Scores of hard-bodied types adorned either in clingy Lycra or bike-messenger-casual came to Hot Italian, the sopraffino Italian bistro in midtown Sacramento, not to consume calories but to burn them.
Knock yourselves out, guys. I'll just sit here eating pizza and watching you sweat and strain and contort your faces into a rictus of pain astride stationary bicycles. Hey, pass the red pepper oil, will ya?
This, of course, was not a normal night at the restaurant. More cyclists, along with friends and loved ones, milled about than diners intent on tucking into a briatore calzone or spooning Ferrero Rocher gelato.
The occasion was the latest installment of the twice-monthly Savage Sprints, a time-trial simulation in which riders go as fast as they can for 250 meters as tachometers attached to the bikes measure time and speed. In its second year, the Sprints draw a cross section of Sacramento's thriving bike culture from Sequoia-quad sprinters to tattooed fixed-gear midtowners to fit road, mountain and cyclocross riders of all ages.
Why do they do it?
Well, the altruistic answer has to do with raising funds for the ongoing effort to build a velodrome an outdoor banked cycling track in the Sacramento area. But do not discount the competitive angle. These are cyclists, and they harbor an innate need to push the limits of speed inside a restaurant where others are spearing arugula with forks.
Even if you can't tell a derailleur from a defibrillator especially if you can't this is a spectacle you must witness at least once, if only to satisfy anthropological curiosity. And if you can spare a few coins when they pass the donation canister, so much the better.
What you'll see are men and women pushing their bodies to the max, going anaerobic, hypoxic and nearly hurling over the 7 to 13 seconds it takes to complete the "race."
The set-up looks more suited to a game show than athletic competition: A swath of restaurant tables pushed aside so that two wood platforms can be placed in front of a large flat-screen monitor. A fixed-gear bike is on each platform, the back wheel set on two rollers and the front forks bolted onto stands. The tachometer sensors connect to computers that project the speed onto the screen in real time in the form of digital hands on a clock. Whichever cyclist "covers" the 250 meters fastest wins in a single elimination tournament.
Running the show, acting like a ringmaster and looking like the coolest middle-school gym teacher ever, is Dean Allegar. He is a force behind the Sac Valley Velodrome Association, which is trying to form an alliance with city and county leaders to build what would be the only the third track in California (the others are in San Jose and Carson).
Wielding a megaphone and dressed all in black (beanie, Adidas track suit, Converse low-cuts), Allegar exhorted a crowd that needed no cajoling. When racers were cranking in extremis, their cohorts got right up in their faces, screaming encouragement. On this night, two of the godfathers of Sacramento cycling, Steve Rex and Bill Nicely, had offered to donate $100 each time a racer finished under 8 seconds. So some serious coin was at stake.
It was all over so fast though the racers, to a man or woman, say time seems interminable in the saddle a spectator hardly can grasp just how swift they were.
Take Kevin Mansker, silver medalist in the 2011 USA Elite Track Nationals time trial. Allegar brought him to town on this night from Los Angeles as a ringer uh, he meant fundraising draw.
In the early rounds, Mansker toyed with rivals, holding back. But in the finals, facing local cycling stud Nick Oliver, Mansker let loose. He covered 250 meters in 7.38 seconds.
Not impressed? Think of it this way: The dude went from zero to 75 mph in 7.38 seconds. Many cars can't do that. Actually, the screen flashed 96 mph at the height of Mansker's pedaling (about 4 seconds into it).
Good thing the bolts were securely tightened on the bike's front fork, or Mansker might have taken off and gone splat into Hot Italian's chic white walls. His legs moved so fast that they looked like a cartoon blur the Road Runner made real.
"It's a little lower level (than international races), but a lot more fun," said Mansker, just back from racing in Beijing. "Between the semis and the finals, you get a couple minutes break and, yeah, it sucks and it hurts. Hurts a lot."
If an elite cyclist was saying that, what about the locals?
Midtown denizen Autumn Hardy, who advanced to the women's finals before losing to Missy Erickson (a collegiate sprint champ from Colorado), says she blocked out the pain by picturing herself negotiating traffic on the grid.
"Like, there's a car in front of me and I'm trying to catch it fast as I can while traffic jamming," she said. "I'm trying to push all the energy from my head and arms down to my legs."
Not 10 feet from where Hardy was spraying sweat like a human sprinkler head sat Charlie Sprague and Pete Fitsos, enjoying a pitcher of beer and cramming wedges of pizza into their mouths.
"It's really fun to watch," Sprague said.
Fitsos lifted a foamy glass and added wryly, "This is how we show our support."
Savage Sprints at Hot Italian
Where: 16th and Q streets, Sacramento
When: 5 p.m. today and Feb. 19
Reason to go: Eat some pizza, watch some cyclists sprint and sweat, raise funds to build a velodrome in Sacramento.