Round and round: Team GB Olympic track team test session at the Newport velodrome

A chance to see the GB Olympic track team in training, and just half an hour away from home…it was an opportunity that was too good to miss.

I’ll come clean, I’m the editor of Dirt Mountainbike magazine, so not your ‘traditional’ track cycling fan.

Of course I know about Obree, Boardman, Hoy, Pendleton, etc. but…well, that’s about as far as it goes. It is a whole new world to me.

Cycling as a whole somehow feels different at the moment. It has been on the rise for about the last four or five years.

The success of the GB team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics threw the sport into the spotlight back then, and in Pendleton and Hoy cycling had found two high performing and very likable stars. The public loved them.

Fast–forward to the present day and every area of cycling seems to be on a high: it is everywhere, the sport and industry is booming. From style obsessed urban riders, BMX, mountain bike and of course road and track. The recent performances of Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and the rest of the Sky team at the Tour de France has grabbed the nation like never before. Front and back page news, has there ever been so many column inches dedicated to cycling? No, not in this country anyway. In years gone by I would have felt that mountainbiking (my area) had been left out, but whether I have just got caught up in Olympic/TdF fever or not, this time around it does really feel different. I’m still on a high from the Wiggins win. Cycling is good.

Anyway, back to Newport, one of just two international standard indoor velodromes in the UK (soon to double: the Olympic Velodrome at Stratford will open for public use after the Paralympics, and Glasgow’s new Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome could host a round of the UCI Track World Cup later this year). I’ve never been a massive fan of track racing. Sure I appreciate the power and the fitness involved, but…well…it was just going around in circles. But this time it was different; for some reason I couldn’t get to sleep the night before this event. I was honestly excited at the prospect of watching ‘Team GB’ practicing in the Newport velodrome, their home for thirteen days in the lead up to the Olympics.

It was all a bit hush, hush. Tickets for the two sessions were free (something to celebrate in this day and age) but were tricky to get hold of (only two allowed per person). The website wasn’t working, so the phone it was. Having been ‘in a queue’ for almost 10 minutes, eventually a very helpful man at Newport County Council answered the phone. I felt like I should be asking him about housing benefit or parking permits, but all I was interested in was getting to see the world’s best riding around 250 metres of Siberian Pine.

We got there early (me and our Dirt web editor), 12.30pm on the dot, got our wristbands and sat out in the sun waiting for the 2pm start. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, there was no fixed schedule, and as the British Cycling crew said, the session was going to be ‘organic’, which I read as “we’re not quite sure what will be happening”. We weren’t even sure who would be there. The day before Pendleton and the team pursuit squads were in action for the crowds but as we spilled through the door we learnt that it would be the sprint teams only…and that meant Chris Hoy.

What a sight the track was. You cannot deny the sculptural strength and impact of a velodrome. Huge, curvaceous, monumental, bold, graphic and terrifying all at the same time. A velodrome is no place for fools: this is serious, something that requires ultimate respect.

We sat there waiting in our plastic bucket seats, slowly beginning to melt as the temperature was rising. We were told that the heating was on! “Why?” It must have been in the mid twenties outside, but it turns out that the GB team were trying to replicate the atmosphere and temperature that they think they will face in the 6,000 seat capacity Olympic stadium. The dial was turned up to 31ºc. Five hundred people helped fill every seat in the place, and what a mixture of people there were. We had three generations of one family sitting next to us, all of them knowledgeable and devoted to cycling. These were true fans. And it was refreshing to see so many young kids in the place.

The GB team slowly appeared into the central area of the velodrome, coming out of the ground from the tunnel and up the ramp like they were in some kind of sci–fi film. There was Hoy, stout and blonde haired; you couldn’t miss him. The communication of information in the stands was kind of held back by a dodgy PA system and…well…a lack of information. Four riders, but of course Hoy was the one that everyone wanted to see. All the ‘British Cycling Master Cluster’ were there too: Dave Brailsford, Shane Sutton, team psychiatrist Steve Peters, Peter Keen and a whole host of other non–riding team members that have found their fifteen minutes of fame on the recent Pendleton and Wiggins TV documentaries.

The next two and a half hours was quite surreal. The team officials did tell us (warn us) that there wouldn’t be much to see, but what we would see would be quality, and they were right. There was a lot of sitting around, a lot of slowly pedalling around, then more sitting, then a bit of riding and then a bit more sitting (on occasions I wish I had taken a book). This was training after all. But when the action started it was explosive beyond belief. The riders were robotic in their approach and focus. Nothing it seemed would or could break their concentration. It was amazing to watch. When they got going I was frightened…frightened that they might snap their bikes in two (so powerful were the sprints), frightened that their chains were going to break, frightened that they may crash into the back of the Derny motorbike that they were following so ridiculously closely behind, or frightened that these superheroes’ muscles might just explode all over the place (such was the effort that they were putting in). Of course these violent sprints take a lot out of riders, they can’t just do sprint after sprint. Cool down, rest, drink, food, warm up and then back on it again.

These guys were unflappable. With just three days to go (at the time) until the Olympic opening ceremony they could only have one thing on their minds, the same thing that they have been thinking about for most of the last four years. To be able to balance day to day life and those thoughts is a skill in itself, such has been their devotion over many years; the training is done, the hours in the gym, on the track, on the road, the special diets, the weeks away from home…what it comes down to now is perfection in performance, clarity of mind and a bloody single–mindedness focus.

Cycling to me is about fun, but there seemed to be little fun going on here. But then that is just one of the many things that separates us ‘normal’ people from these super humans. They have a huge weight on their shoulders, especially as these Olympics are on home soil. For us this was a bit of entertainment, an inside look, for them it was vital preparation towards the biggest day of their lives.

After two hours the crowds began to drift off home. We guessed that there might be one more sprint left in each of the guys, and, luckily, we were right.

We moved seats to get closer to the action as Hoy set himself up for a lap trying to imitate a missile. Bonkers. Ever the professional, it was only he that seemed to make the effort to thank the crowd (the others may have, but we left at 4.30). All we wanted was a wave and a ‘thank you’, and we got it.

When we returned to the Dirt office thirty minutes later, still sweaty and slightly dumbstruck, it was good to see that he had already twittered:

“Thanks 2all the supporters at Newport today; another training session with full stands! About 4 times the spectators we get at Nationals!”

It makes the difference.

What I came away with from this brief two and a half hours of track cycling brilliance was that the pursuit of excellence is not always spectator friendly. But you know what, if the team come away with clutch of golds then I don’t really care. Thanks for the opportunity – it is something that I will never forget.

Photos: Mike Rose and Billy  Thackray

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