Tough Spokes & Slow Bikes

8th September

Leading up to the latest televised broadcast, the Sky Sports Speedway publicity office had worked their usual communicational magic to minimise the armchair audience. The Speedway Star told us that we’d get to see the ‘relegation’ clash of the titans that is the Belle Vue versus Wolverhampton meeting from Kirkmanshulme Lane. In a season where the sport has been hit hard at the turnstiles and the weekly attendance of every single fan has assumed yet greater importance, no promoter is going to want to see the traditional many hundreds knocked off the normal weekly attendance figures by blokes in sharp suits based in London spreading (and then failing to correct) false rumours of the chosen televised fixture. While over at The Sun – a Murdoch sister company, let’s not forget – the Sky speedway publicity communications team have again failed to get through once again. Though, to be fair, another possibility is that the Sun sports and television desks have become so inured to matters of the shale that they can’t even be bothered to identify the teams on show any longer. Indeed, in the paper they claim the show will feature “another top meeting from the Elite League”. Even more upsettingly for those armchair fans who’ve set the video to record the speedway, there has been a last minute switch from Sky Sports 1 to the equivalent of satellite Siberia, Sky Sports Extra.

The Murdoch Empire way is to endlessly promote sports events for which Sky have the exclusive broadcast rights. The Murdoch papers do this ad nauseum with football (just recall the so-called Premiership Super Sunday) and you’d have thought that would be standard practice in the Sun/Times/Sunday Times to relentlessly promote the speedway on Sky, if only a half decent relationship existed. Someone the Sky Speedway publicity team could take a lesson from is Nigel Pearson who gives a masterclass throughout the broadcast with endless mentions of Andy Murray and tennis. I can’t imagine that speedway fans are also one of the obvious natural constituencies of tennis fans but that doesn’t deter Nigel from banging on about the Final of the US Open following the speedway (exclusively on Sky Sports 1). It doesn’t float my boat. However, it’s mentioned enough for Nigel to deserve a pay rise, contract extension or future tennis work to add to the eclectic portfolio of sports he already covers. Though militantly Scots, Nigel quickly claims Murray as “British” in an attempt to appeal to the latent patriotism of any wavering speedway fans.

Sat with my wrongly pre-prepared Belle Vue versus Wolverhampton programme poised at the ready (generated from the always wonderfully informative Speedway Plus website), it’s quickly apparent that for the second successive week we’re going to be treated to a meeting from Peterborough. They say you can’t get too much of a good thing. That’s doubly true tonight with Nigel and Kelvin perched at the ready in the revolutionary innovation that is their state of the art window-cleaning booth. Their spin is that we’ll be overjoyed to see a clash of top versus (nearly) bottom at the East of England Showground, though maybe it’s really just a desire to see a meeting staged there when it’s not raining? Whatever the reason, Trevor Swales nails his colours to the Rick Frost mast when he later praises the “new owner, new club, new era”. Though this phrase reminds me of my old work, where whenever there was another disastrous strategic change (usually meaning more work, less people and morale through the company) management talk would invariably turn to stock clichéd phrases like “there’s a whole new spirit and culture about the place”. You could argue that at Peterborough, the proclaimed optimism is genuine with all the talk of lancing boils possibly sincerely meant. Recent years has seen a variety of self made men become new promoters and arrive at Elite League clubs believing that they can revolutionise the sport, only to quickly find that the hard reality of living the dream can be a massive drain on their finances. Hopefully, Rick will enjoy some longevity and reward at Peterborough rather than briefly flare like a soon to be extinguished firework on the Elite League speedway scene. One of the first steps taken under new management has seen the return of Ryan Sullivan in Panthers colours to captain the team. The shrewdness of this decision is immediately hailed by Nigel (“he really is a club legend”) and Kelvin (“Mister Peterborough they call him”) without meaningful analysis, though even they have to acknowledge the question marks immediately raised about his approach and attitude by his recent poor performance versus Eastbourne (three points from five rides). This was subsequently explained as a result of a “bad case of toothache” in the Speedway Star. Ryan probably just needs to be more – what Kelvin calls – tenacianos in future.

