Thursday, April 5, 2012

Hey Frank, Can I Borrow A Couple Of Bucks From You?

Day Two – Afternoon Session.

Sean The Man wants to meet up for coffee, so we head over to Espresso Alley. One coffee becomes two, and two becomes an issue. I’m wired, totally buzzing. He’s telling me what he wants me to ask the riders, specifically the ones who also race on the road. He wants to know what the contrast is, where the differences are. He also wants to know, off the record, about their first kisses. Dude is a romantic.

In order to wash off some of the excess energy I ride my bike down to the arena. I’m allowed a thirty minute ride today, and figure a quick trip down Hoddle Street will take about that long. I resolve to take it easy, but a combination of the coffee, the sunshine and Rage Against The Machine have me splitting lanes and skitching off utes in no time. The Herald-Sun hasn’t picked up on the “Shane Perkins and Child Without Helmets” scandal, so I figure I’ll be ok. 

Kids lingering with intent. 

After a quick lap of the venue, to get some sweet shots of the crowd outside bathing in the midday sun, I lock up my bike. I’m parked just near the spot where last night I heard what sounded like schoolgirls giggling. Seven years as a teacher have taught me that where there are schoolgirls giggling there is trouble, so I went to check it out. Sitting outside, in their brand new rainbow stripes, were Kristina Vogel and Miriam Welte. They were nattering away in German, hyper and excited. They let me take a photo and I resolve to invite them both to the Fyxomatosis Paris-Roubaix party on Sunday night.

Two new World Record holders.

When I enter the venue things are starting to warm up again. Aside from the Women’s Team Pursuit qualifying, it’s all sprints today, even if one of the sprint events is part of the Omnium. And it’s mostly women, too. I’m unsurprised to see the women shunted down the program like this, but a little disappointed. I get the impression that after last night everyone here sees the competition as wide open, with more possible winners than anyone thought.

I wander around and take some more photos. Roy Van Den Berg from The Netherlands is warming up on the rollers, and I tell him I write for a hipster website for cool people (true!) who would kill for a picture of his tattoo sleeve. He not only obliges but pulls his jersey back to reveal the work on his ribs. I also tell the New Zealand team that they have won the popular vote for coolest team here, and get a photo of one of Natasha Hansen warming up on the trainer.

Roy Van Den Bergh. Tough nut.

Natasha Hansen from team NZ. Look at those oversized headphones. I bet she's listening to some sweet NZ hip hop I've never heard of.

Weirdly, though, when I ask Meares and McCulloch for a photo they look dubious. “Well,” Meares starts, “You’re not really supposed to, but if no one is looking…” I take her lead and try to look like I’m texting. In return she pulls a rad sneaky-photo face, while McCulloch cracks up in the background. This is the second time I’ve encountered Australian over-cautiousness, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Sneaky Meares photo. 

The women warm up and I wander over to the paramedic tents. Russell Nelson is working today, and it’s nice to talk local racing for a while. His son, Brent, is perhaps unlucky not to be here – or at least unlucky not to be on the road to being here. Making the Australian team isn’t only about being a really fast bike rider – there’s always a little more too it. But we sit and chat and make jokes about the quality of the coffee.

I get a text from Hamish midway through this conversation. He works for the ABC and knows news when he sees it. He’s pretty pissed, however, to have seen the Dutch team get pulled over by the local constabulary earlier this morning. The photo reveals three bike cops, two foot cops and a divvy van lecturing one guy in a team jersey. It’s not a great look – with Perko getting hit by a car earlier this week, it’s starting to seem like Victoria ain’t a great place to be a cyclist. 

To Protect and Serve. 

The Women’s Sprint qualifiers are up first. I’m really looking forward to seeing them. I mean, they’re the fastest women in the world, and they’ll be going as fast as they can. I don’t really care about the times, or the order of qualifying, unless someone breaks a world record. I just want to see the lines they take, their pain faces, what they do when they’re in the box. When they start up the crowd seems subdued, but clap politely when each rider goes by. Melbourne sports crowds are generally good crowds – even at the footy I don’t hear much dickheadery any more, and it’s good to see the folks here support less famous teams and athletes.

Monique rocks up and has once again brought me some food. She’s here working with the Canadian team, who she describes as quiet achievers. Sure, folks know they have Tara Whitten in the omnium, but their pursuit team came second to Team GB at the London World Cup a few months back. “No one really talks about them,” she says. Well, they do now. On the track my new favourite, Miriam Welte does an 11.0, and I’m saddened to realize that even if I were a woman I wouldn’t be competitive at this level. Bummer.

