From riding through the streets of New York City in his younger days as a bicycle messenger to emerging as a historical figure in the sport of bike racing, Nelson Beasley Vails owns one of the most legendary stories in modern sports.
Vails, now a retired road and track cyclist, made history in the 1984 Olympic Games as the first Black American to win an Olympic medal. That moment solidified his position in Black cycling royalty, along with the likes of Major Taylor and Herbie Francis.
For the second consecutive year, the Baltimore area will welcome the trailblazing cycling pioneer for the second annual Maryland Cycling Classic. Vails will be the ambassador for the event and will travel to a few Baltimore City schools to speak to students.
“My experience last year was pretty fun,” Vails said, adding that he suspects the Cycling Classic will be twice as noticeable this year. “The first year with the event – I thought the public took to it quite well, especially the cycling community.”
Vails, a 2009 U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame inductee, said he hopes the Maryland Cycling Classic will serve as an inspirational catalyst for diversity in cycling, particularly for local youth.
“To open up the eyes to people of color, people like us, to the elite world, this is a start,” said Vails, a native of Harlem, N.Y., who now resides in California.
“This Maryland Cycling Classic is a start for those kids to get their eyes open and say ‘Wow, I can actually do this because I ride a bicycle anyway.’”
Vails, 62, is still heavily involved in the sport. If he isn’t riding around his neighborhood, he’s hosting bike-riding events to encourage others to stay active and motivated. During the Cycling Classic weekend, he and others will be offering bicycles.
In addition to a bike giveaway, the Maryland Cycling Classic will feature a Community Bike Jam at Patterson Park on September 1, 2023 and Bridges of Hope Charity Ride on Sept. 2. The weekend will also feature an opening ceremony and team introduction, a street festival, stage presentations to introduce the professional cyclists and a Health & Wellness Expo.
Similar to the CIAA Basketball Tournament in February, the Maryland Cycling Classic has quickly become one of the more highly anticipated sporting and cultural events in Baltimore.
Along with winning an Olympic silver medal in Los Angeles in 1984, Vails competed professionally from 1988 to 1995, going on to earn a reputation as one of the world’s top sprinters in cycling. The 1983 Pan American Games gold medalist was inducted into the Lehigh Valley Velodrome Cycling Hall of Fame in 2005.
Racism in cycling wasn’t openly apparent to him as a Black cyclist, he said, reflecting on his journey from local success, to national prominence, to international stardom.
As it relates to the present-day quest for diversity, there is a demand for involvement from women of color in USA Cycling programs, Vails emphasized.
As an ambassador, Vails worked closely with Maryland Cycling Classic guests, VIPs and sponsors and will likely do the same this year. His role also reflects Black excellence in cycling.
“My role around the event as well was representation of someone of color that has been there, done that along with how we can get [cycling] programs sustainable and not just talked about,” he said.