After we’ve been treated to the usual ‘weakly’ introduction to the teams – where the revolving graphics make the riders appear to have been modelled on Cluedo cards (rather than the much more impressive talking version you see on the NFL coverage shown on Sky) – talk turns to the shock news that this season the Elite League apparently operates a system where an away team gets three points for an away win and some sort of (notional) promotion/relegation play-off exists! It wouldn’t be live speedway if the weather (dry tonight after strong rumours of a wet weekend) and the track conditions (“I’m going to reserve my judgement” says Kelvin authoritatively) weren’t immediately discussed, though thankfully tonight it’s kept in comparative check. The first few heats are processional and fail to feature anything that could be described as overtaking after the first turn. Of course, you wouldn’t guess this (“it’s fast, it’s furious”) from the excitable commentary and Nigel whoops with delight (or relief?) after the first real passing manoeuvre (“have we got a meeting on or what?”) before he predicts, “we’ve got a magnificent night of speedway ahead!” “Early doors” we do see Magnus ‘Zorro’ Zetterstrom in action, though he opts to wear a crash helmet rather than the new Swedish crown that so slightly shocked Kelvin (“he’s the new Swedish champion, of course, slightly surprising”). At reserve, Karol Zabik (or “Carol Zorbik” as Middlo calls him) makes a quick return to the Panthers team from the injury he sustained in late August during the same home meeting versus Lakeside that also sadly saw Adam Shields so badly injured. Nigel admires Karol as a rider, “on his day, he can beat the best” and Kelvin agrees, “yeh, it’s a few years since I’ve seen him ride in the UK”.

The action in Heat 2 prompts Nigel to try out one of the tongue twisters he’s invented to catch out German spies who’ve infiltrated themselves into the Peterborough area (“to be fair it’s fair to say”), while in the pits blonde Sarra Elgan uses her full armoury of rhetorical questions and gnomic statements to conduct some of her famous incisive interviews. She tells race winner Freddie Eriksson, “you’re the only ever present Poole [sic] in the Elite League this season”. Later doors she grills a very South African sounding Henning Bager with, “is it good to give something back to the crowd?” The early racing is so processional that during heat 4 Nigel clutches the dramatic straw of Zabik and Vissing failing to team ride, “it’s almost like they’re racing each other!” Never afraid to make up new words, phrases or emotions, Kelvin claims, “I tell you what, the home fans must be in cuckoo land!”

Some things never change, consequently Kelvin can’t rid himself of his desire to blather on about arcane technical or mechanical matters, the track or his tourettes like mania for saying “literally” at every opportunity. Working so closely together with his presentational partner in crime, Kelvin has also become infected by the perennial Pearson trope of “to be fair to him”. Though an addition to his linguistic armoury, sadly he doesn’t combine these two key phrases together in a single sentence. We do learn after two races “to be fair to Chris… the track is riding better than it looked”. Talk of the weather is never far away (possibly because the window cleaning booth is so high in the sky it nearly touches the clouds) prompting Nigel to observe, “Yes, speedway is like cricket, like one of those other sports”. Manfully trying to build up some more non-existent excitement at the spectacle of the early heats, Nigel focuses on the mechanics of the scoring procedures, “it’s getting to that stage of the season where every point is vital” (“yeh, right!” chants Kelvin in true bored parrot-in-crime fashion). Kelvin prefers to concentrate on the real mechanics and nearly wets himself with the excitement of Chris Holders return to the pits “for last minute adjustments” during “the two minute warning”. As we’re shown hands fumbling with a bit of Holder’s machine obscured by his advert laden bike cover, yelling orgasmically Kelv exclaims, “It’s a carburetion problem! This is real drama, real panic! Clearly it’s either running too lumpy or..” We never learn what else Kelvin surmised it could have been as the problem is almost immediately fixed and Holder returns to the tapes with over a minute still remaining of the time allowance. Nigel issues a heartfelt apology for the swear word I freaking missed, “if you heard a few words of panic you may have been offended by, we apologise for that!”

No sooner has Nigel demonstrated his mathematical prowess as well as expressed glee at the ‘excitement’, speed and smooth running of the meeting (“we’re only a third of the way through – we’ve had five races already”) than disaster strikes at the start of heat 6. A fishtailing Davey Watt gets caught in a first bend sandwich with the Panthers riders but during the clash gets his foot painfully caught in Lukas Dryml’s back wheel. Donning his metaphorical white coat and immediately demonstrating the technical expertise that Sky have hired him for, Kelvin informs us, “it’s clearly his right foot or his right leg!” The next moment Kelvin amazingly admits on air that he may be fallible, “I was looking across from here in the commentary position and I thought it was Ryan Sullivan” [who caught Davey Watt’s foot]. This admission of error is arguably a real first for Kelvin after nearly a decade of live broadcast speedway. Even more revealingly, he’s also acknowledged that the oft repeated claims that the Sky window cleaning booth gives the so-called “best view in the stadium” is demonstrably false. The welter of revelations are soon lost when Kelv rises to the occasion and brings the full force of his speedway riding insight to bear on the situation, “you know, that looked totally innocuous – I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d broken his foot!” We’re then collectively treated to lots of footage of Davey Watt as he remains prostrate on the track surrounded by medical staff in yellow fluorescent clothing who haven’t rushed quite so quickly to the diagnosis Kelvin feels in his water may be true. Given how Sky’s maitre d in the pits, Steve Brandon likes to gruffly pride himself on barking out orders to try to ensure a smoothly efficient and promptly run meeting, you can almost sense him itching inside his headphones wanting to clear Watt from the track to allow the racing to restart and to protect the overridingly important schedules and planned advert breaks.

Still, the health and “safety” of the riders is always notionally ‘paramount’ to the Sky speedway people, so instead of dumping Watt onto the centre green we all instead have to settle for some trademark magisterial insight from Kelvin. Presented with a picture of a back wheel with broken spokes detached from its bike he burbles, “you can see where his foot has gone!” After the remarkable news that “those spokes are not easy to break, they’re tough” it’s only a brief moment before the ultimate comparisons are made – namely to numero uno and the accidents Kelvin has suffered himself. “Well, I’ve had some high speed crashes..[blah, blah]…but I’ve also had an incident like Davey Watt and I was out for six months!” If Kelvin were a character from Dad’s Army he’d most likely be a unique combination of Fraser and Mainwaring. Fortunately before we learn more about how Kelvin cleaned his bikes, organised his potting shed cum garage, what he wore under his kevlars or how he renewed his van insurance policies, the camera cuts back to the pits.

Stood there some distance away from the on track ministrations to his stricken colleague, Chris ‘he’s a talented twenty year old who should really get a wild card place in the 20089 Grand Prix series because he really has the talent to go all the way’ Holder is consulted about his view of Davey Watt’s injury. Holder is a naturally modest and supremely laid back individual. After a slight mechanical gremlin that nearly had Kelvin cream himself on air, Holder nonchalantly admitted, “I left me brain in me toolbox – I left me choke in!” To say, he’s phlegmatic would be an understatement, “I think he’s just waiting to get his bike right!” It’s a diagnosis Kelv dismisses out of hand, “this is SERIOUS for Davey Watt to stay down….tell you what, Chris Holder is a bit more confident that I am!” When Davey finally gingerly gets up and is helped back to the pits by medical personnel, Kelvin confirms the evidence of our own eyes, “Davey Watt can’t put his weight down on his foot!” The excitement of on the hoof medical diagnosis also catches Nigel but he’s unable to get a word in edgeways. Kelvin has sensed some of the valour of wartime in the situation, “he’s determined, he’s courageous – half the battle now is whether he can get his boot on!” If we stop a moment for perspective, as viewers we’re all sat a home listening to a debate about whether someone can get dressed again. In the detailed style of a porn movie, we’re treated to a full frontal, lingering shot of Davey’s foot, “oh, I can see the swelling on the bridge of his foot!” exclaims an excited Kelvin. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a broken metatarsal – a footballer’s injury!” Nigel tries to interrupt with some news of his own football injuries but is cut off in mid-jumpers for goalposts, “sorry to interrupt, I tell you what as a speedway rider, all your weight goes on your right foot!” Before the medical analysis can continue, the two-minute warning sounds and Daniel Davidsson makes his way out as the reserve replacement for Watt. Kelvin still has feet on the brain so blurts out, “Daniel Davidsson has very big boots to fill!”

