It has been more than three decades since Alexi Grewal became the first, and till date the only, American cyclist to win an Olympic gold medal in the men’s road race event, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But the 57-year-old son of a Punjabi immigrant does not have the prize possession with him any longer to savour or inspire others.
“Last time when I visited India 12 years ago, I had planned to bring the gold medal to show to my friends and cyclists in India. My bag was stolen from New Jersey airport on my way to India and I have not heard about the medal ever since. A cyclist has to suffer to gain success and that’s what I can tell,” shares the Colorado-born rider who is in the country to visit his wife Manjeet Bhalla’s relatives.
Back in 1984, when the then 23-year-old Grewal edged out Canadian Steve Baurer and crowd favourite and team-mate David Phinney at Mission Viejo in California, it only justified his father Jasjit Singh Grewal’s decision to put him into cycling. Grewal Senior and his wife Martha Huber Grewal owned a bike store in Aspen, Colorado, and with Alexi and his younger brothers Rishi and Ranjeet taking up the sport, the house would be a hub of cyclists.
“I started cycling at the age of 12 as my father’s bike shop was 15 km from our home. He would leave for the shop earlier and to avoid that, I asked him for a cycle and would ride the old Schwinn cycle to the store. When I turned 18, I chose not to attend college and opted for cycling. Before I got into the USA senior teams, I would often work as a construction labourer in winters to earn money to compete in Europe,” recalls Grewal.
He made the USA third team in 1981 before making it to the first team in 1983 to compete against riders like Phinney, Thurlow Rogers and seven-time Tour De France participant Ron Keifel. While the trio trained under US coach Eddie Borysewicz, Great would train under Swiss coach Earnst Kappeli.
While Grewal was expected to set things up for the fancied Phinney at Los Angeles, his breaking from the group and going for a final sprint against Baurer meant the Indian-origin cyclist would bring a gold medal for USA.
“Initially, I would get $5000 stipend for training with the USA team. I preferred to train under my personal coach Kapelli. He believed in old-school cycling and there was a time when US coach Eddie did not even speak with me. I joined the US team 20 minutes prior to the race and did not stay in the Olympic Village. Winning the gold medal brought mixed reactions for me. Most US cyclists termed me selfish for breaking the group while my family and friends were proud. It also meant that there were high expectations from me. In that way, the gold became a burden for me,” Grewal says.
Stints with Panasonic and 7-Eleven saw Grewal competing in the Tour de France in 1986 before an argument with a team-mate and spitting at a race cameraman for obstructing him meant the rider was dropped by 7-Eleven. It was followed by a phase which would have broken weaker men.
Grewal competed for smaller teams before ending his professional career in 1993. A broken marriage was followed by him taking up a carpentry job in 1999, as he fell on bad times.
“I won some titles with Team RMO, but it was not the same. Whatever happened in France was something I regret. But for me, cycling was a passion. I met with a road accident in 1993 and suffered short-term memory loss. It was also the time when I got married and divorced. With no earnings, I opted to specialise in carpentry and would travel more than 30 miles a day in Masonville in my trailer. A year after I started carpentry, I lost two fingers in my left hand in a saw accident. Later, I opened my own company Mountain Gorilla where we specialised in high-end timber work.”
Seven years ago, Grewal made a comeback at the age of 50 when he competed in the Gran Fondo-style gravel event in Colorado, where he finished fourth out of 125 riders, and competed for different teams for two years. During his India visit this time, Grewal has competed in an 1000+ km race apart from other events. “When I won the Olympic title, I was 156 pounds and my cycle weighed 21.6 pounds. Nowadays, the cycles weigh around 13 pounds and even skinnier persons can achieve success.”
He believes India has the potential. “In Colorado, we had more than 50 races over different distances in a season. India can also have a closed circuit environment. You have got the Himalayas, and the Alps and the Rockies are nothing compared to that. And that’s where road cycling is also important. Somebody told me about a Race Across America qualifying event, Shivalik Signature, taking place in North India for the first time. I have met many people who are competing in events in excess of 300 Km. If Indians can win in other sports, they can excel in cycling too. I had a discussion with my brother Rishi, who was in the top five MTB riders in the world, and we may open an academy here,” Grewal added.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines