New to the velodrome, are you? Well, this is an excellent evening to visit. You will know you are at the Olympics tonight, my friend. Rivalry, redemption and heartache will mingle with speed, power and daring as the cyclists race around this banked track. Isn't that what draws us to these Games—the mixture of raw human emotion with refined athletic skill?
First, a word of advice. Do not attempt to solve the mysteries of track cycling tactics, not on your first night. You'll see the bizarre pas de deux of the match sprint races, with the two competitors measuring each other, calculating angles of pursuit, slowing their bikes to a crawl as they move around the track. The leader takes furtive glances back at his opponent, each rider trying to position himself for the final, breakneck dash to the finish. Gradually the cyclists pick up speed until one of them makes his move and, at last, the real race is on. They will often exchange an elbow or two as they hurtle down the final straightaway, and as they pump toward the finish line, you'll wonder how it happened that chess suddenly mutated into roller derby.
However, don't think about that right now. Come down instead to the area inside the track here at Dune Gray Velodrome, where it will feel as if you are at the bottom of an outsized mixing bowl, as the racers whoosh by at upwards of 30 mph. Listen to the collective gasp of the spectators as the riders pedal out toward the high side of the track, then make great, swooping rushes down to the bottom. You'll know then what German cyclist Jens Fiedler means when he talks to you about his sport: "You watch cycling the first time, you feel it, you don't think it."
Fiedler is part of this night's most celebrated duel, the match sprint semifinal against America's Marty Nothstein, best two out of three races. They are old and well-decorated adversaries, these two, Nothstein with three world championships and Fiedler with two Olympic golds. It has been four years since Fiedler edged Nothstein for the gold at the Atlanta Games, winning the first race in a photo finish, and Nothstein has openly admitted being haunted by the memory. "Every sit-up I did, every pound I lifted since then has been with the goal of making up for that race," he would say later.
But Nothstein did not count on having to carry a heavy heart around the track with him. Three days earlier, back in the U.S., longtime friend and fellow cyclist Nicole Reinhart, 24, was killed after she crashed into a tree during a Sunday road race in Arlington, Mass. Nothstein and Reinhart, a two-time national champ who had not qualified for Sydney, had both cut their cycling teeth at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, Pa.; Nothstein lived in T-Town, as it's known in cycling circles, and Reinhart in nearby Mertztown. The news of her death was kept from him until after his preliminary races the next day, though he would later say that he heard the news before he left his apartment that day. Now, though, as he takes the track, he is not only obsessed with a rival, but also grieving for a friend.
Nothing, however, will deter Nothstein on this night. He overtakes Fiedler in the first race, and when he wins by the same almost imperceptible margin by which he had lost to the German four years ago, the ghosts seem to leave him. Unencumbered, he wins the second semifinal race more decisively. From there, winning the gold medal final seems almost a formality. Nothstein blitzes past five-time world champ Florian Rousseau in two convincing races.
As Nothstein takes his victory laps around the track, first clutching an American flag, then holding his five-year-old son, Tyler, you are perhaps questioning the spontaneity of the moment—but you are dabbing at the corners of your eyes just the same. Maybe you don't entirely comprehend all that you've seen on this odd track. Maybe you'll be wanting to return to this velodrome to grasp more of cycling's finer points. But for the moment you can fully understand a man and his son, out for a bike ride.