LONDON -- Who knew that an event with such a mystifying name, an event that appears to have been concocted by Dr. Seuss, could be so supremely thrilling? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the keirin.
It starts slow, but that's a good thing. The race consists of eight laps around the 250-meter banked oval of the gleaming new velodrome, also known as the Pringle. But for five-and-half of those, the riders must stay behind, wait for it ... a black-clad 60-something gentleman riding a glorified mini-bike known in track-riding parlance as a derny. Our derny operator on Friday night struck me as a strange cross between Inspector Clouseau and Miss Gulch from the Wizard of Oz.
Those opening laps are like the lit fuse at the beginning of the old Mission Impossible TV series. The mounting tension is sublime. Once the derny peels off: detonation, then anarchy.
With two laps to ride in the keirin final, wily Australian Anna Meares was on the front; Great Britain's Victoria Pendleton at this point was buried in a crowd behind her. Those two don't care for one another, incidentally -- the Aussie cut off her rival in a keirin race six years ago, according to Pendleton. And Meares has accused the Brit of being inclined to "push the rules."
In her qualifying heats Friday, Pendleton had been happy to initially lay in the weeds and unleash her sprint late in the final lap; she won both with ease. In the final, she wasn't inclined to be so patient. Four or so hundred meters from the finish, she threw down her trademark burst, an acceleration unmatched by any woman in the world.
"I didn't want to be stuck behind any of those girls," she said after the race. "It was definitely a day to take it on, if I saw an opportunity, and I did."
The 31-year-old quickly led the race, and the question became, had she jumped too soon? Could she hold off the field?
Her Christmas-ham quadriceps rippling, China's superb Guo Shuang cut inexorably into Pendleton's lead, but ran out of track in the end. Bedlam followed. As Pendleton circled the Pringle, a score of fans leaned over the railing, offering her their Union Jacks. Finally she took one. With each successive victory lap, the flag streaming behind her, more of the previous night's disappointment was expunged. (She and Jessica Varnish had been stripped of a sure medal on Thursday, when race officials determined that they'd executed an illegal changeover in the team sprint despite scant evidence. It was like an NBA ref calling every little nudge and graze in the paint in Game 7 of the finals. Hey guys, let 'em play!)
Earlier in the evening, Team GB's Philip Hinde had a little wobble out of the starting gate in the men's team sprint. Rather than risk a lousy start, he went down in a heap, later admitting he'd crashed on purpose. With the match-throwing, Say-It-Ain't-So badmintoneers on everyone's mind, people questioned the sportsmanship of Hinde's act. Would he and Team GB be disciplined? They would not. Self-crashing is apparently accepted practice in the velodrome, which, in addition to having its own climate -- between 27 and 28 degrees centigrade, not too humid, low pressure -- has its own set of jabberwocky rules.
And yet there is no denying the sport's appeal. Ask Kobe, or Tony Blair, who were among the rapt luminaries in the house tonight. A half-hour after Pendleton's gold medal ride, the British quartet of Ed Clancy, Geraint Thomas, Steven Burke and Peter Kennaugh averaged 62.160 kilometers per hour (38.62 mph) in their world record team pursuit victory over silver medalist Australia.
The Brits dominated despite competing without the most decorated track rider in the nation's history. Coming off his wins in the Tour de France and Olympic time trial, Bradley Wiggins cheered on his old mates from the stands. They won despite the fact that Thomas suffered food poisoning a week ago, and had lost a bit of form coming into the Games.
Halfway through the pursuit, they led by a half-second. "But they were on the limit, and we were just comfortable," recalled Kennaugh, who, like Britain's great sprinter, Mark Cavendish, hails from the Isle of Man. (Unlike Cav, Kennaugh now has an Olympic medal.) Lifting their effort with 2k to race, the Brits began reeling the Aussies in. "With three or four laps you could see them in the corner of your eye. I was grimacing and smiling at the same time."
After grimacing and smiling on Thursday night -- Pendleton's DQ followed by gold in the team sprint -- the news from the Pringle was all good for the host nation tonight, and looking to get better. Team GB has now won three of the four golds presented at this venue, and things are looking up for tomorrow. The host nation's women team pursuiters broke another (yawn) world record in qualifiers tonight, and will ride for a medal Saturday. (Keep an eye on the Sarah Hammer-led U.S. women, who qualified second-fastest!)
Pendleton will ride for gold in the sprint on Sunday. Sadly, we won't see the funny man on the derny until for another four days, when it's the men's turn to follow him. That's the thing about the Pringle. You come for the pursuit and the sprint and the omnium flying lap. But you stay for the keirin.