Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Melbourne Madison

The Madison is that track event that most people haven't heard of but recognise when they see it. It's the one where the two riders do that weird hand-sling thing that looks very dangerous. For most people, that's as far as their knowledge goes.

The New Zealand duo do the sling

Created in Madison Square Garden, New York at around the turn of the century (that is, between the 19th and 20th centuries), the sport came about due to the need to rest riders. In those days, when track cycling was a major sport in the United States, cyclists were riding themselves into states of exhaustion. Events lasted 6 days and the riders would hardly sleep "and strain their powers until their faces [became] hideous with the tortures", as the New York times put it.

As a way to protect these riders, a new law was implemented that said no rider could ride for more than 12 hours a day. A promoter, unwilling to close his stadium for half a day, invented the Madison. In this way, riders would race for hours while their partner slept and rested. This allowed the racing to continue nonstop while also increasing the speeds and distances, which in turn kept the turnstiles turning.

These days, the races are much shorter, usually about an hour, but the general principal remains the same. Instead of resting and sleeping, however, the non-racing partner simply rolls around the track. The racing partner will do one or two laps and then "sling" their partner in. The sling is the most recognisable part of the sport. It allows the two cyclists to literally swap their speeds, so that the rester becomes the racer and the racer the rester.

von Bon and Lampater celebrate their victory

The aim of the game is to ride the most laps. If you ride more laps than anyone else, you win. Simple. But, there are also sprint points on offer every twenty laps or so. If you're on the same number of laps as another team, it goes to points to decide the winner.

At first, watching one of these races can seem confusing and impossible to follow. But after some watching, you become "Madison-ised". You start to feel the race and understand all the movements.

The stronger teams will attempt to ride off the front of the main group. If they can get all the way around and latch onto the back of said group, they're "given" a lap by the judges.

So, a boring sounding race, "200 laps around a track", is in fact a vibrant, bustling beast that has its own personality and absorbs you completely. For me, it is the most exciting and interesting track event. It is simply mesmerising.

Last night's Melbourne Madison was no different. There were some big names there. Most notably the Dutchman, Léon van Bon, who has Tour and Vuelta stage victories to his name as well as various top tens in races such as Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours, Amstel-Gold and Milan-San Remo. I have to admit I'd never heard of him. Neither had the guys there with me. But someone looked him up on their phone and announced his credentials. With a palmarès like that, we all suddenly became van Bon's biggest fans. There is something awe-inspiring, at least for a cycling tragic, about cyclists who have done the pro thing and come out the other end with big wins. So we cheered for our new best friend "Léon" and revelled in him and his race winning ways. I even caught myself at one point watching his legs go round and round and thinking, "the things those legs have done..."

Now in the twilight of his career, van Bon still knows how to ride a bike. Last night he raced with the (comparatively) young German Leif Lampater (no slouch himself, with World Cup wins and a National Championship under his belt). The pair powered to victory, finishing a lap up on the New Zealand pairing of Archibold and Scully, who in turn finished at least one lap up on the rest of the field.


The racing was exciting, particularly the duel between the top two teams. The New Zealanders were always on the back foot but kept fighting to stay with the Dutch/German team. In the end, they didn't have it but they gave the crowd a good show.

Speaking of the crowd, there are some real characters in track cycling. Not that I spoke to any of them, but they sure looked like characters. These characters I speak of are old men. They didn't make up the majority of the crowd by any means, but they were well-represented and oozing style. They wore suits and old men hats and held stopwatches. They clung to the race program as if it were their bible, and jotted down the victors' names and times throughout the evening. I like to imagine that they had been born to the track, raced on the track, had their first kiss at the track, coached people at the track and now watch the track. Maybe afterwards they go out and drink ouzo, smoke Gauloises and talk about cadence and "the young ones to watch".


  1. Thanks for the re-cap, Larry. I definitely enjoyed watching Leon's legs spin along, making the rest of the field look like they were riding another race!

  2. Lovely report, great photos!