Published: 14 January 2013
Blogger: Chris Walker
Fired by the exploits of GB Cycling Team at the London 2012 Olympics, sportive blogger Chris has embellished his winter training and fired his enthusiasm with a trip to Newport and his first ever session on the Wales National Velodrome’s vertiginous 42 degree banking.
Many other people, I suspect, whether or not they have the remotest interest in cycling, were at least impressed by the outstanding efforts of our cyclists, both male and female, at the London Olympics Velodrome. I, for one, was completely blown away by it – the sight of Laura Trott, Dani King and Jo Rowsell virtually catching the American girls in the Team Pursuit final and breaking the world record yet again in the process was one of the most thrilling and inspirational things I have ever seen. This is not to belittle the efforts of all our other cyclists, which were immense, but to me it was the quintessence of the years of hard work, dedication, and continuous small improvements which has been the hallmark of British cycling and sets this country apart from all others in the world in the track disciplines.
Even before the Olympics, like most people who are reasonably serious about cycling, I have thought that I’d like to have a shot at a track session. The Olympic experience motivated me to do something about it, so when the chance came up to attend a track session at the Newport Velodrome in South Wales via a Facebook group I belong to, I jumped at the chance. As a result, I found myself at Newport Velodrome at 7.30 am on Friday, 21 December, more than a trifle nervous, in advance of a two hour session with the organiser of the event and one other from my club who’d also shown an interest.
Now, bear in mind that a) I had never been on a track before b) I’d never even ridden a fixed wheel bike before c) I have a well-publicised propensity to fall off a bike, and hopefully you can understand why I was feeling twitchy. This sensation increased dramatically when I was atop a rented fixed wheel bike, strapped into the pedals wearing trainers, holding onto the railing around the centre of the velodrome for dear life, trying to concentrate on what the coach was telling us whilst thinking how pathetic I was to be feeling so fearful. Not for the first time in my relatively short cycling experience was I thinking “How on earth did I get into this?”
Time to go. Took a deep breath and pushed myself off the railing. Somehow managed to stay upright and started to push the pedals. We started on the flat bit around the middle, just going slowly, getting the feel of how to control a bike with no freewheel and no brakes! One of the key pieces of advice is to relax, but this is very difficult when you are as tense as I was. As I got faster, I started to move outwards onto the very shallow angled first part of the banking. Very slowly, I felt the tension begin to release and I started to enjoy the sensation. I made a bit of a mess of coming in to stop – trying to back-pedal to slow down and coordinate sliding your hand along the rail was accomplished, albeit inelegantly. I think I only tried to freewheel once – you soon get to know that this is completely unprofitable and actually hurts!
At least the first hurdles were overcome. The next thing to try was a (sort of) pursuit. There were only three of us, so James, the most experienced, led us off, nice and slowly. I was Man 2 and Steve Man 3. As we got faster, we progressed up the banking and got quite near to the blue line, above which it gets really steep on the bends (about 42 degrees, I believe). I was convinced I was going to slip down the banking, but no – I stayed upright and, once again, began to feel the tension disappear. At the signal, I moved up the banking over the top of James and started to lap the track on my own, getting faster and faster, with the idea being to rejoin as Man 3. Once I got into the rhythm of this, I really began to enjoy the sensation of speed. There is no doubt that the faster you go, the easier it is to manage the higher banking, even if the faster line is lower down. I eventually got onto Steve’s rear wheel and managed to control my speed so that I didn’t hit him. Then it was his turn and I got a rest following James’ wheel. Fabulous.
The next exercise was to try a more traditional pursuit. Shame that there were only two of us (James was doing his own thing), but Steve and I began to get the hang of moving up the banking, letting the other move forward and go back down onto the wheel, controlling your speed as you did so. It was great fun, but you could certainly see how much more fun and faster it would be if you had a bigger group. It also made me appreciate just how skilful the team pursuiters are – it’s not easy, this, and of course we were not moving nearly so quickly.
The final exercise was a couple of timed laps from a rolling start (starting from a standstill on the track is a discipline all in itself, particularly in the huge gears that the top athletes use). This was just a straight blatt, trying to keep to the fastest line, but again was great fun. By this time, I had lost all the tension and was enjoying myself hugely. My time, of course, broke no records, but it was very respectable in the context of the over-60 age group to which I belong.
Apart from the expense of getting to Newport and staying overnight, the whole experience cost me £30, including bike hire, the services of an accredited coach and a couple of hours experiencing a top-class velodrome. An absolute bargain, given how much fun I’d had, after the initial 10 minutes or so of fear and trembling.
All this has made me realise that a) Boy, I want to do it again b) the top athletes should command the utmost admiration for making a difficult set of skills look so easy. My respect for them, already high, has increased even more.
One of the problems is location. The London Velodrome should be available later in 2013, and the new indoor one in Derby by 2014. There are rumours of an outdoor one in Milton Keynes, right on my back doorstep. In any event, I’ll definitely be doing more of it and I thoroughly recommend it – it’s an absolute blast. The sensation of speed is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.