Most CBR races that I do start the same way. About twenty guys push and shove and jostle and squeeze to make sure they’re in the very first row. After the race starts, I never see any of them again.
I always lollygag at the back before the race with Big Steve. He doesn’t care where he starts. He’s more concerned about where he finishes.
There is another guy who always starts at the back of the back of the back, and then two wheels behind that. He’s at every race, and he’s one very rotund fellow. You look at him and you think, “Dude, lay off the Oreo triple stuf. You are going to have a heart attack before we get to Turn One.”
Then you notice that even though his belly is testing the physical stretch limits of his jersey, so are his massive quads. Then, if you’re still paying attention and haven’t written him off because he’s obviously pushing sixty, you notice the bands on his shirt sleeve, the rainbow ones. And you’re like, “Whaaa? World champion of what? Carrot cake?”
The race starts and it always starts fast, and my goal is always the same, every single time: Follow that guy. There are a lot of good reasons to follow him, and not just because Gibby Hatton is one of the best track racers in the history of U.S. cycling. For me, following Gibby is a lesson in humiliation, and I’m never happier than when I’m under the lash.
“What could be easier than following an oxcart?” you wonder. Well, it’s harder than it looks. For one, even though he hardly ever pedals and it looks ridiculously easy, you quickly find out that he’s the most efficient rider in the peloton by a factor of ten. That would make sense, because at his professional zenith he was the No. 2 highest-earning keirin racer on the Japanese professional circuit.
For another, Gibby doesn’t use his brakes. Whereas I’m the kind of rider who replaces his pads in between events, Gibby has been using the same set since 1982. They still have the shrink-wrap on them. This means he slingshots through the turns. While the idiots are grabbing brakes and wobbling and dodging curbs and spraying up fountains of carbon brake pad powder, Gibby is coasting at 35. Out of the turn he pedals once or twice to hold his momentum, and in the process he’s passed forty people.
There’s another great reason to follow Gibby’s wheel. It will give you your adrenaline rush for the decade. Sure, he looks like a walrus on a bike. But a more delicate, graceful, perfectly coordinated rider I’ve never seen, or imagined seeing. He floats through gaps that shut with a clang once he’s through. He edges around kooks with the gentlest shift of weight on his saddle. He creates openings by lightly tapping on someone’s thigh … and it’s the tap of authority that doesn’t say, “May I come in here?” but that says, “I’m coming in now.”
The best reason of all to be on Gibby’s wheel is that if there’s no breakaway, he’s going to put you in the top five or higher if you can come around him (you can’t). At 58 years old, by the time everyone has wheezed and gasped and struggled to the final 200 meters, Gibby will finally activate the thighs, and the acceleration is vicious, fearsome, and effective.
I’ve never been able to follow his wheel for more than two laps. It’s like following a solo by Louis Armstrong, or matching the steps of Fred Astaire, and today was no different.
After the race started, some people went fast and some went slower, some people dreamed big dreams and some people dreamed small ones, some people got tired and some people quit. Leading into the final turn three riders decided to throw all of their bike parts and bodies high into the air and then splatter painfully on the ground. With 200 meters to go, the Walrus, ever perfectly positioned, mashed hard on the pedals. It was his first real effort in the whole 60-minute race.
Two riders were ahead of him, much younger and much faster. But not cagier, and not better at using all the right effort at just the right time. Gibby nipped them at the line.
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