Ah, bike racing in the winter. It was Saturday night, I was sick of grading final exams, and my editors invited me to come on down to Carson, California for the latest round of the World Cup for track cycling. How could I say no? The sprawling Home Depot complex that houses the velodrome in Carson is pretty impressive. There was not only the World Cup event at the velodrome, but also several NCAA soccer games under way on the surrounding fields by the time I managed to fight my way through traffic with my colleague, the recently repatriated Jaime Nichols. After dealing with some issues in the press credentials tent, we finally made our way into the clean, open, and well-lit velodrome building.
I've never seen a race like this live: I follow road racing religiously, by my knowledge of track cycling is not exactly broad. Fortunately, we ran into a couple of familiar faces who helped orient us to events.
Jamie Paolinetti, on hand to conduct an interview about his cycling documentary "PRO," was looking the role of a media pimp, working his leather jacket, fancy shoes, and perfectly sculpted crest of hair. He was good enough to explain to me some of the basics (the sprints races vs. the time trials, the points race, the structure and gearing of the bikes, etc.). He also pointed out some of the road racers with whom we'd be familiar, such as HealthNet's Greg Henderson and Ofoto's Colby Pearce. We then walked around looking at all of the shockingly young looking riders warming up in the bullpen area, some of them looking like they would surely get grounded by their parents for being out so late on a Saturday night.
After snapping some photos of the winners of some races we missed, we proceeded up to the regular seats to try to figure out what was what. Some men (and later, some women) were chasing each other around in a circle, on bikes and very fast. We got that part. But what was the unique nature of the various events? Well, once it came to the two-up sprints, we found ourselves in some familiar territory. After all, we'd seen such things countless times at the end of a two-man breakaway during a road race. The big differences were that the bikes were fixed gear, the road was in a circle, and the road also became damn near vertical in the corners.
Two French riders with Cofidis kits, Arnaud Tournant and Mikael Bourgain on were going after it for the Gold Medal in the men's sprint. The older of the two (Tournant), the announcer told us, was a former World Champion on the track, and now this 27 year-old veteran was going toe-to-toe with his young training partner who was a mere 24 year-old. Well, the old veteran got smoked twice in a row by the kid, because the kid had a mean burst that in the first heat allowed to keep the front the whole way; in the second heat, the kid blew by his friend on the outside right at the line.
The highlight of the night for us, however, was the edge of your seat thrills of the 30km, 120-lap points race. This was basically like a road race, with twenty guys on the track going for points every few laps (and a few other funky rules we learned along the way). It was quite the exciting spectacle.
After winning an early sprint, Australia's Darren Young took a quick lead. However, things really began to heat up when a group of about seven men went charging on a hard attack in an attempt to lap the field. A victory in a points lap was worth five points, but if you were in a group that lapped the field, that was worth twenty to each man in the group. So the group of strong men who went on the attack included the men who would dominate the rest of the race: Russia's Mikhail Ignatiev (Olympic Gold Medalist in this event), New Zealand's Greg Henderson, USA's Colby Pearce, and Great Britain's Christopher Newton.
After this first lapping of the field, Newton held a slim lead with Pierce and Henderson not far behind. Olympic bronze-medalist in the pursuit, Spaniard Sergei Escobar, then went on a multi-lap attack solo to try to make up some points. He managed to take some sprint points, but was chased hard and couldn't lap the field alone. The chase once again split the field, and another group containing Henderson, Pearce, Ignatiev, Newton, and Escobar lapped the field again.
The field settled in for awhile, with Pearce sitting near the back trying to recover and rest up a bit while some of the other riders tried some half-hearted attacks. There was a group of about five men attacking for awhile, then they were caught and countered, all while Pearce bided his time. Then, just after another attack was pulled in and the riders were spread all up and down the wall of the velodrome, sitting up looking at each other, Pearce dove to the inside and drilled it. The other riders were gassed, all except for Olympic point-race champion Ignatiev. He dove after Pearce, and chased him hard for about two laps before closing him down. Then, together, Pearce and Ignatiev absolutely hammered to lap the field and turn it into a two-man race for the Gold. Pearce had a slight lead of a few points with a few sprint laps left.
The crowd was getting really jacked up with all of the action and the American in the lead. Pearce and Ignatiev began marking each other heavily, each diving back into the paceline in new positions to try to stay close to (but behind) the other guy after their turn on the front. Pearce took another point, but Ignatiev took two points to close the gap. Pearce looked ready on the penultimate sprint lap, putting himself in good position, but he faded right at the line: Ignatiev had tied it up with only one more sprint left. The crowd was going bonkers by this point. It was all going to come down to the final sprint. In the event of a tie score (the announcer told us), the tie-breaker was the position in the final sprint. So really, even though the rest of the field was still going for that final sprint, it was just Pearce and Ignatiev for the Gold: whoever came across the line in front of the other one would win.
Pearce was riding his butt off, and in the final few laps he had himself perfectly positioned near the front. In fact, heading into the last lap, he appeared to have caught Ignatiev out: while Pierce was about third wheel, the Russian was six or seven men back. But apparently, there's a reason why Ignatiev is the Olympic champion: he weaved his way through the field, found Pearce's wheel into the final corner, and despite a strong sprint from the American, he was able to come around him on the right to take the Gold by a mere six inches. The crowd was jumping and screaming, and let out a moan of disappointment at Pearce's defeat, but immediately began to clap and cheer for the amazing performance put in by Ignatiev and all the riders. Ignatiev took the Gold, the amazing Pearce took a hard-fought silver, and Christopher Newton of the U.K. took the bronze.
What a nail-biter! All in all, an excellent night of bike racing.