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Day in the life: Nelson Vails

Ten questions with the Olympic silver medalist as he waits for the resumption of mass participation cycling events.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought professional cycling to a halt. In the coming weeks we will be reaching out to pro riders and other personalities from the sport to understand how their lives are continuing amidst the shutdown.

Nelson Vails was fast before he became a professional bike racer. The former New York City bike messenger turned Olympic silver medalist was given the nickname “The Cheetah” well before the 1984 Summer Olympics where he won the silver medal in the sprint. Nevertheless, Vails’ life now has much less to do with speed and much more to do with comfort.

Vails stays busy as an ambassador with GFNY, which hosts mass start events where participants can race against the clock. Originally just in NYC, the events now take place around the world. Vails travels to these events and others to host “Ride with Nelly” group rides. He loves connecting with riders of all levels and is much more interested in stopping for photos than setting Strava KOM’s. Regarding staying fit by using Zwift?

“Why would I ever do that? I don’t have to!”

Location: San Diego, CA

What are the current regulations for where you live about going outside?

I’ll have to watch the news again!

In San Diego, we don’t have to be cooped-up. We don’t have restrictions on going outside. Things are closed, no events, but people can still get out. I’m sitting in my office, looking out the window, and every five minutes, there’s a family going by down the street, in the bike lane.

Our beaches are open today, so you can walk or be in the water, but you can’t be hanging out on a towel. That’s a new rule as of Monday.

What races or events were you planning to do that have been canceled or postponed?

The first one was sponsored by Canyon [Bikes]. It appealed to recreational people like you and me, not the racers. We were gonna do a bicycle presentation party, an unveiling of a new bike. That’s been postponed, not canceled.

Two of my gran fondo events in New York City have been postponed until further notice, basically until next year.

All of the events taking place this month and next have been postponed or canceled. All my events involve traveling — the GFNY events, Harlem Bike Race. GFNY-Jamaica has been canceled because of the uncertainty. The next big one is GFNY-Cozumel which I think you should attend. It’s November 8.

I do a lot of events within events called ‘Ride with Nelly.’ This is my tenth year. Since I retired, I started doing a lot of recreational stuff. I do Ragbrai. Ride the Rockies was a nice vacation.

Nelson Vails' Tour de Palm Springs
Vails’ Tour de Palm Springs “Ride with Nelly” Black History Month Cycling Celebration has been postponed until 2021.

What are you doing today?

I took my wheel to get serviced today. I don’t know anything about disc brakes. It’s not like the old days where I could take off one wheel and put on another. I have plenty of wheels but none of them have discs.

I’m getting my bike worked on today, so I can ride it tomorrow. I broke a spoke yesterday.

The local bike shop is doing well. I see a line every time I pass by there. They’re busy with kids’ new bike sales, servicing old bikes that have been in the garage.

Tomorrow I’m gonna bring those guys some pizza and beer and say thank you.

Are you doing a workout? If so, what specifically?

I do my calisthenics and I go for my 20-mile ‘retired professional’ bike rides. Nothing fancy. Plus, in my neighborhood — we live on top of a mountain — if I go to the coast, it’s a 15-mile rolling uphill climb. There’s no cheating — any way to get back home, you have to climb.

I ride every other day, average five days a week. Last week I think I rode 170 miles. You can check my Strava.

What are you riding? Do you have a gravel bike? 

A road bike. I have a Canyon Aeroad.

I do have a gravel bike, just haven’t ridden it yet, it’s in the box waiting for me. I wanna get a gravel e-bike. I’m old! I need to prove I can keep you with you on gravel? No, I just wanna keep up!

day in the life
Vails’ Canyon Aeroad and soggy kit, drying out after getting caught in the rain.

What indoor gear are you using?

I lent my trainer to my buddy. I lent my Zwift account to him too, my whole name and everything.

Wait, so he’s racing under your name?

Yes. I said ‘if people talk to you, just answer back and be kind.’

What is your mental status right now?

To be honest, I worry because, again, the main focus of my income is to involve myself with others’ fitness and lifestyles. Other people look forward to doing bike rides with me. Coming together, doing GFNY and fitness stuff together, it’s been sad that we can’t do that. I don’t know how it’s gonna be, if we’re gonna be able to do a Nelson Vails meet-and-greet poster signing, or cheese and crackers and wine happy hour, get an autographed jersey type of thing.

At this time in my life, I appreciate all the nostalgic photos. People from that era remember those great times. Part of my lifestyle and business is to keep that alive for the new generation. I try to transfer that to all levels of cyclists. They can race, or they can ride. I try to explain some positive information to those that are racing, and for recreationalists, I try to provide helpful info without coaching.

day in the life
The Olympic silver-medalist now travels the world hosting “Ride with Nelly” events.

How are you communicating with friends and family?

A lot of Zooming and FaceTiming. We had that technology but were never using it in the past! My family Zooms three times a week, my friends text and I call them back on FaceTime.

When do you think you’ll travel to events again?

I ask myself this almost every day. When the experts say it’s ok. I don’t listen to the other guy, I think his name is Don.

I still work every day trying to figure out what we can do when we’re allowed to do it.