Shuang Guo gets thrown onto the track by her coach and, after rolling around for a couple of laps, sets the new fastest time. I kinda like that China are becoming a force in cycling, which can often be a bit of a rich white dude’s club. The rich part of that equation still stands, but at least the race and gender walls are coming down a little bit. 

Chinese Camp. Lots of headscarves. 

When Meares rolls onto the track the crowd immediately starts up. She’s been around a while, and is well known and well loved by the fans. She’s very slow around the track, ticking over what seems to be a huge gear. When she starts to turn it up a little in the back straight she looks calm on the bike, rock solid on the saddle. She jumps out of the saddle 75 metres before the start line, and continues to push until out of turn two. The splits reveal that she’s up by 0.2 at halfway. Her hips start to move as she struggles with the gear into the final straight, then lunges for the line. The time takes a couple of moments to appear on the scoreboard, but when it does, the crowd – smaller than last night, but still considerable – absolutely bursts wide open. It’s a new world record, 10 seconds and 782 thousandths of a second, which apparently translates to an average speed of 66.777 ks per hour.

She looks as shocked as anybody. She’s pumping her fist, looking surprised and stoked and totally taken aback. The crowd is roaring at her, and she seems to be roaring back. The noise is out of this world. I get goosebumps again.

The sprint heats are up quite soon after, and there’s some good racing, but not a whole lot to get too excited about. Vicky Pendleton allows herself to get boxed in, and only wins her heat due to a late rush at the line. Meares throws a mean hook on the bell lap. A Chinese rider is bumped by a French rider, and the Chinese slips and does a whipskid to make Benzy proud. McCulloch gives Sandy Clair too much length and Clair holds her off. There’s some sweet trackstands. The racing is close and evenly matched. It’s good watching, but not frantic, and I do more tweeting than writing. That’s right. There’s a difference. 

Sweet trackstand action.

The Women’s Team Pursuit Qualifiers are up next, and I gotta say, they’re not very interesting. I take the opportunity to go get a coffee, eat some hot cross buns, send some emails, regret some bad decisions. Eventually I get up and go for a wander. I’m intrigued by the Cuban team, so hunt for them. When I find Lisandra Guerra we have a chat about her home town, Matanzas. I was there sometime in the early 2000s, and tell her about cycling all over the hills in the surrounding area. Her English is very good, but she has that slight lisp that Spanish speakers sometimes have, which is incredibly cute.

Cuba's Lisandra Guerra. 

I’m only brought to attention by the crowd, who acknowledge the Australian team the only way they know how. You know, by cheering. The three women are out on the track, and they look like they’re going incredibly slow. The scoreboard says otherwise – in the first kilometer they have outstripped Canada, in the second they are one and a half seconds up, and by the start of the third they are one world record pace. This is getting out of hand – if these women get through, it’ll be five new world records in four events over a mere one and a half days.

But get through they do, taking about one and a half seconds off the old mark. Over three kilometres, that’s huge. This track is wicked fast. I can’t begin to imagine what Jack Bobridge is going to do in the pursuit.

The women don’t get to rest on their laurels for long, however. Team GB comes out on the track, and a little over three minutes later have taken the world record back, lowering the number by another 0.2. The crowd gives them a cheer, but they’re a parochial bunch, and their hearts aren’t in it.

Team GB in motion. Pic c/o Omnisport.

Yeah, that says it all. Pic c/o Omnisport

There are more sprint heats going on, and the usual suspects make their ways through. I gotta say, Vicky Pendleton has a real scrappy style on the bike. She stands quite upright when she’s out of the saddle, and pushes the bike around with her arms, a bit like Sean The Man. It’s a big contrast to Meares, who is generally like a rock on the bike. I don’t really care about style on the bike, but usually on the track style equals strength, so it’s interesting to note. She does alright though, so I should probably shut the hell up.

The omnium starts up next – the first event is the flying lap. It’s boring as hell. The omnium is a controversial event – given the nod for the Olympics, folks have an extra incentive to do it, but there’s some legitimacy to the argument against. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. I’m not totally down on the omnium, however. The best thing it has one is introduced the Elimination race to World Championship and Olympic competition. The Elimination – aka “Miss and Out”, or my favourite name, “Devil Takes the Hindmost”, is the essence of track racing – it’s a little wacky, a little fun, but also a bloody hard race in which you have to sprint every lap and be very comfortable riding with your face in someone else’s armpit. The men’s omnium elimination is on tonight, the women’s tomorrow night, and I can’t wait. 

How I see Nath, up in his timing box. 

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