The other rider passed us at great speed. Getting passed by “hobby racers” while cyclotouring with my Japanese friends isn’t unusual, especially on valley-bottom roads that see many cyclists.
From behind, the rider looked odd. His position was very low. He was turning a large gear. All this sounds like a novice rider, but there was something about his cyclist that piqued my interest.
I decided to speed up to catch the rider and get another look. I told my friends that I’d ride ahead. By now, the rider was maybe 400 m (1/4 mile) ahead of me. It seemed like a good opportunity to stretch my legs and do a little speedwork. I accelerated, shifted a few cogs on the rear, and got into a good rhythm.
My first acceleration simply saw me maintain my distance, but not gain on the other rider. I had underestimated his speed. I dug deeper and made up some ground, but then the gradient of the road steepened a little. My speed dropped, while he continued with metronomic precision. I was back in a holding pattern, not gaining any ground, yet riding at a speed that was a little too fast to be sustainable after the previous effort. I remembered my racing days, caught in “no-man’s land” after being delayed by a crash or being blocked by dropped riders. In this unsustainable situation, you have two choices: abandon the chase or muster all your reserves and close the gap in a sprint. I chose the latter…
That is how I caught him. Out of breath, I looked at the rider. His position was incredibly low – his hands were lower than his knees, and his back was truly flat. Just look at his shadow on the road!
I drew alongside, greeted him and asked: “Suminasen, shashin totte mo iidesuka.” (“Excuse me, is it OK to take a photo?”) He looked up, and I was surprised to see a wrinkled face that seemed at odds with his speed. This was no novice “hobby racer”!
He seemed startled, too. Was he not used to having another rider come up from behind? Or was my broken Japanese the source of wonder? He nodded his permission and put his head down again. Clearly, he had better things to do than talk to strangers on randonneur bikes!
I looked over his bike. It was a track bike with beautiful Dura-Ace track cranks and, of course, a fixed gear. Contrasting with the superb frame and drivetrain, the brakes were almost an afterthought. The right brake lever was higher than the left, and both were hard to reach. I suspected they were only for emergencies, or perhaps to satisfy traffic rules. A spare tubular tire was strapped under the saddle, and a pump attached a bit haphazardly to the top tube. It was obviously a track bike to which the parts that made it street-legal had been added only reluctantly.
The rider’s tights were inscribed “All-Star Keirin”, and the legs they hid were large and muscular. His feet turned classic pedals with toeclips and -straps. The Arai hardshell helmet confirmed: I was riding next to a true Keirin racer. That explained the ultra-low position and the slow, but smooth and powerful, pedal stroke. I had seen this on the track, where Keirin racers pedal at (for them) moderate speeds, waiting until one of them unleashes the sprint. Then they rise out of the saddle, throw their bikes from side to side as they jockey for position under full acceleration. They dash toward the finish line at a speed and cadence that is fast and furious, whereas before it was slow and deliberate.
I wanted to ask the Keirin racer how far he was riding. Was he still racing, or, more likely, had he retired from the track? I know a few retired Keirin racers, but I’ve never had the opportunity to ride with them on the road. But I felt that I had intruded enough. In any case, my Japanese probably wasn’t up to understanding his answers. So I let him go. I turned around to ride back to my friends. I had ridden next to him for less than a minute, and yet the image of this unexpected figure, turning his pedals with deceptive ease in a huge gear, remains etched in my mind. I hope to meet him again some day.