Skip to main content
Original Issue


The speed of bicycle racing is a blur, but the sound of it is a poetic, seductive thing to Jackie Simes III. Seasoned and scarred at 21, he is going after America's first Olympic cycling medal in 64 years

He had been slightly injured in spills before, but this time when he regained consciousness in a Danish hospital the doctors were stitching up one eye; he had a broken nose, a severe skull concussion and so many track burns, bruises and open cuts that they had overlooked a shoulder fracture in the great rush to put the rest of him back together. He remembered his name first—Jackie Simes—and next that he had come from somewhere in the U.S. to race against the world's best amateur bicyclists. The general expectation had been that the Europeans would take him apart. They had done precisely that and, lying there looking up with one eye through the surgeon's working fingers, he thought: "Now I get it. Now I see how they do it. Next time I'll know." It was June 25, 1962, he was 19 years old and this was his graduation speech.

Twelve days later, laced full of staph infection ("The Danes have this wonderful strain of pure staph that will absolutely murder you"), Simes went home to Closter, N.J. and stayed around the house, mending and brooding and taking monster doses of penicillin. By August he was feeling strong enough to race again. He entered a six-day bicycle race in Fair Oaks, N.Y. and crashed in the first hour, adding a few new cuts and a broken clavicle. That was the bottom. From that point on, Sime's career has run wild with success.

Young Simes—he is Jack Simes III in a family of three bike racers, the others being named Jack Simes I and Jack Simes II—has just finished a whirlwind two weeks. The first week he beat all the top riders in the country to win the national championship for the first time and wound up the second week by beating them all again to make the U.S. Olympic cycling team for the second time. He emerged as one of the world's fastest and fiercest racers—with the acquired cunning of the French, Italians and Belgians, who have always dominated the sport—and as perhaps the best rider this country has ever produced.

He is now 21 years old and chronologically a man, but he still looks like a brooding and handsomely freckled boy. In a sport where (at least in Europe) men reach their prime between 27 and 30, he is growing bigger and stronger every year, an awesome prospect for the future. He is quiet and given to extreme courtesies in a soft voice, and after sprinting to a fantastic finish to win the national title, he apologized: "You'll have to forgive my hands trembling like this. It looks ridiculous, I know, but I've just burned up all my blood sugar, and I'm a little bit shaky."

The Century Road Club of America and the Amateur Bicycle League of America regard Simes as faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and as America's foremost hope for a medal when the Olympic races are staged in Tokyo. This dream has a touch of Walter Mitty in it, considering the fact the U.S. has not brought back a cycling gold medal for 64 years. At the 1960 races in Rome, the Italians—naturally—won five of the six gold medals; Russia took the other one, plus four bronze medals. The U.S. entered four men in the 100-kilometer event and came in 11th. America's Allen Bell finished 13th in the 1,000-meter time trial, and everybody else—including Simes—was wiped out before the finals in other events. But at the championships and the Olympic trials in Kissena Park in Flushing, N.Y., ABL Chief Otto Eisele growled to those standing nearby: "Now, I just want you to watch this kid's final snap." And then he stood as stunned as everyone else when Simes burst through from the three-quarter mark across the finish line, going an astonishing 48 miles an hour, a blur against the background.

The snap in cycling is what it sounds like; it is the final kick that Snell and O'Hara give in track when they see—or sense—the tape. In track this involves considerable thrashing of arms and legs; runners often close with heads thrown back, Adam's apples, neck tendons and rib cages etched out in bold relief. Then they collapse with a rasping sob, they almost always collapse with a sob, into the arms of a trainer. In cycling the snap is no more complicated but considerably prettier to watch, and if the trainer gets in the way he will get killed in the rush that carries the rider halfway again around the track before he can slow down. The bicycling snapper comes home in a furious rush wearing steel-insoled shoes and a 19-pound machine strapped to the bottom of these. He is arced down over the handlebars in an airflow position, arms taut, and everything else is a fine flash of spinning chrome spokes and kneecaps.

The closest Simes comes to free-form poetry is when he is talking about this or doing it. "It is, is like an explosion of everything inside of you," he says, holding his hands clenched into fists in front of him. "You have your bike adjusted so that you are not riding it at all. You are running on the pedals. The tension is building, building there inside of you. Then someone makes his move—the snap—and there is the big, wild blur. The tires are going zsssssh, and they sound like white noise!"

When he is racing, listening to the white noise, Simes wears a deceptively dreamy expression, turning his head first to check the rider in front of him, then the man in back. When he is exploding toward the finish line the look changes abruptly (his mother cannot stand to see him this way and seldom attends the races) to one of happy savagery. His head is pulled back until it comes directly from his shoulders with no neck; his teeth are bared and clenched, his eyes slitted.

