Culture

Carl Decker journal: A night at the track

On his way to Singlespeed Mountain Bike World Championships in Japan, Decker stops at a Keirin track to scope the scene and try his luck.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Carl Decker’s recent blog about racing Singlespeed Mountain Bike World Championships in Japan.

Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” begins playing for the fourth time of the night over the track’s PA. And for the first time of the night — or ever, for that matter — I don’t automatically envision the sex scene from the movie “Top Gun.” The only music that plays at Matsudo Velodrome is “Take my Breath Away.” And by now, I know this means the betting windows are closed and it’s time for some Keirin racing.

The light show at the far side of the arena begins, and the riders, in their pads and rainbow colors, emerge from a door one by one and pedal slowly to the starting gate. No words are spoken. No waves to the audience are given. These are not cycling personalities. They are but numbers, 1 through 9. Many of the people trackside will not even watch the race, instead focusing on tiny newsprint listings of results and rankings, or staring at TV screens with odds for the following heats. The spectators are not cyclists. They are gamblers and smokers and drinkers. They are salarymen putting off a return to their wives or apartments. They couldn’t care less about cycling in general. They are here to get lucky. Here to make a buck. Or a few thousand Yen. Keirin racing is one of only four sports that are legal to bet on here in Japan. Since there’s no horse track, power boat circuit, or motorcycle track in the neighborhood, these particular smokers and drinkers and bettors will settle for men in rainbow-colored spandex.

There’s a TV studio with live commentary that’s simulcast in bars and gambling halls across the country. The venue is beautiful, huge, spotless, and nearly empty. Probably a lot like a typical American greyhound track on a Wednesday night. Except for the beautiful, huge, and spotless part. After a race, four men with corn brooms repeat the ritual of pretending to sweep the spotless track surface while my friends Jason, Peter, and I try to fill out an entirely Japanese betting form. I’ve picked two of the first three race winners, based on the same technique I use to size up riders in the races I compete in: quality of tan, oiliness of legs, and stance on the bike. It’s time to cash in on 30 years of worrying about how fast other people look. But the forms are not user friendly. With a security guard’s help, we finally get the betting machine to take our money. The gun fires, the riders lumber forward on their over-geared fixies, the lead rider pulls off, the sprint unfolds. For a minute I think I’ve made about $9.00. But we can’t read the ticket we’ve purchased, nor the machine that we feed the ticket into to collect our winnings. Three dollars gone then.

So maybe the three of us won’t make it as smoker-gamblers. But we’d come to Japan for a baser reason: the Singlespeed World Championships. After a couple nights in Tokyo, a trip to the velodrome, and too many servings of meat-on-a-stick to count, we’d shuffle through stations and ride trains to the race venue in Hakuba, a ski town in the Japanese Alps. Home to those white monkeys that live in hot springs. And SSWC15. Apparently, some of the best skiing in the world is in the Japanese Alps, and the valley that Hakuba inhabits is home to 15 separate ski areas. Chairlifts rise from rice paddies to intermediate ridge lines covered in leafy foliage, with a backdrop of 9,000-foot peaks linked by hiking trails and a massive hut system. Getting off the train, the potential for singletrack fun is palpable.

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