This is a tough business, this competitive cycling. There’s a reason Grand Tour specialists who make their living in days or weeks-long endurance events have turned to PEDs so extensively that they’ve caused the sport incalculable damage in the public eye – the human body simply isn’t designed to do what Tour de France or Giro d’Italia riders make it do. Stage-race cycling as the Tour, Giro and Vuelta a Espana stage it is arguably the stiffest test in sport.
Of course, those big races being what they are there are very few riders who even try to win them – most are there for other reasons. Maybe they’re climbing specialists after the King of the Mountains title, or sprinters looking to win flat stages and rack up points in their own race-within-a-race. Most are there mostly as “domestiques” – riders whose job is to support the team and it’s candidates or candidates for the all-around title. Those are the smallest in number by far – the guys who can climb, time trial and try to win the overall championship.
Each of the third-years at Sohoku have their own specialties, though the anime hasn’t much delved into that yet – the focus is on the newbies, and it’s interesting watching them settle into their defined roles. Imaizumi’s goal is clear – he wants to be the textbook all-rounder, the guy who goes for the podium on the final day. Naruko is a classic sprinter who sees himself as something more, and works tirelessly to overcome the bane of nearly every sprint specialist – hills. Onoda of course is too new to the sport to have a true speciality yet, but it’s been clear from the beginning that he’s at his best staring up at a cruel slope in front of him.
What would have happened if Onoda had started out the race with a road bike, and been level with the others at the start of the climb? We’ll never know, but it was pretty clear that he was going to catch up sooner or later (we likewise may never know if Mr. Pierre and/or Kinjou conspired to give him a little help). It may seem like a stretch, but when you consider what he was able to accomplish riding a mamchari it’s not unrealistic that Onoda-kun could be doing what he’s doing – if he were possessed of great natural talent for cycling. And clearly he is, or we wouldn’t have a story. Yeah, most guys wouldn’t be able to do what Onoda’s doing, but most guys wouldn’t be able to do what any exceptional athlete does, and exceptional athletes do exist. And they sometimes make subjects for exceptional storytelling.
There are two dramas going on simultaneously on the mountain, the one on the bikes and the one in the van. The moment when Onoda finally catches the others is pretty remarkable – it’s clear that everybody is pleased to see him do so, including the two guys he’s just reeled in. The van is completely on-board his bandwagon, though Makishima continues to play the role of skeptic. Onoda is of course the happiest of all, and the fact that he can so openly express his joy even after such a tortuous chase is – as Mr. Pierre points out – the source of his charm. As I said last week I think it’s pretty close to impossible to not root for this kid, because any athlete that so obviously has fun at their sport is hard to resist.
On the bikes, there’s not much of a breather – once Onoda has caught the others they test him right away, starting with Naruko and his “power climb” technique. It’s a sort of sprinter’s climb, and a clever trick – but it’s an obvious attempt to overcome a shortcoming, and a work in progress. Big climbs reveal all weaknesses pretty quickly, and the others reel him in before long. That’s when things get really interesting. Imaizumi puts in an acceleration of his own on the steepest part of the ascent (always the best place to attack if you have the legs that day) and when Naruko falls back, a worried Onoda stays behind too. This is my favorite part of the episode, and I absolutely love what Naruko does here. What Onoda’s doing isn’t something you do unless it’s for a teammate, and there are no teams in this race. Naruko knows he’s beat, and he knows Onoda is already a stronger climber than he is – so he throws all his spirit behind Onoda and urges him to forge ahead and claim the peak for himself. It’s great stuff, classic sports shounen GAR, and Naruko even tells Onoda a mysterious trick to help him claim the King of the Mountains jersey for himself.
As for Imaizumi, unlike Naruko he’s capable of sustaining a breakaway on a climb, but he’s pulling for Onoda to catch up once again. Onoda is obviously bringing out the fighting spirit that Imaizumi has somewhat traded in for his current cerebral approach, and even though he knows the peak isn’t the point – the finish line is – he can’t bring himself to follow his plan if it means losing the climb. Onoda’s full-throated embrace of the moment isn’t just pushing himself beyond his limits, it’s pushing the others too – and the more experienced observers in the chase van (Pierre and Tooji) recognize that they have a budding genius on their hands. There’s still no evidence that Onoda is using his gears extensively – he’s doing everything with cadence, riding as if he were still on a mommy bike – but one that weighs less than half what he’s used to and translates all his effort into pure speed.
As for the omake this week, it’s an okonomiyomake – okonomiyaki of course being one of the many specialties of Osaka. I’m not sure Naruko would ever be able to show his face there again if they found out his flipping technique was so wanting, especially in front of Kanto-jin…