I never quite understood the appeal of track cycling. It seems pointless to whiz around in loops, over and over again whilst trying to cross the finish line first... yawn. The only redeeming feature of track cycling for me, was speed. That was until I gave it a go myself.
Not being one to shy away from a challenge, nor one to condemn something that I've never tried, I decided to take my pedalling pins to the track. Having learnt to ride on the trails, my whole cycling life had been spent shredding mountains, attempting stunts, and crashing... a lot. Although at the on-set of 2016, I decided to tip-toe out of my mountainous comfort zone, and venture into other areas of cycling.
Being totally new and novice to track cycling, I decided to head up to the National Cycling Centre in Manchester for a crash course with expert coach, Jeff Winstanley, and British Olympic Champion, Elinor Barker, who was racing that evening in the Revolution League.
Fear and Butterflies
Equipped with my road helmet and Strongher cycling kit, I made my way to the reception desk to sign in. The reception desk is where you can arrange all your hire kit needed for track cycling: shoes, bike and helmet. All you need to bring is some comfortable clothing to wear, and it doesn't even have to be cycling specific, you can easily wear some gym clothing... or pyjamas.
Nervous would be an understatement to describe my feelings at that time. As I made my way down the stairs and through the double doors, the velodrome folded open, and engulfed me. It was awesome. I was actually in awe to stand in this hall where champions had been born and raised. The empty chairs and eerily quiet atmosphere still seemed to echo long past crowds of excited spectators.
With my chin still on the floor, I edged my way to the middle of the track where Coach Jeff was awaiting my arrival. While my hire bike was still to come, I walked around slowly trying to take in the sheer size, the steep gradient and the smooth contours of the track, all the while my annoying self-doubting brain was whispering: "You can't do this".
The Track and Track Bikes
Like a child on their first day of school, I hung onto every expert word Jeff spoke. Knowing very little about track cycling, I was mortified to learn that track bikes don't have brakes, gears or the ability to free-wheel. At that point, a cold wave of panic alerted my goosebumps to attention. What the actual f...? Brakes are my speed controlling comfort, gears are my relief, and free-wheeling is essential recovery time, and time to wiggle more blood flow in my numb bum.
Jeff explained the nature of the track to me, and how it should be ridden, and when.
The dark blue area (far most left) is totally flat, and only should be ridden on when setting off, or slowing to a stop.
Next to it, the pale blue section is known at the Côte d'Azur. This section has a slight gradient, and is ideal for building up speed on before you move up onto the wooden area.
After the Côte d'Azur is where the track really starts, marked out by black - red - blue lines for guidance. Every quarter of the track is a vertical black line that cuts through, and these indicate when a rider should accelerate, or deccelerate.
With my hire bike all set-up, track basics and bike understanding explained, it was time to mount up.
Track cycling is like nothing I've tried before. It's almost like learning to ride a bike all over again, but backwards. Here's some fundamentals that you need to know:
As there are no brakes, no free-wheel and very skinny slick tyres, it isn't easy to hop on and clip into the pedals. Jeff advises to always mount and dismount at the railing where you can stabilise your balance.
There aren't any brakes, so stopping the bike is all in your legs.
Another thing to know is that with a fixed wheel, you cannot back pedal whatsoever, nor just stop pedalling. In order to stop or slow the bike down, you have to use your legs to resist the pedal strokes slowly, and firmly to bring yourself to a controlled stop.
Track bikes have a single speed set up. This means there is only one gear for everything, so pacing yourself is crucial.
The very popular saying in mountain biking: "Speed is your friend", rings true on the track as well. If you want to hit those high lines in the corners, you need to accelerate into them in order to make it the full way around.
The idea is to blast it around corners, and use the straights for some recovery pedalling. The black vertical track markers every quarter way are great indicators of when to speed up, and ease off.
Track cycling is a little like chess, you always have to think ahead. If you want to stop, you can't just stop, you have to plan for it about a lap in advance. Moving up the track requires speed, so you have to know when to accelerate and make your manoeuvre. Think ahead, look ahead.
