Cycling Stories

Mr. K

March 27, 2020


Mr. K

“You need to keep your elbows in; they stick out too far, especially your right one. That alone could cost you a tenth of a second per lap.”

His bristled hair shot straight up; if he had ever ridden a bike, those thick spokes of hair would never bend back from the rush of oncoming air, no matter how fast he went. I turned back to look at the track. From where I sat, the sun lit one end of the circuit to a bleached shimmer, making the curved bank seem like an enormous, stationary wave of white sand, not yet ready to crest, but more than halfway there. 

Credit: Unsplash

I hadn’t asked for this guy’s opinion; I hadn’t even seen him arrive. He was surely in his sixties by my reckoning, possibly his seventies, if nature had favored him. His bristled hair, almost transparent, sat on a tough corded neck above a pan face that had seen the sun of many summers burn its likeness into his features: cracks and ravines, skin mottled with whorls of moles, desiccation and die-back; dark, small eyes deeply entrenched in dry wells. His stocky body, something previously conditioned to perform a manual task of some sort, continued to persist, despite it being no longer required.

“Why did you get a Campagnolo? The NJS will go over that foreign bike of yours with a fine-toothed comb, believe me.” He looked at the track, rubbed a fist in his left eye socket, and then looked over at me.

“I like the Campagnolo brand. It’s got such a great history.” I felt a little stupid defending something that I’d never considered. It wasn’t my bike, anyway. I was still saving to buy something decent, with about 75000 Yen in the bank, and another 175000 needed before I could get close to buying some proper gear. But, his point about buying a local bike was something that I’d narrow-mindedly overlooked.

The old man looked down at my bike again, his lower lip jutting out a little as if he was concentrating on composing a parts list that he’d need to take home for later contemplation.

“I saw you do a few laps. Your technique is OK. Keep the elbows in, most important. Oh, and I think that you need to adjust the seat height down, just a little. Your thighs aren’t quite parallel to the track when the pedals are at the top of their stroke.”

He turned to walk away. “Make those changes, and you should see some improvement, as long as you commit to serious practice sessions.”

Thinking that it was prudent to be polite when I didn’t know where this person ranked in society, I did my best. “Thank you very much for your advice.”

Turning toward him as he approached the carpark, I noticed that he’d arrived in an old Nissan Cedric – something that looked great, did nothing special, and cost a fortune in road tax; a pet to be spoiled. Who was this guy, anyway? Having to raise my voice a little, I inquired, “May I ask your name, sir?”

“Nakano, Mr. K,” he fired over his right shoulder. A moment later, the Cedric wafted past, with Nakano, Mr. K’s walnut head poking over the parapet of the hardtop’s open window.

I checked the seat height at the track but realized I’d need to sit on the bike in front of a mirror to get an idea of the angles. Only then could I make the adjustment, or ask somebody to help. The only person I could think of was Kanto-San. He’d mock me for sure, saying that I was getting grand notions just because I liked the look of myself sitting on a Campagnolo that I didn’t even own.

My normal day job was … non-existent. I left Kyushu University about eight months ago with a degree in engineering, but all of the job prospects in my prefecture failed to excite me.

A fellow grad took a position with the local prefecture authorities, designing playground equipment for kids. Toyohito related a story to me where, in his third month as a playground equipment designer, he’d given a presentation to the senior members of his design team for a new cubby house with a slide.

“The worst experience of my adult life,” were the exact words he used to describe the ordeal, as the meeting devolved into being lambasted for his color choices, and for not considering progressive dynamics in childhood learning. To top it off, his pay was crap, and he was working more than 50 hours a week.

I decided not exactly to slack off, but take it easy and see what might unfurl before me. After six weeks of this, my parents started showing concern, not really understanding that the days of the career salary person were long gone.

Walking back from the train station one day, I crossed the main arterial road to avoid an exuberant worker-minion steam cleaning the sidewalk when I saw a sign in the window of a bike shop: “Seeking part-time Keirin bicycle mechanic. Poor pay. Must be prepared to embrace meaningful poverty.”

It made me stop and grin, then laugh out loud. The shop owner heard me, glanced up and walked to the door, pulled it partly open, and said, “Come in, come in, before you scare any of my potential customers away.”

Well, Kanto-San was right; the money was woeful. The benefits, though, were excellent. It’s one thing to immerse myself in engineering theory at a university. Still, another entirely to understand that there is a difference between a top-quality bike, which looks technically competent on paper, versus something carefully crafted to make the very best of a particular rider’s strengths and potential. One that requires understanding the nuances of how human bodies and mechanical devices interact, and how they can complement each other.

Over six months, Kanto-San, despite his pedestrian appearance and natural reserve, or perhaps because of it, demonstrated to me his prowess in these very skills.

Two days after returning to the shop and making sure I’d correctly adjusted the Campagnolo’s seat height, Kanto-San and I had a leisurely lunch next door, eating western food for a change.

“These fries are good,” I ventured.

“Just think of them as sculpted potato tempura,” Kanto-San offered while watching the passing traffic.

“So, you like to re-frame western cooking concepts and products in the context of traditional Japanese food?” My raised eyebrow hinted that he need not take my question too literally.

“Is that a Crown? I haven’t seen a car that old in ages.” His eyes followed a lumbering eighties sedan heading east.

“A Cedric, I think. Saw one similar to it a few days back, at the track, but it was maybe ten years older. So, how would you describe chicken nuggets as traditional Japanese food then, Kanto-San?”

I’d always wondered how anything coming from an animal could possibly sound appetizing to westerners when part of its description, as far as I knew, most closely matched rock, boulder, or stone. Perhaps this one required special thinking.

“Who was at the track in a Cedric?’ Kanto-San, ignoring my last question, for now, turned his head back toward me.

“An old guy. Told me about the seat height, said to keep my elbows in. He mentioned that the NJS wouldn’t like the Campagnolo.”

“Huh.” His interest mildly piqued, Kanto-San studied me carefully. “What did he look like?”

“Stocky guy, big calves, bristle hair, sun damage to his face. Said his name was Nakano, Mr. K. Weird way to introduce hims …”

“Whoa! Koichi Nakano was there? And you … met him?” I noticed how Kanto-San blinked faster when he was animated.

“Is he, does he have some special skills or significance? What have I missed?”

Kanto-San smirked, “You’ve just met the only person in history to win consecutive world championships in sprint cycling.”




“1977, 1978, 1979.”

“Three is pretty impress … “

“1980, 1981, 1982, 1983,” Kanto-San continued.

“He did seven? He won seven in a row?”

“Also 1984, 1985 and,” for some reason, Kanto-San spelled out the last year, “one thousand nine hundred and eighty-six.”

“Holy shi… Ten? Ten! How is that … even .. possible?”

Kanto-San’s blinking slowed a little. “And there is no way to sensibly describe chicken nuggets as food in any language.”

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