gotta stay awake, always thinking. A lot of top cyclists, they couldn't handle New York's traffic. I've been in between two buses, two cabs. I've had plenty of misses. I've hit people who stepped off the curb. They're in my way. Nelson does not fall. You fall and get hurt? Tough! As long as I'm not the one that gets hurt."

Vails' attitude may sound a bit callous, but he always has had a steely determination to get where he's going. He grew up in the grim King Towers housing project in Harlem, the youngest of 10 children born to a nurse and a janitor. For as long as he can remember, Nelson wanted out. "He was always different," says Vails' wife, Sharon, 25, who has known him for nearly a decade. "Nelson never wanted to hang out at the project. He was always getting out of the neighborhood."

And Vails' ticket to ride, of course, was the bicycle. One of 10 members on the U.S. national team and one of few blacks on the international cycling circuit, Vails has ridden in velodromes all over the world—places like Trinidad, Poland and Venezuela. He won a Gold Medal at last year's Pan-American Games and holds the U.S. record in his event, the 1,000-meter sprint. Only one sprinter will make the Olympic team, and Vails is vying with three-time American champion Mark Gorski for the spot. But Vails isn't known as the "Cheetah" for nothing. The nickname alludes to both his speed and his fierce competitiveness. Looking forward to July's Olympic trials in Colorado Springs, Nelson says his approach will be, "Get out of my way. This is what I got to do, whether you like it or not."

For Vails, style is as important as substance. He often refers to himself in the third person, saying, "Nelson is this" and "Nelson does that." While his teammates struggle to carry their bikes through airports, a nattily attired Nelson will hand a skycap $20. When he's not in training, strawberry daiquiris with 151-proof rum are his preferred beverage, with a lobster or T-bone steak to follow. And Vails is an inveterate night person, sometimes staying out until 6 a.m.

Vails tries to stay out of temptation's way by rarely returning to New York. He spent half of last year at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, making up for lost time. His training costs are paid by his club, Society of Racing Cyclists. While most of his teammates have been competing for a decade or longer, Vails has been on the circuit only four years. A 10th-grade dropout, he began cycling at 16 in such local New York races as the Harlem Championships. Attracting a sponsor, Vails raced for several New York clubs nationally and was named to the U.S. team in 1982. "He's made forward progress every year," Vails' coach, Carl Leusenkamp, has said. "He feels he has the ability to be the best in the world. And nobody can say that's not possible at this point."

Training and racing separate Vails from wife Sharon (whom he married in 1981) and their two daughters. An unabashed flirt who flippantly claims that his long-term plans include becoming a porn star because "it's something I know I'm good at," Vails grumbles about marriage. "It messes up some things." He does log $200 monthly phone bills calling his family, however, and Sharon has resigned herself to his absences. "It's like he's in the service," she says.

Driving along New York's 42nd Street, where the marquees pant "live sex acts on stage," Vails catalogs some of his dreams: a Mercedes, a beach house for his parents, and a combination bar, disco and free hotel called Nelson's Party Place. As a transvestite crosses the street, Vails suddenly yells, "I knew that guy in high school!"

Later Vails sticks a tape marked White Boy Music in his stereo headphones and heads up Park Avenue. Scanning the streets he once rode as a messenger, he shakes his head. "I've got to quit dinking around here," he says. "I got to race my ass off. I want to win everything, look back, shrug and say, 'No big thing.' " In other words, being cool about winning is almost as important as winning. Almost.

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