Even the rerun of Heat 6 remains eventful when, with the Panthers poised for an almost certain 5-1 that will extend their surprise four point lead further, Lukas Dryml comes to grief under his own volition. Kelvin really can’t believe it, “Dryml went down – that really is a fundamental mistake!” It’s such a major booboo that Epsom born Kelvin Martin Tatum MBE suffers a major attack of the literally’s when perusing the full horror of this unexpected fall on replay, “and there literally he just slides off by himself…literally the bike slides away from him.” Kelvin has kindly blushed on behalf of Lukas, “I imagine he must have been embarrassed about that to be perfectly honest Nigel – that really was a schoolboy error!” In the pits, Sarra is keen to quiz the taciturn but unsighted (as he was leading the race, doh!) Panthers Captain Sullivan about the ‘nailed on’ 5-1 transmogrifying into the disappointment of a drawn heat. Always keen to give the impression he charges by the word for every interview he gives, Ryan doesn’t initially respond to Sarra trying to put words into his mouth (“yeh, I guess he lost it a bit”) before motivationally noting, “you’re right if he has really messed up”. It’s difficult to see how this interview sheds light on the situation at hand – effectively a chat between someone who didn’t see it lead by someone who didn’t understand what they’d seen, broadcast live.

Immediately afterwards, Nigel is forced to dip into the handy ‘Ready Drafted Commentators Platitudes Handbook’ – discarded by its previous owners Tony Millard and Jonathan Green – for a few choice bon mots of hyperbole. After trotting out some guff about “this fascinating Elite League showdown”, Nigel – a keen Spice Girls aficionado – is forced to flash his own metaphorical (XXXL) version of Geri Halliwell’s knickers with loose talk about how the total absence of British riders from this meeting leaves his mood “tinged with sadness”. Kelvin needs no second bidding to froth on patriotically about Johnny Foreigner, “well, that’s another story and something we talk about all night!” Thankfully this doesn’t happen as Nigel – using the breathing-and-British criteria favoured by Jim Lynch in recent national team selections – wracks his brain (out loud) for a prospective British Dream Team for 2014 and briefly name checks some young up and coming British speedway prospects. It’s a short list and, almost as if he’s taken a swig of truth serum rather than his usual diet coke, Nigel blurts out a confession, “we have, of course, given Tai Woffinden the big hype all year here on Sky!” Suddenly keen not to be seen with his hands on the strings that hold the puppets, all talk about Tai ‘It’s a mans sport’ Woffinden is dropped when Kelvin saves the day with some trademark blather, “young Polish and Swedish riders come over here desperate to make their mark in British speedway!” [Golly, it almost makes me want to jump to attention and salute] I think Kelvin is trying out his variation of the tried and tested Middlo Ambition argument – namely that British riders keen to get ahead should forego their speedway apprenticeship (and the so-called ‘easy money’) in the Conference and Premier leagues in favour of really ‘testing’ themselves against the ‘big boys’ in the Elite League. Ignoring the financial implications and industry failure rate for the riders in question – or the fact that unless you’re supremely talented, most promoters/team managers will restrict any new or struggling rider to three rides and cut them from the team at the first opportunity – this appears to pass the obligation onto the riders whereas we all know that it’s the promoters who prefer to put finance first as well as staff their teams with ready made foreigners rather than have the patience to grow their own talent! Indeed, even the two most highly praised young riders in contemporary speedway (with Australian accents) – Chris Holder and Tai Woffinden – have chosen to come through the ranks and ply their trade outside the Elite League to properly serve their apprenticeships.

