No Turtles on Board

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This week marks the return of the magnificent, six-day bicycle racing tradition here in Michigan — after a twenty-year absence — at a Detroit area velodrome.

A velodrome is an oval-shaped stadium with two straight sections linked by curved ends. The two straights and four turns spawn a constant battle between bikes and the force of gravity at high speeds. The tracks are banked, and sometimes, they can be banked so steeply that it appears to the average person to be impossible to ride. But centrifugal force works its little magic, and hence, the bicycle rider’s speed works to keep him firmly upright and bound to the soil.

The track bike is not a run of the mill piece of equipment. It’s a fixed-gear contraption; it has no shifting or braking systems that occupy the ordinary bicycle. The bike is a direct-drive arrangement, with only a single front gear and a single rear cog, so this means that there’s no coasting. If the bike moves, your legs keep on moving in that fixed-gear setup.

And brakes? Brakes are for wimps! A rider relaxes his feet on the pedals, and makes his feet heavy to bring the beast to a stop. And if you really need to stop your track steed in a hurry, you can backpedal with the application of some force or lay your gloved finger on the front tire to help slow things down. These bikes, and the track themselves, are made for hares, not turtles. Speeds of 40mph and up are the norm. The corners provide two-and-a-half G’s worth of fun and excitement.

Track racing, as old-fashioned as it is, has never really lost its luster in spite of losing its popularity in America. As Dale Hughes says, track cycling “was your great-grandpa’s extreme sport.” Indeed it was. There are new velodromes being built in the US, along with various restoration efforts to rebuild some of the older ones. Europe is proud of its track tradition too. London, which once had five cycling tracks, is now trying to rebuild its one remaining facility. The Herne Hill velodrome in London is currently one of the most nostalgic velodromes in need of a facelift.

The 1880s and 1890s were the glory days for this sport, with its popularity fading by about 1910 here in the United States. What most people don’t know is that track racing was once as popular as horse racing, boxing, and baseball. The track was the place to be seen for the upper classes, including fashionably-dressed women and their ultra-rich men folk. It was the working class men who toiled down on the track, working hard to make a dangerous and exhausting living. However, for these men, it was a welcome escape from the drudgery of farm or factory life.

The six-day racing concept is an old one; the men competing in these races made endurance their number one goal as cyclists would log 2,000 in six days of racing, until their riding periods were eventually limited to twelve hours at a time in an early effort to moderate the insatiable appetite for human endurance and performance goals. Now, the six-day approach is built more around the notion of speed as versus endurance.

I remember when I was first thrust into the Detroit velodrome scene in the mid-late 80s, when I was just a kid. I had the good fortune of having legendary cycling coach Mike Walden (1917-1996) bring me into his fold. He was one of the world’s most renowned tutors in the sport of cycling. Mike taught many Olympic riders and produced myriad world champions via the Detroit Wolverine Sports Club (WSC). According to the WSC website, "up to 1991, the WSC was home to 27.88% of all amateur medal winners in the U S. The program has also produced more than 100 National Champions, 300 National medalists, and several Olympic and Pan Am athletes."

What I remember most is Mike Walden putting me on a Bianchi fixed gear bike for the first time, and I recall looking down at the steeply-banked turns and thinking: what the heck did I just agree to do? I was a mountain bike and road racer, but this was a whole different animal. Mike put me on the bike and told me to just glide easily u2018round the top of the rim, until I got the feel for the bike. So I did, with everyone else zipping around below me, like I was standing still.

Mike’s call to all track riders to warn of a first time track rider was "Turtle on top, turtle on top!" I’ll never forget his constant reminders to the others that there was a "turtle on top," and each time I turned another lap, he would yell that out for everyone to hear. I felt so embarrassed to be that turtle. But we all have to start somewhere. So, in no time at all, I nose-dived down onto the lower track, took to the banked turns like it was old hat, and mentally transferred my turtle status to the next newbie that came along.

On the whole, my years of track experience proved to be my most valuable. It may not have been a defining fashion of the 80s, or even now, but then again, I never cared about fashions or trends. I liked speed and danger. And track racing fulfills the need for both. Those that race the old track sport are certainly no turtles; they are hares of the highest order that are bringing a legendary American sport back into the mainstream, or at least they are getting more conventional sports fans to notice them.

Cycling, traditionally a European phenomenon, is the world’s greatest sport, and it has been popularized here in the US by a fella that goes by the name of Lance Armstrong. Whether it’s Lance and road-racing, or those anonymous guys at the track, the sport of human horsepower on the road is destined for a larger role in American history as we will, hopefully, continue to revive a great pastime and produce the best riders in the world.

Karen De Coster, CPA, [send her mail] is a paleolibertarian freelance writer, graduate student in Austrian Economics, and a business professional from Michigan. Her first book is currently in the works. See her Mises Institute archive for more online articles, and check out her website, along with her blog.

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