The "Generation 6" cars that race on the high-banked ovals of NASCAR's short tracks have brakes. The bicycles that race on the high-banked track of the San Diego Velodrome do not. NASCAR vehicles have a complex transmission. Track bikes have a single fixed gear. And while track bikes will never put out the 450 to 850 horsepower of a Gen 6 car at Bristol Motor Speedway, with current and former world champions racing at the San Diego Velodrome the differences can seem to fade: A lot of "engine" power in close quarters makes for exciting racing.
The crowd at Tuesday Night Racing is one part Gathering of the Tribe of the Fixie Hipster Nation, one part Friends & Family, with a lot of cycling enthusiasts thrown in for good measure. Gary Westergren, the track's PA announcer (himself a former Velodrome racer), said, "the Downtown bike messengers get off work on a Tuesday night, and where else are they going to go?" At another level, Westergren said, the top racers on a Tuesday night are a sort of Platonic ideal of the bike messengers' self-image.
From a purely spectator-sport standpoint, the quality of the racing itself justifies a trip to the Velodrome. "A" races regularly feature multiple riders with jerseys fringed in the rainbow stripes reserved for former world champions. From time to time, the races feature current professionals and reigning Olympic medalists. Indeed, one current professional is suing the city and the San Diego Velodrome Associates because he was injured in a crash during a race on the track.
The races change weekly. Frequently offered races include the Scratch Race (first across the finish line wins), the Points Race (points awarded on particular sprint laps with the most points at the end winning) and the Miss and Out, aka the Devil Takes the Hindmost (whoever crosses the finish last each lap is eliminated, culminating in a three-racer two lap sprint).
The loose feel of the place belies the highly competitive nature of the racing.
"The atmosphere is casual," Westergren told me, as he put a Maroon 5 song on the track's sound system. "This one's for Chris Michaels," he said to the crowd. Michaels, a regular Velodrome racer, and his handlebar moustache gave Westergren a scowl.
"This playlist sucks!" one fixie hipster yelled from the crowd. "Who's is it anyway?"
"Mine," Westergren replied with a mischievous grin. "I guarantee you I've got at least one song on here that each one of you will hate."
And as a CityBeat food writer—and a former racer myself—the idea of picnicking at the Velodrome was a no-brainer. I had seen some pretty good picnics up in the stands and been told that the tamales offered at the track were quite good. But I had something else in mind: pork and chicken liver pâté bánh mì, a classic Vietnamese sandwich that shows the impact of Vietnam's French Colonial history. A trip to K Sandwiches on Linda Vista Road scored some Vietnamese-style French bread and some spring rolls. A bit of play in the kitchen and what emerged was a testimonial to how deceptively easy pâté really is. An excellent beverage chosen to match the pâté and some very good racing in front of us completed the picnic.Turning back to me, he said, "Where else can you bring your own food, bring your own beverage, watch a sports event and do it all for free? No wonder the hipsters love us."
The best of the night's racing was the Madison event: the undisputed king of track bicycle racing. If track racing is NASCAR on bikes, the Madison is tag-team wrestling on an oval track. It is, at the most basic level, a team Points Race in which teams of two riders compete for as many as 200 laps. One rider from each team is "active," racing toward the bottom ring of the track with the "reserve" rider circling higher. The tag occurs when the active rider literally and physically throws his teammate into action with a "slingshot" motion. A team wins by either gaining laps on the field or by accumulating the most points in the sprints occurring every five laps. It's dramatic. It's epic. There's copious opportunity for mayhem, and the resulting nonstop action is an improvised two-wheeled competitive dance of brilliance.
On this night, the teams were doing more than 60 laps of the one-third-kilometer Velodrome track. It came down to a sprint finish with six-time world champion Shaun Wallace closing down a two-bike-length deficit around the final turn, only to lose the final sprint by inches.
That's a finish that would have made NASCAR proud—and it's what keeps bringing spectators to the Velodrome on summer Tuesday nights.