What happened to Naruko this week was certainly predictable – I predicted it in the Episode 14 post. Still, it was an important moment for arguably the #2 character in the series, so it had to be handled the right way. It was obvious that the little red bean, as a sprinter, was the odd boy out among the remaining Sohoku and Hakone combatants, and thus would be the next competitor to fall on his sword for his team. But he had to be given an exit with a requisite amount of GAR, and one that fit his character. And he certainly was.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Naruko went out as he came in – an irreplaceable glory hog who talked of valuing style over substance, but was really all about helping his teammates however he could. As the most expendable member of Sohoku, his job was clear here – whatever he had left, he had to give it to try and tow his teammates back to HakoGaku at all costs. The wrinkle was the conversation he’d had with Tadokoro, where the elder sprinter had urged the younger to practice climbing because the team would likely need him. Tadokoro reasons that his mass would make it impossible for him to climb well enough to help the team (Jan Ulrich might take some issue with that assessment), but whatever he tells himself in the end, there’s no way Naruko isn’t going to do everything he can to help his buddies win.
We’ve seen some of this bag of tricks before – the “sprint climb” and all – but Naruko does add a few wrinkles to the arsenal. Most notable is the “Armstrong Climb”, which is effectively maintaining a high cadence while putting an abnormally large percentage of the body weight on the front of the bike. In the end all of this is made possible, really, by the fact that Naruko-kun knows he need save nothing in reserve – whatever he has he can spend, because once this spurt of energy is expended he’s done, period.
Naruko’s climbing is basically a series of gimmicks and trickery to coax as much climbing speed as possible out of his sprinter’s body for a short stretch, but his greatest contribution to Sohoku’s ultimate quest may be the way he fires up the crowd and inspires his mates. His high-fiving fans, mugging for the camera, thumb-up poses – all of it is pretty silly, but it’s no myth that athletes can take inspiration from the cheers and shouts of a supportive crowd. As Makishima has pointed out it’s the third-day that draws the big crowds for the inter-high, and Red Bean has just given them a reason to rally behind Sohoku.
When it goes for Naruko, it goes fast and hard (as you’d expect). The blindness is a bit over-the-top, but the point is made – this is his finish line, here and now. And it leaves us with the symmetry of two three-man squads left to fight it out, each with two climbers and an “ace” – except that on paper at least, Sohoku’s all-rounder isn’t the one who should be fighting it out at the finish line. Imaizumi seems likely to be the next Sohoku rider to sacrifice himself, and I’m starting to wonder if old rivals Toudou and Makishima aren’t going to do something to cancel each other out – which leaves the tantalizing possibility of grommets Onoda and Manami-kum left to fight it out for the prize. Though there’s still the theoretically superior Fukutomi to explain away – not to mention the inevitable charge by Midousuji.