Marty Nothstein, one of the greatest cyclists of all time, arrived at the 1996 Olympic Games a heavy favorite. In the match sprint at the Atlanta Olympics, an event akin to prizefighting on a bicycle, he raced around a banked, oval track. Nothstein lost by a hair's width on the finish line and vowed to win the gold at the next Olympics, saying, "I didn't come here for a silver medal."
In The Price of Gold, Marty Nothstein eloquently and honestly tracks his journey to the games in Sydney and the events that molded him into the world's fastest man on a bicycle—from his tough-love upbringing in a blue-collar, split home, to the "borderline outlaw" cast of cycling characters who helped guide him through the ranks.
"I had to become the worst, to become the best," Nothstein says of the single-minded determination that turned him into a veritable monster on his bike, but often forced him to neglect his own family. Sure to become a sports classic, this book will be published in time for the 2012 Olympics, when the world's eyes are trained on London and international conversation will turn to the question of what it takes to win the gold.
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About the Author
Ian Dille is a freelance journalist and contributing writer for Bicycling magazine. He lives in Austin, TX.
Read an Excerpt
I'M 25 YEARS OLD when I arrive in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games. I'm a world-class track cyclist at the peak of my physical prowess. I stand 6 feet 2 inches and weigh 225 £ds. My quads measure 30 inches around, the size of a normal cyclist's waistline. My shoulders, biceps, and chest appear Herculean in proportion to the svelte carbon-fiber bike I race. In the weight room I squat more than 500 £ds. In training, my explosive sprint, which tops out near 50 miles per hour, frequently demolishes bicycle parts.
I twist handlebars into pretzels and fold chainrings like pancakes.
I turn wheels into tacos.
I've taught the millions of muscle fibers in my legs to fire, so that I may ride a bike faster than any human on the planet.
The event in which I specialize, match sprinting, is the equivalent of the 100-meter dash, but on bikes. Two racers go head-to-head on the track over three laps, the last 200 meters of which is timed. The first one across the line moves on to the next round of the sprint tournament. The loser goes home. The gold medalist in the Olympic match sprint is considered the fastest cyclist in the world.
Tour de France racers sometimes go as fast as me. Down mountains.
But match sprinting isn't just about sheer speed. Winning a match-sprint tournament requires impeccable timing and tactics, and the ability to trade jabs and go blow for blow over a series of punishing rounds. In Atlanta I'll face the fastest sprinters in the world--and the most cunning. It's a chess game followed by a boxing match.
The chess game comes first. The race is three laps, but rarely is someone stupid enough to go all out from the gun. Your opponent would simply sit comfortably in your draft, conserving energy as you push through the wind, and zip by just before the finish line.
Instead, you wait. You and your opponent crawl around the track for the first lap. You size each other up. When is he going to make his move? When will I make my move? You glare menacingly at each other. It's an Old West shoot-out. Who'll draw first?
A random draw prior to the start determines who leads the race from the start line. Some riders want to lead the race. Others prefer to follow. The racers gauge their own strengths against their opponent's weaknesses. Then they determine whether to sprint from in front of, or from behind, their competitor. Sometimes both racers want to follow. They come to a complete standstill--a track stand--as each tries to force the other into taking the lead. These track stands can last minutes. Both riders balance motionless, in the middle of the race, until one cracks and assumes the lead.
Those who lead out a match sprint will ramp up their speed from a lap or more away from the finish and get going so fast that their competitor can't pass them. Or, they'll physically block their opponent from passing by swerving up and down the track, waiting until the last moment to sprint for the line--too late to be passed.
Those who follow are the assassins of match sprinting. They stalk their opponents from a distance. Then, on the last lap they'll sprint into their competitor's draft, and slingshot past, coming through the last corner, right before the finish line.
With my size and power, I've developed into a racer who likes to control the front of a match sprint. I keep a close eye on my opponent. I make sure he doesn't sneak by me. Then, with a clear line to the finish, I start my sprint. When I hit max speed, my competitor often implodes, giving up well before the finish line.
The winner of two out of three matches takes the round, and lives to race again.
Leading up to the Atlanta Games, I'm the undeniable favorite. I announced my presence as the rider to beat at the 1994 world championships, where I won double gold in the match sprint and keirin, a race that simultaneously pits five sprinters against one another. In 1995 I took third at worlds in the team sprint, a three-man event, despite competing just months after fracturing my kneecap when a wheel collapsed underneath me in training.
