Tuesday, February 12, 2008
If I Were a Betting Man
Aside from "doing as the natives do", such as eating strange animal parts, laughing uneasily during pauses in conversations I don't understand, and riding on the wrong side of the road, I had the great fortune to view the east's finest contribution to bicycle racing: keirin.
At breakfast, my shivering in-laws told me it was "samui", which translates to "typical spring day in Chicago". This, of course, also means it was raining. With sub-zero temperatures and snowstorms battering my comrades back home, in my opinion, this was perfect weather for a day at the races.
I was soon at the bus station awaiting the free keirin shuttle bus to whisk me away to an unknown cycling paradise I'd only seen on posters and grainy You Tube videos. As the bus arrived and we piled in with a bunch of stinky old dudes, it was obvious this wasn't to be anything like the romantic setting of the six day races I'd gloriously imagined our cycling forefathers enjoying in pre-war Europe.
My suspicions were confirmed with the sight of the near empty grand stands surrounding the track. I quickly concluded that keirin is like horse racing, only with bikes, therefore you amass a crowd that isn't motivated to stand around for hours on end, day after day, for a love of equine beauty, but a good old fashioned fist full of yen. Beneath the cheap, blue seats of the grand stands, were thousands of coughing, sniffing, smoking men (and maybe six women) huddled around monitors, tables, and on the floor surmising odds and scribbling in bets. It was a disgusting, gag reflex inducing, fantastic sight.
Regardless, my purpose was clear, I didn't come here to lose money. I came to see some racin'. So I did just that. And, it was top notch, tooth chippin', white knuckled racin' that I was served.
The riders all go through ritualistic preparation routines before the bell announces the start of the race. Green pounded his thighs so hard I swear I heard the rumble of muscle fibers snap to attention, White stretched his arms like a contortionist on speed, Red slapped his face wildly, Black adjusted and re-adjusted his toe straps, while Pink motionlessly stared at his handlebars as if in an LSD induced trance.
The build up of intensity and adrenaline is akin to watching the last 1000 meters of a sprint on the Champs-Élysées. A ringing bell sounds. Slowly at first, then gradually builds in tempo and decibels on the last lap. Like Pavlov's dog, the crowd's pulse instinctively quickens and crescendos into an eruption that spews a froth of heated banter. Meanwhile, a colorful line of nervous riders marking one another, lock elbows around the final turn and unleash a fury that would make Michael Hubner blush. As the finish line is crossed there is a collective gasp. Insults and praise are heaped on the grim riders as they finish their cool down lap.
As the competitors leave the track, the riders for the next race make a brief appearance and do a single lap to show their form in a ritualistic stretching of the legs. When the parade lap ends and the riders duck into their humble shelter, two sweeper teams in groups of four swab the track of debris. This marks the perfect time to get another cup of free, low grade coffee or tea, take a leak, and find another seat with a different view. Just as you're settling into your plastic vantage point, the announcements introduce the next race and the riders begin to slowly roll out toward the starting gate.
It was indeed a splendid sight to see. The charged atmosphere of competition, tall odds, won and lost coin, minus all the self absorbed posturing of the local crits, was a breath of fresh (metaphorically) air. All unraveling before me in an environment that was both foreign and familiar. I dig that shit. I will dig it again, I am sure.