Sitting on the Monday morning red-eye train to Manchester, I told RoadCyclingUK’s Twitter followers I was about to ride on the track for the first time and asked for any advice. ‘Just keep pedaling’ was the overwhelming response.
Wise words considering I was also about to make my fixed wheel debut. But, in a phone call as I pulled into Manchester, it was the words of RCUK editor Richard Hallett that stuck with me: ‘The faster you go, the safer it is’.
On the taxi journey from Manchester Piccadilly to the National Cycling Centre I spotted a rider commuting to the velodrome, head to toe in GB kit and aboard a Pinarello. Not a face I recognised as we sped past but it dawned that, despite offering taster sessions like the one I was about to attend, the velodrome is where so many of British Cycling’s plans are hatched and stars born.
Having met my riding companions for the day, we walked out into the velodrome, with my first view of the track from above the steepest section – 42 degrees – on the finishing bend.
The faster you ride, the safer it is? Yeah, right. It was steep – and it was scary. Like when you’re about to throw yourself out of a plane with just a parachute to get you back to solid ground, or off a bridge attached to a bungee cord, logic kicks in and says you should perhaps think otherwise. How can a skinny tyre grip that smooth, slick Siberian pine?
Despite that thought being pinned in my head, it was time to forget the track as we had a Wattbike session to crack first. A 250m sprint race and max power test to warm the legs, you understand.
But getting out on the boards marked the main event – and despite my initial trepidation, I was excited. The assembled group of cycling retailers and journos were in Manchester courtesy of UK distributor Moore Large, who provide Lake shoes and Limar helmets to hire at the velodrome. So, kitted up, I grabbed the Dolan bike provided and headed onto the inside of the track.
Split into two groups, the first bunch headed straight onto the boards, guided by world masters champion Janet Birkmyre and having all admitted to riding on the track before, while half-a-dozen us waited for our coaching session to begin.
First we rode a few circuits of the velodrome below the boards – on the shallow, blue area known as the Cote d’Azur – to familiarise ourselves with riding fixed. Trouble is after that, and assuming you can ride the bike in a straight line, there’s not a great deal of advice you can initially offer a new track rider. Keep pedaling, make sure you look over your shoulder when moving up or down the track, increase your speed when heading into the bends to maintain your position. And that’s just about that; time to go riding.
Courage summoned, I set about riding on the inside of the track before, on the finishing straight where so many World Championship and World Cup medals have been won in gusto, tentatively moving onto the boards. Once on there’s no going back and, heading into the first turn, the track’s as steep at the bottom on the black racing line as it is at the top.
Bike tilted at an impossible angle, I’d made it. No nervous twitching of the handlebars and no tyres slipping beneath me. “Let’s increase the pace,” cried our coach, Nicola. So I did as ordered and sped up, and sped up, and sped up. Overtaking, and being overtaken by faster, more experienced riders.
Soon enough a small group of us were strung out in a line behind Birkmyre, although a little nervously without the comfort of knowing you can’t free wheel or dab the brakes to keep speed in check.
Lungs burning and legs fully fired up, we were called to a halt after half-an-hour of whizzing round and set about each taking on a 250m sprint from a standing start in an attempt to match our Wattbike times from earlier. No chance.
“Have we found a new man one yet?” said Nicola, referring to Great Britain’s continued search for a lead rider to replace the retired Jamie Staff in the men’s team sprint squad. Riding with Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny, Staff clocked an astonishing 17.19-second opening lap en-route to setting a world record in qualifying at the Beijing Olympic Games, before the trio went on to win gold in the final. The winning time in our competition to replicate Staff was a sedentary 22.10 seconds – but it felt, and looked, quick to us.
And that’s the great thing about the velodrome. In a way, track cycling is among the purest disciplines the sport offers. No gears, round and round in circles, and, in most events at least, first across the line wins. It’s all about riding fast. Turns out Richard was right.
All photos courtesy of www.crankphoto.co.uk