During the 1996 season, I'm undefeated in both the match sprint and the keirin at the three World Cup events I've raced--an unrivaled feat.
I'm picked to win my event by nearly every major publication covering the Olympics, including Sports Illustrated. And I have absolutely no excuse not to dominate the competition here in Atlanta. With the Olympics on home soil, USA Cycling rolls out the red carpet.
In the years running up to the games, the international electronics corporation, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), and one of the world's top bike manufacturers, GT Bicycles, joined forces with USA Cycling. The result is Project '96. The goal is US gold medals in cycling events. Hundreds of thousands of dollars pour into the creation of a Superbike, utilizing state- of-the-art aerodynamic technology and wind-tunnel testing. The final product looks as sleek as a stealth bomber, painted in red, white, and blue.
GT knows the lightweight Superbike won't hold up under the power of my sprint, so the company flies engineers out to my home track in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. They custom build numerous carbon-fiber prototypes. Finally, we develop the perfect sprinting machine. The bike is silver. I love it. It looks like a Porsche 911, only faster. I can't muscle a millimeter of flex out of the bike, but it doesn't ride like a tank, either. The bike dives up and down the Atlanta cycling track with unreal dexterity.
At the '96 Olympics, the cycling track, or velodrome, is 250 meters long, roughly half the size of a running track. Its corners are banked at 45 degrees to keep racers from flying up and over the edge of the turns (though they still sometimes do). If you sit at a top corner of the track you'll slide down the smooth wooden boards to the blue out-of-bounds apron ringing the inside.
The velodrome sits directly below Stone Mountain, a giant granite dome that rises from the earth 20 miles east of Atlanta. The huge rock soars more than 800 feet above a forest of Georgia oaks, and its base extends 9 miles underground. When I look out beyond the far end of the oval track, past turns three and four, I can see nothing but the looming Stone Mountain.
I don't need to travel far to get to the track. In Atlanta Jim Kennedy, of Cox Enterprises, a good friend of mine, puts the US Olympic cycling team up in a luxurious, sprawling com£d, just a few minutes from the Stone Mountain velodrome. USA Cycling brings in Spago chefs to cook us meals. During our free time in the days preceding the Games, we chip golf balls around the private nine-hole course running past the com£d's various full-size homes.
Every detail's been scrutinized. Every possible need met. No excuses.
Not only am I the favorite going into these Olympics, the entire US cycling team is full of odds-on contenders. My best friend and teammate, Erin Hartwell, is looking to improve on his Olympic bronze medal in the 1- kilometer time trial. Our team pursuit squad is nailing world-record times in training. Juli Furtado is the reigning World Cup champion in cross- country mountain biking. The number-one-ranked road cyclist during the 1996 season? Lance Armstrong.
The Olympic match sprint starts with a 200-meter time trial. Only 24 competitors will make it into the tournament. The fastest qualifier will face the slowest in the first round, and so on. The better I ride in this qualifier, the easier my road to the finals.
The time trial is a flying start: two and a half laps, alone, on the track; the last 200 meters for time. I start on the back straight and ride along the top of the track's steep banking. The Atlanta velodrome is built with special composite-wood boards and my rear disc wheel hums as it rolls over the smooth panels. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh. I cross the finish line. Two laps to go. I'm wearing a Stars-and-Stripes skinsuit designed by Pearl Izumi specifically for these games--custom tailored to reduce drag.
In the far turn I climb out of the saddle. I roll the handlebars in my hands. The bike sways back and forth beneath my body. I start ramping up my speed as I approach the finish line again. Faster. One lap to go. Faster. 200 meters.
I point my bike at the apex of the track's first turn and dive down the banking. I continue to accelerate as I fly along the bottom edge of the back straight. Every pedal stroke is a focused effort. I pummel each downstroke of the crankarms with the full force of my legs, butt, and back. My upper body is braced against the bike's steel handlebars by my hulking arms. I funnel every ounce of power toward my rear wheel.
My bike is equipped with just one gear: 49 teeth on the front chainring, 14 on the rear cog. It is a fixed gear, meaning it doesn't coast. Nor does the bike have brakes. The faster I spin my legs, the faster I propel my bike. Entering the far turn my legs are a massive flesh-colored whir beneath my nearly motionless torso.
I'm traveling more than 45 miles per hour. I'm riding so fast the g-forces try to pull my bike up the banking. But I stay smooth, steering my bike low toward the bottom edge of the track. I take the fastest route to the finish.
