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Original Issue

Fastest pedalers in the west

To admire the wax figure of Daniel Morelon at the Musée Grévin in Paris one must first pass by Napoleon Bonaparte, who, in another time and place, was also a champion of champions. But of the two, only Morelon was voted that highest title in French sports and only Morelon has won every world championship he has entered since 1966 and a clutch of Olympic gold medals as well.

At the Grand Prix of the United States bicycle races at Encino, Calif. last week the 28-year-old Morelon was operating with his accustomed aplomb around the high-banked velodrome—taller, perhaps smoother and just as imposing as the emperor himself. "For Daniel Morelon," said Denmark's successful insurance salesman and Munich gold medalist Neils Fredborg, "it is only important to win, win, win. And that is what he usually does, though it seems he sometimes takes it too seriously."

Morelon's two weeks of racing won for him a 1,500-meter gold medal and a 10,000-meter bronze before a sore back and Australia's John Nicholson upset him in the sprints on the last day. His victories in the two longer races were testaments to his versatility against a field whose high quality suggested more a world championship than only the second U.S. Grand Prix. Sprint races, Morelon's specialty, explode at the end with a mad dash of 200 meters after more than two laps of tactical maneuvering that may even include dead stops. No one has ever beaten Morelon's best time over that distance of 10.68 seconds. But at Encino, Morelon's dash was not so mad after a bad spill during warmups the day before.

"When I am sitting at the starting line," said a healthy Morelon earlier, "I am thinking only of my opponent: 'I am going to beat you. I'm really going to beat you.' I do this no matter what kind of race it is. I know the sprint gives me my best chance to win, but still I try. If I lose the longer races I can admire the Fredborgs and the Reno Olsens. I see them as I see myself."

Those two Danes combined to give Denmark the most impressive showing of the 13 countries represented at Encino. Between them they won nine gold medals and two silvers and a bronze. But the leading individual medal winner was, unexpectedly, an American—and not the highest-rated U.S. rider in the competition, either. Nineteen-year-old Ron Skarin of Van Nuys, Calif., a member of the U.S. team at Munich, collected eight medals, including two golds in the 4,000-meter pursuit and the 20-mile team race. He had silvers in the 30-mile criterium road race, the 15,000-meter, the 10,000-meter point race, the miss and out and bronze medals in the 20,000-meter and 10,000-meter. "I'm just now learning how to ride, so I thought I would get stomped here," said Skarin, whose performance earned a World Bicycling, Inc. scholarship to compete this summer in Europe. "I guess I'm starting to show brains and brawn both. I used to think I was more insane than anything."

Brains and brawn is precisely the combination that has taken the contemplative Morelon to the pinnacle of amateur bicycling, though the word "amateur" ignores the appearance and prize money routinely doled out at Grand Prix events all over the world. Morelon's true benefactor, however, is his coach, Toto Gerardin, whose longtime popularity as a rider in the professional sprints ended more than 25 years ago.

"Daniel was just a local road-race rider who happened to do well in our national sprint championships one year," said Toto last week. "I decided to put him on the track and before long I realized just what I had discovered. I said I would make him a world champion. He had the ability and I could tell he was willing to work."

Encouraged by Gerardin, Morelon left his brothers to toil alone in the factories of Bourg-en-Bresse. "They are still there," says Daniel, "and they are terribly jealous. But I understand. I know myself how fantastic it is to hear the cheers. I want to win for myself and for the public. I do not want to disappoint either of us. If I lose, I always know why. If I win, it is because my form is as it should be."

For all his drive to succeed, Morelon has remained popular with foreign competitors and his teammates as well. "We are more brothers than friends," says Pierre Trentin, "although things did change for me when Daniel came along. I stopped thinking about the sprints and took up the kilometer. I've been world champion in both but I would still like to win a sprint gold medal. With Daniel around, that is not so possible."

If anyone does surpass Morelon at the world championships this summer, it might by Olympic silver medalist Nicholson, who lives and trains in Europe. "I think perhaps it could happen this year," he said at Encino, "but as much as we all want to beat him, we respect and like him, too. It could be that his success is due to his character. He is not at all arrogant. If he were he might not be so aware of other riders' strong points and how they can be overcome."

While a Trentin usually tries to beat his opponent by as large a margin as possible, Morelon is content with the narrowest of victories. "I tell him many times to be more aggressive," says Gerardin, "but he knows too well what he is capable of. All I can really do is teach him how to see a race, what to look for in a track and an opponent. I don't have to tell him to train the long hours on the bike or to take the flat skis onto the snow in the winter. He will do these things. If I say anything, it is to stop, that he is working too hard."

Because Morelon has dominated amateur cycling for so long, there are some who criticize him for not turning professional. But neither the road races nor the six-day races popularized by the professionals are suited to Morelon's quick bursts of speed. "In my day," says Gerardin, "there were more than 90 professional sprint races a year. Now there are no more than a dozen."

Like many international stars Morelon remains an amateur in name and spirit if not by strict definition. When he is at home with his wife and his 7-year-old son Francis, he is obliged to work only 24 hours a week as a physical-education instructor for police recruits.

"I would like one more Olympic gold medal," he says. "I'm not thinking much beyond that. I only know I very much enjoy what I'm doing now. Perhaps I could become a coach. Perhaps I could help my own son do as I have done."

Young Francis is already taking his bike onto La Cipale, the high-banked track in Paris. Toto Gerardin's brilliant blue eyes sparkle at the idea of another Morelon. "I'm afraid there are no more world champions in France," he says. "Without Daniel it would be some other country. Eastern Europe is coming around. The United States only needs the coaching. Jackie Simes of Santa Monica [now a pro] might have succeeded with proper training. But world champions come along so seldom. So much is needed to help them develop. For me, I fear Daniel is the last."