Spoiler: I loved track cycling.
I’m lucky enough to live within easy cycling distance of two Olympic velodromes, one built for 2012 and the other for 1948. With the exception of the 1912 Olympics, track cycling has been a feature of every modern Olympic Games. And women’s track cycling was first included in 1988.
Herne Hill Velodrome is the only venue still in use from the 1948 Games in London. It’s run and managed by resident cycling club, VC Londres, for cyclists of all ages and abilities, and offers sessions for competitive and non-competitive riders. Bradley Wiggins started his riding career at Herne Hill Velodrome, and the Super Series meetings attract elite riders, including Victoria Pendleton, Chris Hoy, Alex Dowsett, and Bradley Wiggins.
I joined a Thursday morning session. Described on the website as a drop-in easy rider session for the over 40s and women, it’s a great way to find out, at a less daunting pace, whether track cycling is for you.
Fixie for Freya
Coach Mike greeted me and found a bike to suit me. You can only ride fixed wheel bikes on the track and the hire of a bike is included in the session cost. I’d never ridden a fixed wheel bike so took time to look it over before Mike secured my shoes into the toe clips and explained the basics: ‘You have no brakes and no gears. To start you need to push yourself off from the rail. To stop you need to slow your pace. Don’t stop pedalling and don’t try to coast, you’ll go over the handle bars. Now, I want you to do two laps on the safety lane. If I think you’re going too fast on the second lap I’ll wave you on.’
And off I set. The safety lane is on the flat so I didn’t have to worry about the banking, just get used to how the bike moved and keep an eye on people flying past on my right. Mike was right about the pedals, as you cycle you build up momentum and have to keep pedalling. I surprised myself by remembering not to coast as I approached the end of the second lap and managed to slow my pace to come to a halt.
The other riders had finished the warm-up and Mike organised a seven-lap race. I must have looked nervous because he told me to look after the lap counter and ring the bell on the final lap. The lap counter was used at the 1948 Olympics so I’ve touched a piece of Olympic history.
I watched the cyclists push off from the top rail, speed towards the bank, down the straight, back up the bank, down the straight, and over the line. Seven laps.
Then it was my turn. Mike explained joining the track etiquette (check over your shoulder for cyclists coming along the straight) and told me to cycle one lap on each line: white, red, blue, ghost, rail. Black measures the track length (250m) and is pretty much on the flat, red is the sprinters line, blue separates the track for team races, ghost is halfway between blue and rail, rail is at the top of the track.
‘Just keep pedalling,’ Mike said. ‘John will come round with you and keep everyone out of your way.’ We set off with John on my right cycling on the blue line. The first two laps went OK. Then came the blue line. John encouraged me to pedal harder to force my way up the bank. It felt as if I were defying gravity but somehow I got onto the blue line. John dropped down to the black line and continued encouraging me: ‘That’s it. Keep going. Keep pedalling. Pedal faster. Faster.’
Having cycled the blue line I started wondering whether I could just call it quits then realised I was back on the straight with only two lines to complete.
‘You can do it. You can do it’ I kept repeating, in my head I thought.
I pedalled hard into the bank and reached the ghost line.
‘You’ve got it,’ shouted John. ‘Keep pedalling. Keep pedalling.’ I wasn’t about to stop and hurtled round the track.
The rail lane was approaching. John called out: ‘Push. Faster. You’ve got this. Push.’
All I had was: ‘Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep.’
I did it. One lap on the rail to complete a full circuit of the track. I felt fantastic. And knew I wanted to do it all again.
After a couple of laps to slow down I stopped for a quick debrief with Mike and John. I told them I hadn’t been sure I’d do it. Mike said: ‘I wasn’t sure either. First time at the track. Well done.’ John said: ‘I didn’t think you’d ever stop talking.’ And he was right. I’d talked myself round the track, forcing all my fears out through positive affirmations and nonsense repetitions.
Sprints and keirins
Before I joined the rest of the group on the track, Mike wanted to be sure I knew how to make half lap changes (to take the lead and drop back) when cycling in a group. John volunteered another cyclist and led us onto the track. As we reached the halfway point John moved up the bank to the blue line, the second cyclist took the lead and I pedalled harder to stay on the wheel. When she moved up to the blue line I took the lead with John hard on my wheels and, when I moved up the blue line John took the lead. I managed the manoeuvres but struggled to keep pace with both cyclists.
We rejoined the main group and while John and Mike discussed setting up hare and hounds race, sprints, and keirins, some of the other cyclists asked whether I’d enjoyed it and suggested I join other training sessions.
We set off for the hare and hounds and I quickly fell behind the other riders. I decided to practice half lap changes on my own and, after checking the position of the leading group, started making the moves up and down the bank. Unsurprisingly I was last to finish the race.
For the keirin John led out three groups separately. I was in the slowest group and again quickly fell behind the other riders. Again I finished last. In the same groups we did a series of sprint races. I was given an advantage and started about a quarter of a lap ahead of the riders in my group. It gave me no real advantage and I finished last.
I’m not about to challenge Laura Trott and Herne Hill Velodrome may not have a polished wood track and its banking may not be as steep as more modern venues but nothing beats cycling outside, feeling the sun (or the rain) on your face and body.
I will be back to join the Thursday crew.
Track cycling. 3 March 2016
Herne Hill Velodrome
Cost: £5, includes hire of fixed wheel bike