"Oh, he is fierce," sighed James Rossi of Chicago, a tired 28-year-old and for five consecutive years the national champion until Simes knocked him off this season. "I saw Jackie coming on strong years ago and I always beat him, but I couldn't hold him off this season. When you are the champ everybody expects you to win, dammit. But I couldn't.

"In the Olympics," Rossi continued, "Simes will finish second and bring home a medal. Nobody else in the world can beat him. But one. Jackie is not quite strong enough yet to beat Patrick Sercu of Belgium. But he will be—in time—and he could become the world champ."

Sercu and Simes have raced before and finished in just that order. The world sprint champion held off the young American in their last meet this summer in Denmark, but the ABL is certain Sercu cannot hold him off any longer. Perhaps not. "I would be happy," smiles Simes, saying it but not meaning it, "to get a second place in the Olympics."

Simes has been racing since 1952, when he was 8½ years old. Jack Simes II, who had been national champion in 1936 before turning pro, came home one day and told Jack Simes I, who had won the Boston 100-mile marathon in 1904 and also turned pro: "Now, I don't want to brag or anything like that. But this kid is a natural and he wants to race."

"Let us," agreed Simes I, "race him."

Sometimes now the middle Simes wishes he had never said it. When Jack III is racing, Jack II is a jangle of fright and wanders around the infield aimlessly, muttering, "Does anybody have a cigarette?" to nobody in particular.

"I coached him when he was little, but I don't coach him any more," says Simes II. "Some parents are too mixed up in this thing. Why, I've seen some fathers slap their kids when they don't win a race. And, really, you can coach and train a kid until it is coming out his ears, but he has got to have it in him or he won't make it anyway." And across the field, across the track in the bleachers, 79-year-old Jack Simes I points out the other two and says, "Well, he done pretty good in that one. I was kind of afraid when I saw him in the middle of the pack there—you could get hurt if someone was to take a bad spill in that spot. But the kid won without even exerting himself. Yessir. The kid is good."

In 1959 Jackie won the junior national title in Kenosha, Wis., sweeping four events, the half-mile, one-, two-and five-mile races. By 1960 he had become a match-race specialist—which he loves—and a reluctant 1,000-meter time trial racer, an event he dislikes because the rider is all alone on the track and there is nobody to chase, no compelling reason to explode. "It's grinding and lonely and brutal," he says, "but you have got to run these events to get points." On the Tokyo-bound team Simes will race match events only.

"My big venture," Simes says, "came in 1962 when I went off to Europe to race on that circuit and find out what made them so much better than us. I wanted to learn strategy, and they taught me."

The Europeans take their bicycle racing with much more fervor than the Americans—it ranks right up there with love and the long lunch. In some European countries pari-mutuel betting is permitted on amateur races, and in Denmark they posted Simes at a not-very-morale-building 30 to 1.

In the match races, official distance is 1,000 meters—with only the last 200 meters clocked. In the laps before that time riders cautiously jockey for position—which is the key to the race—sometimes standing surplace (motionless on the pedals, balancing), seeking to psych the other rider into a false move. This stop-and-go drama takes place high on the outside rim of the track, and the educated crowds follow its every nuance with critical boos and wild cheers. The rider who can come in slightly under and behind his opponent can control the action. He is in a spot to dive suddenly for the inside center of the track and sprint for the finish; or to let his man dive first, then slide in close behind him, slip-streaming him for an easy ride—then breaking free for the final lunge. Should the upper man become a little frisky in all this preliminary maneuvering, the lower man can "hook" him. This is a deft, upward lunge of the bike that gives the upper man the option of either slowing down to avoid a crash or going over the wall into the audience. Hooking is as old an art in Europe as tapestry weaving, and on that June day in 1962 Italy's Giovanni Pettenella hooked Simes right out of the world.

"His right pedal caught my front wheel and ripped out all the spokes in one slash," Simes recalls. "The wheel collapsed, and I remember this wonderful, slow, lazy, painless feeling of floating through the air. It didn't hurt at all. Then I landed on my face on the cement." Pettenella was disqualified for the vicious hook—an action which did not do Simes a great deal of good at that point—and later a few punches were thrown by one Australian rider who had grown fond of the American.

Since that time Simes has spent so much time working on the technique of match racing he could do a thesis on it. He has it so pat that he has psyched every American rider of any consequence and a great many Europeans. Except Sercu. Simes does not throw hooks—American racing rules are tighter than in Europe, and anything that appears to be more than a momentary wobble is illegal. (In fact, under U.S. rules, the rider in the lead in the last 200 meters is not allowed to stray outside the sprinters' lane—a 32-inch strip on the inside of the track.) But he knows a hook when he sees one coming, and he has learned to control all the action in a race by diving for the inside lane from either front or back. In winning the national title this season he turned the 200 meters in 12 seconds flat, a creditable speed which matched Rossi's old U.S. record—but which disappointed him, because he holds the new record himself at a stunning 11.4 and has unofficially matched the world mark of 11.2.

