It's London Olympics meets 'Jersey Shore': Welcome to the Velodrome
From funny helmets to pizza-cutter bikes, track cycling at the Olympics Velodrome is one part aerodynamics, one part athleticism, and one part vaudeville.
[Editor's note: This article is completely offensive to every track cycling fan. We suggest you post two comments and come back in the morning.]
To the uninitiated American, the Summer Olympics hold many strange sights.
For example, the competition at the trampoline venue Friday was fierce.... And that was not nearly as odd as the journalist next to me in the press center letting out whoops of joy at the end of each successful trick. He was transfixed.
And the table tennis? Is it really necessary to throw the ball 600 feet in the air before serving? I'm just saying.
But surely some of the stranger sights in these Olympic Games must be at the London Velodrome. I'm guessing that NBC isn't squirreling away hours of men's team pursuit footage to run on its prime time broadcast, so allow me to set the scene for you.
The first thing that you notice at the Velodrome is that Occupy Wall Street appears to have set up camp in the interior of the track. While skinny people on bicycles rumble around on a track that looks like it was designed by Salvador Dali, the real action is on the infield. Here, racers repeatedly strip down and redress, somehow managing to keep it all PG-13, while coaches huddle, techs pretend they are Han Solo on the Millennium Falcon, and Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart secretly hold hands. (OK, maybe that last one isn't true.)
It's the Summer Olympics meets "Jersey Shore," and to be honest, you could spend two hours with a pair of binoculars just watching what's going on in the Velodrome's answer to a tent city, and it would be good value for the money.
But that would mean missing the races, which are hilarious.
First, Friday at the Velodrome gave us the team pursuit, and the team pursuit can be summed up in two words: funny helmets. Yes, as in road cycling's time trials, the members of the track team pursuit wear helmets painstakingly designed to make them look as ridiculous as possible. Imagine if Darth Vader had been a doofus as a kid. That's the helmet he would have worn. Vaguely intimidating in a LOL sort of way.
Then, because the principles of aerodynamics demand even more sacrifices of these poor chaps, they ride around on bicycles that look like giant pizza cutters – the wheel spokes covered by a solid disc. Dominos must get in as a sponsor on this.
But team pursuit was just a warmup. Next came the main event: the keirin race.
The keirin race takes some explanation, so bear with me. In the keirin, all the cyclists follow around a dude on a motorized bike – called a "derny," because, apparently, "motorized bike" was already taken – for 6-1/2 laps, then the derny leaves the track and they can all properly start the race, and it does get rather exciting for the last 2-1/2 laps.
The pleasant young lady sitting next to me tried to explain that the derny is the pace-setter, which unfortunately does not explain its reason for existing. After all, the pace car in NASCAR races does not ride in front of the field for 350 laps, and only then let the racers start racing.
Yes, the derny starts slowly and picks up speed until, when it pulls off, it's going 31 miles per hour. Maybe it's supposed to get the racers tired. But all the riders in the team pursuit rode 12 laps an average speed of well more than 30 m.p.h., so I'm still not getting what this whole derny thing is for. (Alas, on this fundamental point, even Wikipedia is silent.)
Perhaps I'm just upset because the man on the derny was wearing a full-body, black catsuit, and I really didn't need to see that. Next session, can we please agree to give him a pair of Dockers and a Hawaiian shirt?
And then it hits me. Maybe this keirin thing is actually opening up entirely new ideas for Olympic sport. What if we released live bears onto the Olympic Stadium track for the last leg of the 400-meter sprint to nudge the runners along?
Indeed, track cycling seems to enjoy its arcane rules. For some reason, in the middle of the session, I am handed a press release saying that Rider No. 66 has been fined 100 Swiss francs "for failing to respect instructions from the Comissaire."
I want to know who this Comissaire is. Is he sitting in a suite above the track eating grapes on a divan? For a second violation, does he have the power to send Rider No. 66 to International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she must bicycle into town every day for Jacques Rogge's prawn sandwich lunch special? Can he have the derny rider summarily executed if he wipes out?
The best thing about track cycling at these Olympics, however, is that the Brits love it. By that, I mean that they are completely bonkers about it. Out of a very wise desire to not run up costs more than necessary, most of the venues at London's Olympic Park look like they were made out of toothpicks. The London Scaffolders Local must be eating caviar and drinking champagne now.
But the Velodrome? It is a magnificent throne clad in western red cedar paneling and built to the exacting specifications of British track cyclist Chris Hoy. Sorry, Sir Chris Hoy. Which brings us back to why the British love track cycling: because they're good at it. They're the China of track cycling.
During the British turn on the women's team pursuit, the fans do the wave for each of the 12 laps, following the riders. Britain, of course, wins the heat and sets a world record. And in that moment, cycling starts to make sense.
As the splits went up on the scoreboard, and the British women built toward that world-record pace, the silly helmets revealed their full and glorious purpose, the pizza-cutter wheels became the means to an incredible achievement that sent everyone in the Velodrome home happy. More than that. With a memory they will never forget – an "I was there when" snapshot for Britons from Anglesey to Aberdeen.
When Briton Victoria Pendleton won the women's keirin (of course), even the derney became the quirky cousin of the sporting world. I almost wanted him to take a victory lap, too.
Now, if only he would put on some pants.