Track cycling is becoming ever more popular. You will quickly notice this if you want to sign-up for accreditation sessions to be allowed to ride on a track unsupervised. For the Glasgow velodrome you will for instance have to get up for 5am if you want to book Accreditation 1 (the beginner section) 30 days prior to your actual session, and it is generally fully booked within 30 min and cancellations are rare. I don’t expect the London velodrome to be much different.
You can therefore imagine my excitement when I learned that my local bike club, the fabulous Eastbourne Rovers, had got one of the club development sessions at the London Velodrome. I signed up right away. Small issue: I’ve never ridden a track bike (or a Fixie for that matter) and if you’ve ever been to a velodrome, the banking is rather steep. That’s a lot of things that could potentially cause issues. Rovers to the rescue!
Unbeknownst to many, Brighton is actually home to the oldest outdoor cycle track in the UK, the fabulous Preston Park velodrome. A lap is about 580 m long and there are two banked turns. The track is used regularly for racing year round including a Wednesday night track league as well as the Après Whacky Races Series and the Après Winter Series (both on regular road bikes). The track is also home to Preston Park Youth Cycling Club (PPYCC).
Recognizing that many riders might be inexperienced riding track bikes and to facilitate getting maximum benefit from our London velodrome session, the Rovers had organised a familiarisation session at Preston Park, supported and coached by PPYCC.
Now while I was terribly excited about riding on the track, I was also incredibly nervous. How about not being able to stop pedalling? How about not having brakes? How about stopping and being clipped in? If you’ve ever seen me ride, I unclip at the first sign of potential stoppage. You can imagine the nervousness and mild anxiety, but I was determined. Generations of riders have managed this, and so would I.
First we were issued with bikes. I ended up with a trusty old steel bike. We received an intro on how to do a safety check of a track bike and then we got instructions for our first activity: start from the fence, ride one lap and stop on the fence. As the coach put it, these are the 2 most essential skills. No kidding.
So there I was hanging precariously on the fence, clipped in. How on earth was I gonna get away and going? Only one way to find out. A tentative push of the fence, a bit of a wobble. Pedalling curiously took care of it self, as soon as the wheels turn you pedal. Wahoo! I was moving and it was ace. Now for the slowing down bit, I knew I kind of had to hold against the pedal, but how much. Since I wasn’t going very fast I had a few attempts and it wasn’t actually so bad as I was only slightly holding against it. I had expected jerking or at least a big knock in my legs, but none of that. Slowing down and stopping in a particular spot was the next challenge. You have to slow down to a very slow pace and the grab the fence. In hindsight, I found stopping the most nerve wracking, but I managed just fine. Phew! So much achieved and that was just one lap!
Next we did 2 laps to pick up some speed. This was when the wind picked up. Interesting. Stopping, boom! 2 laps nailed. Following we rode in small groups to get a feel for riding on the wheel and also for peeling off and slotting in at the back. I have issues with people closely around me on rides and it didn’t go so well. I left a bit of a gap, but tried to get closer throughout the 6 laps. Needs more practice.
Towards the end of the 6 laps, tiredness kicked in (yes, after 6 laps only). This is mainly because track cycling is relentless, there is no coasting only pedalling. Add to that working against a headwind with no opportunity to switch to a smaller gear… Tired.
As we all did really well, we formed big groups and practiced ‘over/under’ snaking our way through the long line of riders learning to communicate. Managed that, and stopping now was a breeze. Result.
Time was flying and our session was almost up. As a last activity, we got to race. The 3 lap dash is essentially a bunch race where you set off and when the field is together, the whistle blows it’s a free for all for 3 laps. The fast guys shot off at the front, I just kept my eye on the person ahead, shouting ‘over’ when I came past. Finishing off with a little sprint. It was quite exhilarating if exhausting.
I loved it though and am massively looking forward to riding at London. I still have to get my head around riding on someone’s wheel (I know they can’t slow down suddenly, but it makes no difference) and not freaking when someone gets close, but that’s all manageable and mainly in my head.
If you have an opportunity, go try it. If you live in the Brighton area, PPYCC are happy to host introductory coached sessions. If you live somewhere else, there are quite a few outdoor cycling tracks dotted around the country and most clubs, I would think, would be happy to provide an introductory session to track cycling.