In 2011, track cyclist Azizul Awang’s career almost ended when a 10-inch splinter pierced his leg during a race. Six years later, the Rapha Cycling Club member is an Olympic medallist, keirin world champion and Malaysian hero. The keirin, or ‘competition ring’ in Japanese, is a beautiful, bizarre spectacle. On the velodrome track, six cartoonishly muscled cyclists are ‘towed’ up to speed behind a motorbike. After five or six laps, the pacer peels off to let the sprinters open their own throttles in a double-lap dash to the line.
Television coverage doesn’t give a true sense of the masterful balance of speed and control that the riders achieve. To experience keirin fully, you must watch it live (it’s not unlike the circus act in which motorcyclists ride within a huge steel ball, missing each other by inches). With riders reaching speeds of up to 70kph, crashes are common. And so to one of the most famous wipe-outs in the keirin’s history, a spill that produced both a crazy denouement to the race in question and a freak injury. The venue was the Manchester velodrome, February 2011: the final round of the UCI Track World Cup.
“All I can remember is that I was trying to hold Sir Chris Hoy’s wheel as he went full gas,” says Azizul, back then a flamboyant 23-year-old known to wheelie across the finish line when he won. Azizul was leading the World Cup standings that year and needed just fourth place to seal overall victory.
“On the final corner, a Spanish rider crashed into me and I lost my vision. When I opened my eyes, I saw my coach at my side asking if I was okay to get up and finish the race.” The crash had been caused by Juan Peralta Gascon, who lost control and brought down the entire field behind him. It’s still shocking to watch on YouTube: Azizul tumbles into the hoardings below as New Zealand’s Edward Dawkins faceplants into the wooden track. The rest scatter like skittles.
In the aftermath, much like Chris Froome running up Mont Ventoux, the cyclists reveal a desperation for success that is hardwired into them. Azizul is helped on to his bike by his coach and gingerly crosses the line for third, winning the title. Gascon frantically clip-clops down the track – having forgotten his bike in the mêlée – and slips while brushing past Dawkins, whose skinsuit has ripped, and who in turn pushes his bike across the line before collapsing. In the commotion, as Hoy takes his victory laps in front of an adoring crowd, Azizul lies on the floor, screaming.
“As I pedalled across the line, I felt the worst pain I’ve ever had. I saw there was something through my leg but I thought maybe I was hallucinating, due to concussion from the crash.”
The Malaysian wasn’t imagining – a 10-inch wood splinter from the track had pierced his calf, protruding grotesquely on either side.
Read the full article in the issue 006 of Mondial magazine, now available online and at Rapha Clubhouses.