' Cinema Romantico: The Explicable Beauty Of The Match Sprint

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Explicable Beauty Of The Match Sprint

So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to imagine an oval running track. You know, just like the 80,000 seater there in London. Got it? Good. Now I want you to imagine Jamaican sprinting meteorite Usain Bolt and, say, his contemporary, American sprinter Justin Gatlin standing at the starting line. (Jamaican Yohan Blake is faster than Gatlin but we’re making this Jamaica vs. U.S. to make it a bit more dramatic.) But they are NOT standing at the starting line for the traditional 100 meter dash – no, imagine them further up the track at the starting line for the 400 meters. And they are not in starting blocks, they are just standing there free and easy, side by side.

The gun sounds. Bolt starts running. Well, not running. He’s jogging. Not even jogging. More like, maybe, half-jogging, like he’s a guy who has finally chosen to resume working out after a seven year layoff. And he keeps peering over his shoulder because Gatlin is half-jogging right behind him. And this goes on for a full 100 meters. Bolt looking back at Gatlin, Gatlin looking back at Bolt, two of the fastest men in the world moving slower than latter day Shaquille O'Neal (zing!). And everyone’s thinking, “Why doesn’t Bolt just go for it?!” Or: “Why doesn’t Gatlin just go for it?!” Because, you see, neither of them want the other one drafting off of him, storing up every bit of precious energy and then rocketing to glory.

After about 100 meters or so Bolt decides to ease into a full jog and Gatlin follows suit. After about 150 meters Bolt decides to turn the dial up to a light run, bobbing and weaving in hopes that Gatlin cannot draft, while Gatlin bobs and weaves right back. After about 200 meters Bolt is now officially running and so too is Gatlin. After about 250 meters Bolt is on the doorstep of a sprint and Gatlin is going for the same gear. At the 300 meter mark, bang! Bolt is sprinting for realsies and so too is Gatlin but Bolt has completely commandeered the inside lane and so Gatlin breaks to the lane just outside Bolt and tries, tries to slingshot around him. Will he?! Won’t he?! WHO KNOWS?!


Now imagine that instead of happening on a track this is happening on an indoor velodrome comprised of two 180 degree circular bends and that instead of two men running it is two men or two women on significantly souped-up bicycles. That, in essence, is the Match Sprint in Olympic Cycling. It is not simply athletic, it is psychological. It combines the sheer power of track sprinting with the delicate strategy of long distance running……but with bike helmets! It is lycra-clad warfare! It is intense! It is MAGNIFICENT!

The Match Sprint is a best two outta three. It is a trio of laps. Two riders. A coin is flipped and one rider goes out first. He/She pedals cautiously, slower than the kids on your neighborhood block, watching the rider behind Him/Her. The rider moves up and down the banked velodrome, playing games, trying to prevent the other rider from drafting or trying to egg the other rider into taking the lead. In one match I saw a rider pedal to the very top of the incline and come to what essentially amounted as a standstill while the second rider came to a virtual standstill right behind her. Neither wanted to be first in the two person line. It was the ultimate staring contest. It made me desperate to see a Match Sprint that lasts for, like, three hours with the two riders just sitting there waiting to see which one goes. That, or they both fall down and then have to pick up their bikes which seems like it would be difficult when you consider the track is so steep the two riders have to be held up by someone at the starting line.

That’s the thing, for as basic and quick as the event is no one Match Sprint appears exactly the same. Not until the end, that is, when they rev up to speeds that would get you a super expensive ticket in a school zone, grit their teeth and fly for the finish. One race was decided by one one-thousandth of a second! I could sit in the velodrome and watch Match Sprints all day long. I want to go to Rio just to do this, and I’m only one-eighth kidding.

The difference between Gold & Silver
The Men’s Match Sprint came down to three time world champ Gregory Bauge of France and Britain’s own Jason Kenny. Kenny rode the crowd to a tense, terrific 2-0 win. What Bauge, who as it turns out was trying to win his country’s first Gold in the event in 40 years, said afterwards almost made me shed a manly tear. "It was the final I dreamt of, against an Englishman. I lost in two legs, but I did not make any mistake. I was in a good shape, I was not afraid and well-prepared. He was just better.”

Jason Kenny. He’s not The World’s Fastest Man but he is The World’s Fastest Man On Wheels. I think Harold Abrahams would still be proud.

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