Monday, June 20, 2005

Madison racing explained

I am a casual observer - no, casual is the wrong word, as when I am observing, I am usually white-knuckled and twisted stomached - let's say novice observer of velodrome cycling.

What you need to know about velodrome cycling is that it should be bigger than the NBA. It's way more exciting, has more crashes than Nascar, has the same wicked rivalries as professional wrestling, has better bodies than baseball (better everything than baseball), and is faster than crap. It's kind of like roller derby, but with bikes with one speed and no brakes, on a track with banked sides that a bike cannot stay upright on unless in motion.

I have become familiar with velodrome cycling, not by the usual means, which, I guess, would be watching the thirty seconds of coverage lovingly allotted it every four years by the wizards of Olympics television broadcasting, but through the actions of my son, who, as a bicycle racer, found himself more comfortable on the velodrome track than on roads (which tend to point up at uncomfortable angles much too often, and require one to climb up them, something he does not enjoy - no Lance Armstrong, he).

Crashes are spectacular on the track (let's quit calling it a velodrome now - it's hard to type and seems rather starchy, considering that everyone involved with the sport says "track" unless speaking to the uninformed). Racers are invariably going way fast, and crashes invariably happen on the steepest point of the bank, which allows for not only the crash, but the fall off the embankment, and the swerving and crashing of those behind the crashee. Even simple mechanical failures can be spectacular, as there are no brakes in which to stop a berserk bike. You can only hope for a skilled rider, who can take it in for a soft landing in the infield grass. When mechanical failures aren't spectacularly crashy, they are spectacular in some form or other - take the time I saw the enormous, Thor-like power of a sprinter's thighs snap the seat post and seat off his bike in the middle of a sprint race - and finish the race! That's skill for you. Mixed with a little fear of sitting down onto the splintered carbon fiber remains of a seat post with sensitive anatomy parts.

Now that I've set the scene, imagine that these crash-prone kamikaze types invent a form of tag-team racing in which one member of the team is actively racing while one member is taking it easy for a few laps and catching his/her breath. Then after a few laps, he positions himself right in the middle of the thunderous racing herd with one hand placed casually on his back. His team member then grabs this hand and uses the kinetic energy he has gained by racing like a demon with Tourette's Syndrome to fling the rested racer into the race in his place. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Not just with this one team, but with all the other teams (ten is a good number) on the track. There's racing. There's flinging. There's racers slowing down, there's racer being launched. All together. It's chaos. But this is where the angels come in: usually nobody dies. It is truly a sight you must not leave the earth without experiencing.

This is the Madison. It is named after Madison Square Garden, where it was conceived, long ago when track racing in America was as big and popular as the Garden. It's hard to imagine that a sport once so beloved could fall practically into oblivion. It's especially amazing that it has happened to this sport. It's everything Americans love: speed, cutthroat tactics, crashing, thus bloodshed, and drama. What's not to love? Europeans love it - they call it The American Race, since it was born here. And here in its birthplace, it is practically disowned. Criminal.

Here in the Portland area, the racers use a track that exists only by the grace of an amazing local dairy that lends out its suburban acres as a park for the community. There are baseball fields, a bmx track, picnic tables and lots of other stuff. It's a bit of community philanthropy that you just don't see much of anymore. Oh, I'm sure it helps ice cream sales, but who else would devote 57 acres of prime suburban hill space to fun? Here's to Alpenrose Dairy. If you want to see the track where Portlanders come to try not to crash, go here:

There's a new track in LA. There's one in San Diego and one in the Bay Area. There's one in Redmond, north of Seattle, (it's kind of big, so there's not much bank to it - takes some of the yikes out of it). There's the big daddy in Trexlertown, PA. If there is one near you, check it out. The athletes are either unpaid or underpaid, so you won't have to pay much to get in (if anything), and they won't make you feel like a peon (like ____ fill in your least favorite professional athlete here). You won't be disappointed and you won't be bored.

And if you see my son there, pray for him. I have a feeling his angel is overworked.

1 comment:

Dean said...

"if you see my son there, pray for him."

Also feel free to pay for me... Really... She wasn't kidding about the whole unpaid thing...