Carson, Calif. — As recently as 1978, the US national cycling team finished 22nd in world competition, the training wheels on its program still visible. Last year Uncle Sam made it to fifth in medals won, trailing only East Germany, the Soviet Union , West Germany, and Holland.
''By the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, we hope to be right there with the East Germans and the Russians,'' said US Coach Carl Luesencamp during last week's International Cycling Invitational at the new Olympic Velodrome built here for the games.
''We've made tremendous improvements in our program, we've got talented riders who are also dedicated people, and we've still got almost a year to get ourselves ready, he pointed out.''
Among the things that Luesencamp says he looks for in potential Olympic cyclists are stamina, quickness, good mental attitudes, and power ratios in regard to height and weight. However, not every cyclist is geared to do his best in every form of competition.
''Like track and field performers, cyclists are often separated by the skills required for each event,'' Carl said, noting the variety of individual and team competitions from sprints and time trials to pursuit events and long-distance road races. ''If I could get a college track coach to exchange athletes with me ,'' he added, ''I'm sure I could eventually put together a world-class cycling team from his people, and vice versa. Most cyclists train hard twice a day the year around, although they do take a break on the weekends.
''Years ago most American cyclists were hard pressed to find a velodrome in their own country where they could practice on a banked concrete track. They either had to use the road or a flat dirt running track that wasn't intended for bicycle racing. But now most of our kids live near a velodrome (he estimates there are 19 such facilities spread across the United States), so that training under actual conditions is no longer that big a problem.''
Asked how the US Olympic cycling program compares with that of the sport's major powers, Luesencamp replied, ''They spend a lot more time and money getting their people ready for international competition than we do, but I think our people are finally beginning to see the light. I know this: You can't cut too many financial corners and expect to win. It's not all locked up in the athlete going out and paying a physical and mental price to get there. You also have to spend money on facilities and coaching and equipment, or you are always going to end up chasing some other country.''
Cycling equipment good enough to be used in the Olympics, for example, costs between $1,000 and $3,000 a vehicle. And that isn't counting special five-ounce tires made of silk and cotton that retail for $50 and $100 apiece and generally last the equivalent of one meet.
Although Russia's Sergei Kopylov is considered the top sprinter among cyclists and holds the world record (10.369 seconds) for the 200-meter flying start, he was upset recently by America's Mark Gorski in Bicycling Magazine's 1, 000-meter Grand Prix. This is an event in which the rider is alone on the track, and, from a standing start, tries to cover the one kilometer as quickly as possible.
Kopylov, who holds world marks in the match sprint and the one kilometer, does not fit the stereotype which says that all Soviet athletes are stoic and machinelike.
Upon being introduced at one international event, Sergei popped his bike on its back wheel and rode around the track in that position, waving frequently to the crowd, which loved it. Kopylov is also still remembered for his victory lap in the 1982 World Championships, when he executed a perfect wheelie, locked his rear brake for a 180-degree infield spin, then brought spectators to their feet with a nose stand.
Gorski, who is back racing again after a severe crash in the 1981 Japanese National Championships that left him injured and frustrated, feels that, if he continues to improve, not even Kopylov is beyond his talents. After taking part in 80 competitions last year, which included spending seven weeks in Europe, Mark told reporters that he tried to do too much. ''I found that when I stay home in California and train, I am able to get more done,'' Gorski said.
In recent years East Germany has dominated track cycling, earning two gold medals and one silver at the 1980 Moscow Olympics; six medals at the 1981 World Championships in Czechoslovakia; and seven at the 1982 World Championships in England.
Cycling has been part of the Olympics since 1896, with events being held at every modern Games with the exception of 1904. However, the 1984 Olympics will introduce the first women's cycling competition - an individual road race that will take place outside the Velodrome. Roberta Twigg, the US Cycling Federation's 1982 female Rider of the Year, is considered to be the top American woman rider.