It’s an interesting dynamic we have as we enter the endgame of Yowapeda’s “Grande Road”. All of the opening gambits, counters, positional play and exchanges of pieces have come down to this – five riders and roughly 5km to go, all of it straight uphill. And it’s to Watnbe-sensei’s credit that it’s not easy to predict what’s going to happen, apart from the fact that those last 5k are likely to something of a free-for-all – a “melee” as Imaizumi calls it. Given the original meaning of that word – the end of a jousting tournament when the one-on-one battles are dispensed with, and every surviving Knight enters into a last man standing brawl – it seems a fitting turn of phrase.
Where do we really stand here – who’s strong, and who isn’t? Well, Imaizumi is the one who takes the mountain checkpoint – and by all accounts, Fukutomi seems tired and downbeat. But he’s obviously sandbagging, content to let the first-year lead the race and take the small-time honors. As for the chasers, Onoda is certainly the one showing the most strain on his face. But he keeps coming, time after time. “I can’t shake him!” Midousuji thinks in what sounds something like panic. Onoda is filling the role Kinjou has envisioned from the beginning – the wild card. No one know exactly what he’s capable of, certainly not excluding Onoda himself.
I continue to believe the larger theme here is Onoda coming to grips with his own talent – seeing that hunger awaken in him, as Manami says. That he’s so raw and lacking in technique just makes what he’s doing that much scarier, because he’s doing it entirely with natural talent and heart. Heart in both senses – he’s madly driven to help his team, and he’s clearly one of those freak endurance athletes whose cardiovascular system is built to power through obstacles that would stop weaker athletes dead in their tracks. If this is the Onoda now, what will he be like once the learns the proper way to competitively ride a bike – and why in the world should he sacrifice himself for anyone else, teammate or otherwise?
The race between Midousuji and Manami is a little silly, but it certainly leads to some interesting developments. Sakamichi-kun is following Chimera-kun so intently (“Stick to him!!”) that he misses a corner and rides off the road (a common error green riders make in mountain stages). But he barely saves it, and in very short order he catches up yet again. And when the trio catch up to Fukutomi, they affectively tie (again a bit of a narrative conceit to allow a more exciting finish to the real race). But as Manami notes, Onoda manages to tie the other two first-years without even realizing there was a race going on – he simply wanted to protect his ace. And Manami notes to himself with a wry grimace that if Onoda had known he was actually racing for something…
Everyone – bar himself – now knows Sakamichi is good enough. Fukutomi asks Manami flat-out what he thinks of #176, who he never expected to see again in this race. “He’s a threat.” Manami says quietly. But the first thing the tireless terrier does when he gets to Imaizumi is to apologize – for not stopping Midousuji (as if he could have). It falls to Imaizumi to spell it out for his teammate – instead of apologizing, he should be proudly asking for Imaizumi’s thanks. And he should be looking out for a chance to seize the race for himself, because there’s no reason for him to defer to Imaizumi or anyone else. A summit finish is a battle of individual strength and will, and Onoda is loaded with both.
It’s funny that even here, Onoda still tries to be deferential – giving credit to Imaizumi for his own achievements and deflecting any praise thrown his way. Hard-won lack of self-esteem is hard to shake off, but the only course for Onoda’s character arc that makes any sense is for him to try and seize the race himself. Imaizumi shows himself the mature one here – in contrast to, say, Diamond no Ace’s Furuya, he’s actually grown a great deal from his arrogant beginnings. And it’s in part due to Onoda’s persistent friendship that he’s opened himself both to companionship and teamwork. Finally, it seems, Onoda may have gotten the message: he’s good enough, he’s smart enough, and doggone it – people like him!
That leaves us with an interesting situation, where four of the five riders have a seemingly fated rival. Imaizumi and Midousuji, of course, have a long and ugly history and it’s already renewing itself. Might it be Imaizumi’s fate to stop Midousuji to complete his arc, rather than actually win the race – is that the demon he has to slay? If, say, he and Imaizumi were to cancel each other out and Onoda and Manami-kun were to have their destined duel to the line, where does that leave Fukutomi? Of the five riders here, he’s the odd-man out in every way. They’re all first-years, he’s a third-year. His fated rival and his closest friends have already fallen. So what role has he been cast in for this final act? Perhaps to be the calm, silent presence on the periphery as the hot-blooded youngsters have their seishun showdowns – and to slip, ghost-like, across the finish line first, in the process giving those fledglings a quest to be fulfilled next year and beyond?