After the drama of Davey Watt’s foot, the real or imaginary talking points rapidly dwindle. Chris Louis informs us “you can get hit by heavy dirt” at the Showground – indeed the unlucky Davey Watt had already demonstrated this in his first ride. Since they’re enjoying another good season likely to end in their triumphant crowning as Elite League champions, Nigel wastes no time when he takes the sensible career option to enthusiastically praise the overall professionalism of Poole Speedway club. Something he ascribes to the brilliance, visionary leadership and general acumen of Matt Ford and the mysterious Giles Hartwell. [who he, Ed?] The Pirates didn’t look on the pace to start with (with the exception of Zorro) and the subsequent loss of Watt along with a couple of shock zero’s for Holder and Pedersen as well as an engine failure while leading for Zorro means that tonight probably isn’t going to be their night. After heat 9, the Panthers are ahead 33-21, which allows the visitors the chance to exploit the tactical option of a double points ride. One possibility would be to hand it to Bjarne Pedersen immediately or, alternatively, use Chris Holder in the race after. Nigel describes these scenarios only to be told by the not easily fooled Kelvin, “that’s heat 11, we’ve got heat 10 to come first.” The decision not to use Bjarne taken by Neil Middleditch is questioned by Nigel, “I know you can never predict the result from a race…but if Poole don’t take the tactical ride in heat 10 and the Pirates get 5-1”. Perhaps the commercial team could work up a new jingle to excite those unfamiliar with speedway on Sky –“it’s a white knuckle ride through the regulations!”. Sod’s Law dictates that the chance has gone before it’s barely arrived when a Pedersen-Skornicki maximum heat advantage scuppers the tactical option. Looking into his crystal ball, Kelvin ponders the internal monologue raging in Middlo’s tormented mind, “I wonder what Neil Middleditch is thinking here – he’s thinking I can’t use the tactical ride.” Sarra tries to get to the bottom of the decision that the window cleaning booth based commentary team strenuously avoid identifying as a goof. Initially Middlo is in denial, “Bjarne said to me the bike’s not quick enough” before joking, “they’re getting on our weaknesses, the team manager one of them.” With the Pirates still trailing by eight points, a mathematically challenged Sarra tries to be optimistic, “another 5-1 in this heat, could even it all up!” [Er, no, they’ll still be four points behind]

Still avoiding critical comment about Middlo like the plague, Kelvin instead seizes upon the reported Slow Bike Justification even though we didn’t actually hear Bjarne himself utter such an explanation. Nonetheless, it’s taken as gospel. “It might have gone slightly A-RAY in the previous race but obviously the bike’s got more belief than the rider! The bike’s gonna win it whether the rider likes it or not!” Judged by Kelvin’s usual hallmark say-what-I-see-as-an-ex-rider meat and potatoes commentary style, this poetic flight of fancy is an unexpected journey into the rarely explored recesses of his imagination. Nigel is hugely appreciative of his partner’s sudden flight of fancy and, with another win for Bjarne in heat 12, takes the chance to offer his own on air tribute, “and to quote Kelvin Tatum, maybe Bjarne Pedersen will have as much self belief as his bike – what a great line that was Kelvin.” “Ha ha, tee he, thank you!” It gets even more mutually appreciative in the window cleaning booth with each passing week but, before it turns all Brokeback Mountain, luckily the camera cuts to Sarra for an interview with a taciturn Bjarne in the pits. There he’s hectored about the ostensible slowness of his bike prior to heat 10.
[BP] “To be fair to me we did a few adjustings on the bike.”
[SE] “Is it all going to ride on the final heat?”
[BP in a bored voice] “Yeh, probably”

Despite protestations and hyperbole to the contrary, the meeting peters out as a home win. Kelvin thinks this may be due to the “stability of a new owner”. Poole have had dreadful luck though Nigel notes, “let’s balance it out by saying Peterborough don’t have [the ill] Danny King!” Sarra’s ongoing search for a meaningful or incisive question provides some entertainment. Long after any notional ‘drama’ from the ‘incident’ has evaporated she still continues to try to grill Middlo about Davey Watt’s foot, “What’s the latest? Have you heard anything since the last time we spoke?”

8th September Peterborough v Poole 47-43

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