“Riderrrrs, roll off!”
The emcee's voice booms from the PA, prompting the colorfully garbed cyclists lined up around the track to push away from the railing and start pedaling. So begins another race at the San Diego Velodrome, where cyclists compete for fun, respect, socks and beer. Every Tuesday is race night, often drawing a crowd of local hipsters who cheer on-and sometimes heckle-the riders.
Located on city-donated property on the outskirts of Balboa Park, down the hill from the Morley Field disc golf course, the velodrome is a bicycle racetrack one-third of a kilometer long that is managed and maintained by the nonprofit San Diego Velodrome Association (SDVA).
For those of us who find professional sports overly commercialized and dull, the velodrome races are a breath of fresh air, offering a genuinely fun and interesting spectator experience. It would be easy to assume track racing might be dull-people on bicycles just riding around in circles? Yawn. But there's much more to track racing than that; there can actually be quite a lot of strategy involved.
For example, I watched the A-division riders (the fastest and most experienced) competing in a 12-lap snowball race. In a snowball race, the winner of each lap accumulates points equal to the lap number-the winner of Lap 1 takes one point, the winner of Lap 2 takes two points, and so on.
When Lap 5 came around, SDVA President Eric Hollenbeck took the lead, winning Laps 5, 6 and 7. He then fell behind in Laps 8 and 9, with Shaun Wallace, a fellow SDVA board member and a former world champion, bursting from the middle of the pack and dusting everyone to win the race by taking Laps 10, 11 and 12, drawing cheers from the crowd.
It's surprisingly engaging watching a race like that. Riders jockey back and forth for position, riding in tight pack formations that seem awfully close, considering speeds can get up to 40 mph. Watching people hover near the front-but not too near-waiting for their chance to take the lead, can be pretty thrilling stuff.
Of course, not all races are as exciting. Earlier that same evening, the B-division riders seemed to be napping through their 10-lap scratch race. In a scratch race, the winner is decided in the final lap, meaning that for the other nine laps the riders are strictly conserving their energy, trying to maintain a good position from which they can sprint to the lead at the end of the race.
To spice things up during races like this-or longer, 45-lap races-prizes for individual laps (called primes, pronounced “preems”) are announced by the emcee, SDVA board member Gary Westergen. Primes are frequently donated by businesses that want to advertise to cyclists, though sometimes audience members will donate them as well.
In this case, a beer prime of two warm bottles of Sam Adams was being offered.
“Offer them some coffee!” shouted a voice from the peanut gallery.
Though the warm beer failed to generate much enthusiasm, the final lap wound up being pretty sweet, with a tight race to the finish between the three lead riders.
Another of Westergren's duties is to dish out harassment and abuse to the regulars. A recent night saw him fixating on a rider's pink, knee-high argyle socks, referring to them as the “socks that defy gravity and all fashion sense.” Other targets of Westergren's harassment include lackadaisical performance and “bagging it”-the act of giving up early on in a race by riding off the track.
Westergren's good-natured ribbing notwithstanding, the track-racing scene is highly democratized. The sport is open to pretty much anyone who wants to compete, with unisex divisions that pit woman against man on equal footing.
The only requirements for participation are having a brakeless, fixed-gear track bike, a helmet, and knowledge of the rules of track riding. To help with the latter, the SDVA offers classes that are open to the public, at all skill levels. The $80 classes put pupils through drills that teach them how to ride safely in close quarters-they even provide the bikes.
On the other hand, if all that seems like too much effort, the velodrome is also open to the public on Saturday mornings. Because there are no races at that time, anyone is welcome to ride, provided they bring a helmet, a waiver (available from the velodrome website) and $2.
The velodrome is located at 2221 Morley Field Drive, off of Pershing Boulevard. (www.sdvelodrome.com)