As I thumbed through the fascinating updates of my friends (“Stubbed a toe,” “Love my wife,” “Great dinner with friends,” “Parole board review in April,”) I saw that picture again, the picture of a friend on the top step of a bike race podium with his arms raised.
Image by Kare Dehlie Thorstad
Below him, on the second step, was another fellow, also with his arms raised. Below him, on the the third step, with his face obscured by the elbows of his betters, yet another podium-stander had his arms raised and his palms open and fingers outstretched, getting, I guess, a bit of revenge on the other two by having his hands in front of their faces. With a bit of effort he might have gotten a finger up the nostril of the champion.
But we weren’t done yet, because although there were no more steps left on the podium, the fourth and fifth-placed finishers had stood off to the side with their arms also raised, creating a human octopus of limbs, fingers, palms, and armpits that looked like the preamble to a tantric group sex act.
Now, I have never stood on a bike racing podium, so it might sound strange to criticize those who have. But I have been around for a long time, and although the armpit flash is now ubiquitous, it wasn’t always this way.
No, back in the day the podium was where the victor stood and received a honking ass trophy or a shiny medal or some flowers or a kiss. It was where his adoring fans got to admire his handsome face covered with grime and sweat and snot and sometimes blood, and where they could also read the tiny sponsor lettering for “West End Seal & Gasket.” It was never a spot where the top fifteen finishers did hand-dancing or limbered their fingers for Indian string art designs.
“Who,” I wondered, “thought up this stupid arm-raising shit?”
So I called my friend, Dr. Billiam Stein, an authority on ridiculous people with a sub-specialty in ridiculous cyclists, which, as he likes to say, “Is redundant.”
“WTF is with all this podium armpit flashing?” I asked.
“It started as a mistake, and like all truly bad mistakes, sculpture, and white rear panels on bike shorts, it became the norm.”
“But how did it happen?”
“The same way all ridiculous behavior happens. Someone did something stupid and everyone else imitated it. Like saggy jeans and clitoris-piercing.”
“Where did it start?”
“The downtown Spunkville 45+ masters crit, 1997. Pooter McGonigle had out-sprinted the other four entrants for the win. He threw his hands up at the line, lost what little control he had, and skidded to a stop forty yards later on his face.”
“Ouch. Was he related to Prez?”
“No, but he’s the same genius who liked to say ‘If you’re not crashing, you’re not racing.”
“Is he still racing?”
“His wife made him stop after the fifth closed-head injury. But he’s still crashing.”
“Then what happened?”
“They patched him up for the awards ceremony, and when he got up to the top step someone cracked ‘You can raise ‘em safely now, Pooter!’”
“And a stupid tradition was born?”
“Sort of. He raised his hands in victory, which was silly because when you’re on the top step you are by definition victorious, but he was still in cleats and lost his balance and fell off the podium backwards, cracking his skull yet again.”
“What an idiot,” I said.
“Cyclist,” Dr. Stein corrected me.
“So how did it become a tradition?”
“The other four numbnuts in the race, Dinkle O’Toole, Scrote Yancy, Pokey Joe Snodgrass, and Cletus Follicle, all raised their arms to further ridicule Pooter, who was now en route to the ICU with a subdural hematoma. The photo got picked up by VeloNews over the caption ‘Scrambled Eggs and Stinky Pits at the Spunkville Criterium.’ Of course, none of the other numbnuts who read VeloNews can actually read, so they saw the photo and just thought, ‘Rad!’”
“And now no one knows how to stand on a podium anymore?”
“Right. And the people like you, who do, aren’t likely to be on one anytime soon.”
As usual, he was right.