Saturday, 29 December 2012

A Tale of Two Velodromes

A couple of months ago I did a track cycling taster day at Herne Hill Velodrome.  I haven’t blogged about it here as I've written a one-pager on the experience for Cycling Active and it seemed a little cheeky to pre-empt them by repackaging it. In essence though, the early part of the session can be summed up with the words “No gears, no brakes, no bladder control.” The middle part would be a trepidatious “That looks a bit steep,” while the conclusion would be “Wheeeeeeeeeeee!”.

Once you get over the habit of grabbing for brakes that aren’t there, learn that you can’t backpedal the fixed gear and realise that the banking only looks 20 feet tall and vertical from the bottom, the whole thing stops being quite so nerve-wracking.  After that you can revel in the smooth and effortless speed of the experience. I’d expected a big gear and a smooth surface to make a difference to the feel of the ride, but I had no idea how much difference. Without any noticeable effort I was hitting speeds that would require a head-down, sinew-clenching effort on the road.

Naturally, the next thing I wanted to do was let rip and enjoy this newfound rocket power, but Herne Hill’s taster sessions are about delayed gratification: they want to turn you into a track cyclist so you have the skills needed to really get the most out of riding the banked oval. Instead of going wild, we were taken on several laps of the track on the sprinters, stayers and ghost lines, before a turn round the very top of the banking. We practiced joining the track, leaving the track, doing through-and-off in a paceline, and maintaining our gaps. Then we got off and enjoyed startlingly inexpensive sandwiches.

Yesterday I visited Manchester Velodrome, where the food in the café is equally good value, and can be eaten on tables next to Ed Clancy and Sarah Storey (she was wearing a spangly frock and Union Jack shoes which seemed a bit glam for a Velodrome - later the same day, the New Year honours list would be released and her Damehood unveiled). The value of the food isn’t the only thing that the National Cycling Centre has in common with Herne Hill Velodrome - while one is a gleaming, modern building and the other is showing its age a bit, both are very welcoming. They seem to say: Come in, have a poke around, make yourself at home and enjoy your stay. Some sports only want your money, but cycling always seems to enjoy your company.

Things differed on the track, where another track cycling taster session was going on, Manchester Velodrome style. I’ll confess, I was only watching from the sidelines rather than taking part, so I could be wrong about this, but it looked very much as if the newbie track cyclists were given a couple of laps worth of instruction in starting, stopping and not hitting each other, then turned loose for half an hour of free time.

They divided themselves pretty swiftly into three groups. The nervous ones stayed near the cote d’azure and pedalled so slowly that they were having to jerk their bikes up the banking, like a dandy hitching up wayward pantaloons. A braver group spent their time rocketing round on the sprinter's line in small groups of two or three, while one or two exuberant souls hoicked themselves halfway up the banking and went round cackling and whooping and occasionally waving at the spectators. Not one rider went anywhere near the top of the banking.

It was an interesting contrast. By the end of my Herne Hill taster session, I was itching to be allowed to just ride, to enjoy the effortless amplification of power provided by the bike and the calming repetition of whirring round the track. Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t an option. It was just a few weeks after the Olympics and our enormous group of beginners had displaced an enormous group of intermediate riders, and were about to be displaced by a regiment of experienced track cyclists.

Denied the chance to just ride, I was initially a little jealous of the circling novices at the Manchester Velodrome, but by the time they were making their desperate grabs at the railings to bring themselves to a halt, I was starting to change my mind. They’d had as much time in their taster as Herne Hill offers, but they’d stopped learning new skills after the first ten minutes. I bet the top of the banking still looked vertiginous to them, and I doubt any of them could have dropped off down the middle of two parallel pacelines like the beginners at Herne Hill could by the end of their session.

I suppose it all comes down to learning styles. After some consideration, I think the Manchester Velodrome approach would have suited my steady, cautious approach by allowing me the chance to feel completely at home on the track before learning anything else. On the other hand, it would have driven my Herne Hill buddies crackers. They took off up the banking at the first chance, spent their session swooping out of the curves like kids playing Spitfires in the playground, and were clamouring to be allowed to run their intro session into the intermediate session that followed it. Being told to spend an hour circling gently and getting the feel of the track would have left them wild and distinctly un-zen.

Whichever approach I'd been offered, I wouldn't have passed up the chance to try track cycling. I'm no racer and have no interest in speed or competition, so I'm not sure it's a pastime that will endure for me in the way that pootling along open roads has, but it's a combination of so many familiar sensations with so many new ones that it's far too fascinating to do just once.

Image courtesy and copyright of DB Conlon, 2012. Perhaps his best photo of a cyclist since this one of Chris Froome .

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