Simes continued developing his technique in 1963 as a member of the Pan American team—losing in S√£o Paulo but winning in a tour of the West Indies. At the world championship that year in Belgium, Simes made it through the first-round heats. Back home he reached the semifinals in the nationals only to lose to Rossi again.

This summer Simes raced in Trinidad and then took his scars and mended bones to Denmark for another try. In the Danish Grand Prix on July 4 he finished second behind Sercu, and for the first time the Danes hailed the sensational American sprinter as the best hope to beat the Italians in Tokyo. He beat Danish champion Niels Fredborg in Fredborg's own home town of Aarhus. And he trounced France's Michel Trentin, who twice has placed third in the world championships.

All this has toughened Jackie Simes III. He is a lean 150 pounds now: 50 pounds of body and 50 pounds centered in each ironlike thigh. But sprinters such as Simes do not grow as big-legged as some cyclists—particularly the distance riders—who are built along the lines of centaurs. "I suspect," Simes says, "that they arc stacked somewhere in their quarters like statues sculptured in a racing position. Then they are carried out to their bikes—fitted onto them—and after the race they are carried back, still in this muscular crouch, and stacked up again."

Simes now starts each day with a 25-mile warmup ride on the country roads around Closter, a quiet town of shade trees and vociferous crickets. In the winter he speed-skates, "because it uses all the same muscles as cycling," and all year round he gulps down huge quantities of vitamin B-12 "because it is supposed to steady your nerves." He is usually in bed by 10 or 11 o'clock, propped up on pillows, playing folk music on his banjo. Each Tuesday and Thursday in summer he is racing on the track in Flushing, and all of this does not leave much time for anything else. But occasionally Simes and his girl friend, Judy Johnson of nearby Haworth, really whoop it up by going to New York's Greenwich Village, sitting in coffeehouses and listening to folk music. They drive down in Jackie's desperately wrinkled, front-bumperless, banana-colored Porsche—which is about as much adventure as anyone can stand on an evening.

"The boy," Simes II said last week after all the triumph, "has lots of years ahead of him yet. If he doesn't win a medal this Olympics, he could do it in four more years when he certainly will be stronger. He could turn pro and make $50,000 to $60,000 a year racing. It's big in Canada, and they're trying to get it going again in this country. But I would rather see him get a good education and go into something else."

The something else he seeks is still far away; in the immediate years ahead there is going to be little else but bike racing for the Simes family. Last year Jackie took nighttime classes in psychology at nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University but now does not have even the time to spare for that much. At the family home, racing is all. There is a disassembled bike in the dining room, an assembled one in the front hall, two on the front porch. (Mom Simes rides one of them—ever so slowly—to the grocery store. It has a basket in front which will hold about $10 worth of supplies.) The house is decorated in old racing trophy.

"We Simeses go 'way back in this thing," said Grandfather Simes one day last week, sitting in the front porch swing. "We spring from Philadelphia, where my great-grandfather was John Weston Simes. My grandfather and my father were John Weston Simes. I am John Weston Simes, so is my son here and so is young Jackie—"

"There will be no more of that stuff," growled Jackie. "It will end with me."

"I was at the races yesterday watching ya, kid," said Grampa to Jackie.

"So I heard," said Jackie dryly. "So I heard." He was starting to fidget.

And the three generations of the racing Simeses sat there on the porch, each caught up in his own thoughts. All are scarred, all tough. Jack I has a dent on his head in the exact imprint of a bicycle toe clip. He got it—with 27 stitches—in 1905, hooked over the side of a banked bicycle track. He fell between the track shell and the stands—two stories into the basement. Jack II wears a necklace of scars around his right kneecap. They were put there in 1934 when a bike tire exploded in a Michigan race, and in the spill Simes put his leg through the wheel. "They took me to the hospital wearing that wheel," says Jack II, "and the doctor said, 'If I take it off of there you'll never walk again,' but he took it off. And I walk all right now."

Jack II now runs a bicycle shop in nearby Westwood and, to hear Jack I tell it, sells more racing bikes than anybody all up and down the East Coast.

Now Jack III—last of the racing Simeses—is the first one of them to hold promise of an Olympic medal. They don't need it; there is hardly any room left in the house for any more award paraphernalia, and a national championship might well be enough. But the first two Jack Simeses understand why the youngest has to win. They, too, have heard the sound of the white noise.



Helmetless in practice, Jackie Simes rides 25 miles a day in warmups as he aims for Tokyo.


All Jack Simeses live together: the First, a marathon winner in 1904; the Second, national champion in 1936; and Third, the family's first Olympian.