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She's on a Roll : Looking for Someone to Pitch the Sport, Cycling Has Found Its Jan Stephenson; Her Name Is Connie Paraskevin-Young

November 19, 1987|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

Connie Paraskevin-Young had just flown in from Tampa, and, boy, were her vocal cords tired.

"You should have heard me yesterday," she croaked, which meant you couldn't have heard her yesterday, unless you happened to have amplifiers in your ears.

Paraskevin-Young is talking, mostly, and being looked at quite a bit these days. She is cycling's first cover girl, its first object of mash notes, its first female rider who has been marketed at such a flat-out rate.

Never mind that at 26 she is already a three-time world champion in the sprints, or that she is a four-time U.S. champion, or even that she has been on two Olympic teams as a speed skater. All the attention she is getting these days is on account of her new agents, ProServ, and their aggressive marketing campaign.

Why? Because the demographics are right. Because lots of people ride bikes and many of those people will buy products they associate with the sport.

"Cycling is our fastest-growing division," said Steve Disson of the division he heads for ProServ. "In 1984, about 78 million people rode bikes. It was the second-largest participatory sport in the country. I saw the potential there to be a kind of growth sport, like tennis and golf.

"The demographics are good. We can get to a broad market and reach children and women."

To that end, Paraskevin-Young was signed by ProServ, flown to Washington and plunked into a high-fashion photo shoot, complete with soft-focus lenses and lots of blowing hair.

"We wanted to picture her as the premier active woman," Disson said.

Before ProServ ever heard of Paraskevin-Young, or even her sport, she was pedaling away in obscurity. She was winning world titles, dominating the national sprint scene in cycling and spending her winters bent over an oval of ice. She was a member of the national speed skating team from 1977 to 1984.

Paraskevin-Young had begun cycling in her native Detroit at age 10. She won five national junior titles.

"I got out of cycling for two years to prepare for the 1980 Winter Olympics," she said in an interview here last week. "When I got back, it was totally different. I had to re-learn. That's why I'm grateful for what the sport has and where the sport is going.

"A few years ago, no one was being taken care of. Now, nobody is ever happy with anything. They always want more. I try to tell them how much better it is.

"In speed skating, I would have to pay out of my own pocket to train with the national team. I would have to work my butt off all summer to train all winter."

If cycling has opened up to commercial endorsements, though, the opportunities have been late coming to the women. Even though Paraskevin-Young was winning world championships, she was virtually unknown outside the sport.

Women cyclists have lacked an international showcase--the Olympic Games. Until 1984, there were no cycling events for women in the Olympic Games. In Los Angeles, the road race for women was introduced. At next year's Games in Seoul, some sprints will be added.

Said Olympic gold medalist Mark Gorski: "Being the world champion is a very prestigious thing around the world, but not in the United States. Connie's been world champion three times, but Americans need the Olympics. Certainly, the lack of opportunity to compete in the Olympics has hurt Connie."

She's making up for lost time, and exposure, now. And, with her new forum, Paraskevin-Young is trying to influence the direction the sport will take.

"Cycling is really still a new sport," she said. "A few years back, if you asked me if I would be competing like this, I would have laughed in your face.

"We want for it to continue. It has to be handled right. After 1984, after the team did so well, if we had the people in place in our federation, we would have done well."

ProServ now represents the entire U.S. cycling team and is applying its marketing savvy to the entire sport. The Madison Avenue slickness is foreign to cycling, though, and some in the sport are uncomfortable with the glitz.

Some have smirked at the cream-puff ads Paraskevin-Young has done.

"She's added glamour to a sport that didn't have any," said Ed Pavelka, executive editor of Bicycling Magazine.

Paraskevin-Young said: "Some things I've done for the hard-core cycling magazines have freaked people out. I just want to show the feminine side. There's a lot of good looking women in cycling. However, they are usually shown in these bogus sweaty pictures. Why not show their beauty?

"I can tell you how little girls get into the sport, I know what they're attracted to. There's a little gymnast out there and a big cyclist. What's a little girl going to choose? Which will society pressure her to choose?"

The irony for Paraskevin-Young is that she is starting to draw attention at a time when she'd just as soon lie low. Paraskevin-Young is ill. She keeps getting painful head and neck aches that are as mysterious to her doctors as they are to her.

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