The effort is only 10 seconds long, but it's 100 percent anaerobic. The lack of oxygen forces lactic acid to overwhelm my body. But I feel no pain. I'm fueled by an onslaught of adrenaline. My strength feels inhuman.
I'm sitting in the saddle, spinning 160 revolutions per minute.
My back is arched. My elbows are pointed out.
In my mind, I'm fighting for survival. When I sprint, I'm lifting a car from my body after a wreck. I'm fighting off a bear. I'm sprinting for my life.
I round the last turn. The finish line enters my blurry field of vision.
Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight.
I cross the line. 10.176. Olympic record.
My record lasts 15 minutes. The Australian Gary Neiwand rides 10.129 seconds, setting the new Olympic standard and qualifying first. A Canadian, Curt Harnett--the current world-record holder in the flying 200 meters and the first man to go under 10 seconds--qualifies second. He beats me by 1 millisecond (one thousandth of a second). I'm seeded third. My biggest rival, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, Germany's Jens Fiedler, qualifies directly behind me.
I win my first- and second-round matches easily, against lesser opponents. In the quarterfinals I face Australian Darryn Hill. The winner will make it to the semifinals, which will include the last four sprinters--those who'll compete for medals. Hill is a pit bull on a bicycle. Though he stands 4 inches shorter than me, he weighs nearly the same. His stocky body is solid muscle. Away from reporters, he speaks in a stream of Aussie cuss words.
Hill is perhaps the only person in the world who can maneuver a track bike as well as me. We both grew up racing BMX (bicycle motocross), and Hill was a star in the discipline before turning to track cycling as a teenager. He rides wheelies around the velodrome apron to celebrate victories. Like me, he doesn't avoid contact on the track. He thrives on it. Give him a sliver of room at the bottom of the track and he'll dive underneath you, putting an elbow in your ribs for good measure as he passes.
Hill and I have history. I beat him in '94 for the world championship. In '95, he redeemed himself by winning the gold medal at worlds. He comes into these Games the reigning champion. When we face each other, people who understand cycling stop what they're doing to watch us compete. Racers warming up turn their attention to the action on the track. Officials, coaches, and track cycling dignitaries set their eyes upon our match.
Hill's veteran teammate, Neiwand, tells me our matches get so intense because we're so similar. "You're both lunatics," he says.
I anticipate a battle. But the pressure of the Olympics is weighing on Hill. He underperforms. I outthink him, then outmuscle him. He lacks top- end speed. In the first match I beat him from the front, holding him off by half a wheel. In the second match I come around him in the final turn and win by half a bike length.
The pit bull's been muzzled. On to the next round.
In the semifinals I meet Harnett. He's big and tall like me. As his world- record 200-meter time trial attests, he's best at max speed. Also like me. But if Hill's a pit bull, Harnett's a golden retriever. Curly blond locks flow from the back of his helmet. He's even appeared in shampoo commercials. He's subdued. Docile. Canadian.
It's late July in Georgia--the Deep South--infamous for its sweltering humidity. A 4-hour rain delay has pushed back the schedule from the cooler morning and intensified the velodrome's mid-afternoon mugginess. Riding around the banked oval feels like pedaling through a bowl of warm soup. After three rounds of sprinting in this heat, Harnett's hurting. But I'm just hitting my stride.
The crowd is electric. I'm charged. I ride Harnett up and down the track. He's pinned against the ropes. I win the draw heading into the first sprint, meaning I'll assume the lead on the first lap. Just the way I like it. Harnett sits a few lengths off my rear wheel and tails me as I soft- pedal around the track. I keep one eye in front of me, one eye in back.
If he wants the front, he'll have to earn it. But he waits way too long. I see him coming and start to ramp up my speed. By the time we hit the final 200 meters, I'm in full gallop. He can't get past me. I beat him by half a bike length.
Harnett leads the second sprint off the start line. The first sprint was long. Grueling. He's tired. His reflexes are slow. I ride high on the banking behind him, as if I'm going to pass on his outside. This forces Harnett to ride high too. He's trying to block me, to nail me against track's top rail. He's looking over his right shoulder, looking forward. Right shoulder. Forward.
With a lap to go he looks over his right shoulder, but I'm not there anymore. I make a hard left and drop off the top of the track underneath Harnett. The crowd explodes. I'm gone. Sprinting all-out. He's broken. I win easily by two bike lengths.