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 4 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 2 of the first 3 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 9000′ peaks linked by hiking trails and a massive hut system. Getting off the train, the potential for singltrack fun is palpable.
Once on the ground in Hakuba, a pleasant surprise: the course is open for preview for two days prior to the event. So at this year’s SSWC, there might actually be a bike race. The bar set by last year’s event is already surpassed. We saddle up and head out for a lap. It’s not long before I realize that
A. my 2:1 gear ratio is best suited to a man of my power and half my weight. and
B: there aren’t really trails here. Wait. What?
Despite the dank soil, ample elevation, and dozens of gondolas and chairlifts spinning for cyclists and hikers, there’s not much of a trail system. The course itself is a mix of flat walking trails in the base area, constant-grade access road, and freshly cut ski slope trails to connect paved roads and tidbits of underused-but pretty great-neighborhood singletrack.
At the top of the track we see a group of riders get off the gondola. A typical Japanese shred-train: flat pedals, jogging shoes, cameras, bag lunches, and a paid guide. Dorothy–we’re not in Whistler anymore.
The weirdness of the Japanese cycling community goes beyond Keirin. Hakuba was host to some big-time UCI MTB racing in the heyday of the 1990s. And lots of tennis–there are more tennis courts per capita in this valley than anyplace on Earth. But any remnant of those trails and any racing culture are gone. As are the tennis players. There are still dozens of courts–their nets replaced with moss and weeds. But the trails, if there were any, are mostly gone.
I spoke to a couple American frame builders at the event. Both said that Japan was one of their biggest markets for custom bikes. The difference, they say, is that the Japanese aren’t as concerned with pushing their limits on a bike. A bike ride is a social event and a bike is a conversation piece, not a tool for flattening both the trail and the learning curve. I rarely saw any modern Giants or other high tech bikes on my entire trip. And so few decent bikes beget few decent trails to enjoy them on.
So the course left us a bit flat, despite not being very flat. But the opening ceremony event was without question the best reception banquet the SSWC has ever offered. I joined other former winners and notable racers in donning a robe and smashing open a cask of sake to begin the ceremony. The race was sponsored by a sake company claiming the award of “best sake in Japan” and the tables were lined with SSWC15 emblazoned wooden sake boxes and held down by massive bottles of rice wine. As we tipped into the banquet of food and sake, a traditional drum troupe performed while the race’s tattoo artist stalked around barefoot, painting a massive canvas stretched across the floor in the middle of the gymnasium. I’m generally not a “traditional eastern art” type of guy, but the whole production was quite moving. And that wasn’t just the sake talking.
At the end of the ceremony, the Decider took place. Four different countries had signaled their intent to host the event next year, and I was backing the Bend, Oregon USA contingent. And backing it poorly! We were last place in the first two of three competitions–goofy tests that reminded me of something from Boy Scout camp. In the third decider of the night, a pedometer was strapped to a fat bike. The goal: balance on the stage and hop up and down on the bike. The rider with the most “bounces” in 60 seconds wins. Bend’s representative, John was clearly quite drunk. I had concerns. Then John began bouncing and it was apparent that this was his special gift. By the end he was hopping on just the rear tire across the stage. We decimated the field in the fat bike bounce. And then they told us we were out. Two teams would advance to the finals, and our points put us in third. The next day a game of bike soccer would determine the fate of SSWC16: it’s going to Australia.
On sunday morning, the race crowd at Iwatake resort was like most SSWC races. Which is to say–it wasn’t like most races. Complimentary aromas of chain lube, wet earth, and beer filled the air while nearly 400 riders, half Japanese, half not, sized up each-others costumes, quads, and gearing. Some of the Japanese riders’ costumes were incredible, some hilarious. This race alway plays host to a diverse cast of characters, ranging from surly fringe dwellers to lighthearted mainstream riders. I recognized many of them from years of occasional gearless racing. People I’d met at SSWC events ranging from California to Scotland over the last 13 years. What a great way to see the world and ride a bike and make some friends.
A light drizzle stopped just before our 10am start. The race directors explained the course in Japanglish over a shorting-out P.A. system. Our bikes lay in a field at the end of a 2-minute grassy cyclocross-ish track on a hillside. At the sound of a gun, everybody ran 90 degrees from where I thought we were going. What I thought was a front-row position turned out to be a side-row spot. As the group stretched out and I began weaving through the field, I could see Angus Edmond–the 2013 SSWC winner–running pretty damn quick at the front of the scrum. He’d get to his bike maybe a minute before me, but I was pretty confident I’d see him again. With a last minute gear change from 32/16 to 32/20, the Chevelle SS (my rigid, magic-chain equipped XTC Advanced SL) was working great, my legs weren’t half bad, and my Nascarl costume (Kinda a mashup of Joe Dirt and Daisy Duke) wasn’t chafing as much as I’d feared. As usual, a course I found uninspiring in practice was taking on new life at 10/10ths. I was having fun working through traffic.
At the top of the day’s biggest climb, I drew within 5 seconds of Angus, but couldn’t quite get there. I’d spend the next 30 minutes half a minute back and wondering if I’d have what it takes in the final lap. When we arrived at the start/finish area with a lap to go, I saw Angus had taken the shortcut. The optional shortcut was described as a “special challenge–not drinking beer” in the course description. I decide to follow suit and approached the special test area and its large group of onlookers.
A man hands me a pink, shriveled, pickled plum. I’ve had these Japanese plums before and they taste like shit. Into the mouth it goes, I swallow it down, and pull the pit from my mouth. “No no” the Japanese man says, “In the mouth”. My eyes get bigger. Swallow it? The pit is large and I’m summoning the nerve to swallow it. Or at least receive the Heimlich Maneuver in front of a crowd of people while trying. “Into bucket” the man says and gestures toward a blue plastic bin 10 feet away. I spit the pit. And as that pit sails through the air, at that very moment, I realize I’m screwed. There is a piece of tape 3 feet from the tub. I am 7 feet from the tape. Lost in translation, and too eager to rejoin the chase, I’ve acted in haste. The pit will go long. The audience will moan. The Japanese man will point at the hill. I must take the long way around. I give an awkward salute and remount my bike, headed for another lap of the Start-loop CX track that most will bypass.
In the end, I finished 2nd. Possibly the same position I’d have come had I passed that special test. Regardless of the particular… pitfalls of the course I may never have caught him. Angus went on to win a another well deserved tattoo.
The next morning, I began the long trip home, boarding a train bound for Tokyo alone. My only other Japan trip was in 2008, when I came to watch the World Rally Championships. That trip involved long days spent on bullet trains, stressful drives in Sapporo in a rented car, and an 8-hour stint of citizen’s arrest ending with five Japanese men screaming at me in the woods in the dark. When people later asked me how Japan was, I’d usually start with a one-word reply: Hard. I wasn’t in any hurry to return. Being functionally illiterate is difficult.
A couple of days spent in Tokyo before my return flight to Oregon helped put into perspective how special this trip to the Japanese Alps really was. To call this trip the pits might be disingenuous–but a lot of cutesy double entendres are. Had I swallowed and choked on that plum pit, I might have died. And without question, the last thing I’d have imagined would have been Tom Cruise’s naked silhouette, sheer curtains blowing in a summer breeze, and that damn song, Take My Breath Away. And that would have been the pits.
Thanks for coming along
Excellent work, Mr. Decker! On all accounts. Bummed that we didn’t join you on this one.