The United States' record in Olympic bicycle racing can only improve. Not since the 1904 Games in St. Louis has an American won a gold medal. George Mount's sixth-place finish in the 1976 Montreal road race was the best U.S. Olympic performance in decades.
American women riders have achieved the greatest international success, including two world championships in recent years, but there are no women's cycling events in the Olympics and probably won't be for some time.
The reasons for the poor U.S. showing are fairly easy to find: only a dozen velodromes for track racing exist in the entire country; obtaining courses for races on public roads is difficult, if not impossible, cycling isn't and organized school sport on any level, and no incentive exists for yound riders because there is no professional class of consequence.
Additionally, bicycle manufacturers offer little support to racing and publicity and television coverage is scant. All in all, one of the world's most popular sports activities is something of a competitive orphan here.
There is good news. An increasing number of Americans are racing in Europe. There, frequent competition against fierce opponents aids their conditioning and understanding of race tactics, especially on the road. Also, more commercial firms are underwriting races and entire amateur teams, which is permitted under international rules.
A full-time national coach for racers was hired 1 1/2 years ago by the U.S. Cycling Federation. All major cycling nations have full-time coaches, but Eddie Borysewicz, a Pole, is America's first.
Under the U.S. selection system, national training teams are named and Olympians are selected from these on the basis of performance in designated races and the judgment of the selectors. This year the Pan Am Games and the annual amateur world's championship meet are the major goals.
The strongest foreign team probably will be East Germany, said Phil Liggitt, organizer of England's 12-day Milk Race for amateur roadmen. All the Western European medalists from the 1976 Olympics are now professionals. Since there are no pros in Communist nations, their riders have a chance to develop rully under intensive training.
Liggitt said the East Germans have not entered most international competitions the past two years, but this simply indicates their determination to point for Moscow. They did compete in the world championships last year, where they won three of six championships.
Regardless of who they send, East Germany and the Soviet Union appear to be the class on the track. Anton Tkac, the Czech match sprint winner in the 1972 and '76 Olympics, is expected to try for his third gold medal. The kilometer time trial, 4,000-meter individual and 4,000-meter team pursuit are other track events.
In the Olympic road race, a number of Eastern Europeans, Mount of the United States and Mikhail Marcussen of Denmark are highly regarded, but it all depends on who is in contention on race day. Since cyclists willingly sacrifice their own chances for teammates, victories by complete outsiders who happen to be hot are not rare.
The results of the upcoming world title meet and many other major European road races will give a better line on contenders. As things look now, some Americans are bound to be among them.