Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the Boards

For just over four minutes, a black train chases a red one along the track; an endless, silent rumble over sixty kilometres worth of Baltic pine.

“YES,” the first WA rider screams as he peels off the front and up the 42 degree banking a metre or two away from me. It’s time, their first change. He lingers, then fluidly finds his place at the back. I take a deep breath as he narrowly misses the third rider’s wheel. But of course he was never going to touch it.

I struggle to remember seeing something as glorious. Cancellara twice riding past me towards another time trial rainbow undoubtedly comes close. He skilfully rode along the barriers down a haunted Pakington Street, shielding himself from the Geelong wind. Any one of us could’ve coat-hangered him without fully extending an arm. Instead, we gasped at his strength and the definition of his massive muscles.

But here, there’s something else; the choreography, the silence, the intimacy. I’m part of the rhythm as two teams of four riders in their states’ lycra livery fly past me as one. They all know where they need to be and what comes next; the sporting equivalent of finishing off each other’s sentences.

A colleague told me earlier “Go down there Rach,” pointing to the closest seating to the track, atop the steepest bank. I looked down, I looked back up. She smiled knowingly at the reaction on my face.

I had fallen in love with track racing just two days ago, my first visit. Like tonight, I hadn’t planned to go. The Dunc Gray Velodrome is oddly located and hard to get to on public transport. On Wednesday I was not going to miss new 4km pursuit world record holder Jack Bobridge take on Rohan Dennis in the flesh.

I was privileged enough to be in the middle. Close up, a face and body I’d only seen in magazines powered out of the gate, all puffed out cheeks, and veins looking for escape out his neck and legs. Jack ultimately donned the green and gold fleece, but Rohan had him at every important time check but the last.

Despite the dizziness, I savoured the moments and images of the middle: ice vests on resting riders, churning powerade/Gatorade slushie makers, topless riders warming up or cooling down on the rollers; tyre pumps, starter’s guns and medal ceremonies piercing the calm.

I met a few of the riders too. I don’t cry when I meet sportspeople. Of course I utter the obligatory girlie “eek” internally but crying is for Bieber fans. But I was overtired. I started thinking in black and white cycling postcards and of myself in many years time. I whispered to myself “I met Jack Bobridge,” and I started to cry.

Now, Kaarle McCulloch is riding right in front of me on the banking. She’s wearing her usual costume: large reflective glasses and Casco track helmet. She is magnificent; an ethereal wasp.

She rides behind Anna Meares in their sprint heat. Anna looks behind at Kaarle for an entire lap. It is one thing to know that of course a world champion track rider is an exceptional bike handler; it’s another amazing thing altogether to actually see her weave slowly and effortlessly up and down the steepest part of the track without looking, taunting Kaarle. They track stand. Everyone cheers. They sprint home side by side, generating volts of energy to produce a result with barely a wheel in it. 

I can’t get enough of this. How is this not popular? I know it used to be. I’ve seen old pictures of crowds in Australian velodromes, some with so many people they are seated in the middle instead of the riders and the teams.

Apparently track cycling is becoming scarily dire. I don’t know how or why nor do I have any answers. Perhaps the solution lies in beer and flashing lights like Ghent and Berlin. But tonight, these men and women don’t need romantic aids like liquour and pretty lights to woo me; their efforts and feats are the spectacle.

Grand things lie ahead for some of the riders here this week; perhaps the boards in London, snow capped mountains in Europe, or the cobbled roads in Flandrian fields. But for all who rode, the Dunc Gray Baltic pine will forever whisper.

(This is a story about the 2011 Australian National Track Championships. These photos were taken on the first night I went, I don’t have any from the second.  For full results and photo galleries of the 2011 Australian National Track Championships, visit here )


I went, I saw, and I felt a world record holder...and another World Champion – Josephine Tomic, who just won the Australian title for the women’s individual pursuit

..and another World Champion, Anna Meares

…time to stop being handsy and borrow a camera. Kaarle McCulloch teams up with former Matildas soccer player, Cass Kell for the Team sprint.
Anna teams up with Stephanie Morton

Podium shots

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