Using the barrier to stabilise yourself, and once your feet are clipped in, it's time to push off. This was pretty scary on the first go as you have to push away from the barrier, whilst pedalling in a tough gear. After the first couple of times, it becomes easier and requires minimal thought.
For the first couple of laps I stuck to the dark blue flat section. This allowed me to get a good feel for the bike, how it handled and how to work out the slowing down novelty. As I carefully made it around the first corner, I pumped my legs and gained some speed in the straight, then played around with pedal resistance to slow myself before the next corner. Surprisingly, it came quite naturally.
After a couple of steady laps, I came to a controlled stop at the barrier where Jeff was waiting. Once I had caught my breath, Jeff sent me on my way to the Côte d'Azur where I was to pedal a few laps, gain some speed and stay on the slightly off-camber pale blue. So far so good...
Once I felt more comfortable, Jeff encouraged me to begin moving up onto the track. You need a good lap or more on the Côte d'Azur to build this up enough speed to maintain position in the corners. So with Jeff on the sidelines, he motioned to me when to transition to the black line.
Admittedly, I sucked at it. My crippling fear got the best of be in the corners, and I felt myself making the rookie mistakes of focusing on my front wheel, and not looking ahead. I found myself able to hold the black line in the straights, and lose it in the corners as I would panic, slow and drop back to the Côte d'Azur.
It's frustrating to say the least, but addictive because my stubborn self wouldn't let me fail at this. Each lap in the corner, I was getting further and further around, but unable to hold that line. It was time for a break.
Once I had chugged down some water, caught my breath and cursed at myself for being so stupid, I gave it another go. Determined to make it a full lap on the line, I pushed off hard and picked up speed fast. Jeff motioned for me to move up on to the track, and I did, and this time, I held it. I managed to make a full lap around the track between the black and red line, and when I came to a stop, that familiar feeling of progress greeted me.
Pro Tips from Elinor Barker
"I was about 11 or 12 when I first rode on the track, and I didn't like it. It was too steep, and too scary so I didn't go back for about a year." - Elinor Barker
Now I'm clearly a pro rider having completed my first full track lap. It was time to ride with British Olympic Champion and World Record holder, Elinor Barker - no pressure!
Kitted out in her Team Matrix kit and stunning team race bike, Elinor met me at the track. Before we set off on a ride, we had time for a quick chat about how she got into track cycling, and how it led her to becoming a British Champion:
"I was about 11 or 12 when I first rode on the track, and I didn't like it. It was too steep, and too scary so I didn't go back for about a year." Elinor told me how she was determined to become a road cyclist, and loved being out on the tarmac. "I always wanted to be a road cyclist, but when I turned 14 and joined the British Cycling program, there was a lot of track riding involved, and it went from there."
We mounted up on the bikes, and Elinor gave me some last words of encouragement:
- Don't stop pedalling
- The same degree of steepness at the top, is the same as at the bottom
- Look forward, and think forward about what you plan to do
- Have confidence in your ability
- Stay alert to your surroundings and other riders on the track
And with a final piece of advice from Jeff: "Whatever you do, don't crash into Elinor... she has to race later!" - Oh bloody hell.
We rode out onto the Côte d'Azur at a steady pace and gradually built up speed. It was a pretty surreal feeling to go from being a terrified beginner, to track cycling with an Olympic Champion, in the same day.
Watching Elinor ride was like watching a swan glide across a pond. It was effortless and graceful, and I felt inspired to better myself. While I was so engrossed in watching her ride, I wasn't paying attention to my own riding. All of Jeff's tutelage went out the window and I hit a corner too slow that my back wheel wobbled, and I went down hard.
Fortunately, I was going slow enough that my tumble was fairly low impact, but on a very unforgiving floor. Except for a graze on my elbow, and an embarrassing jolt to my pride, I got up and carried on riding. It was too late though, the adrenaline had gotten the better of me, and after a couple of steady paced laps, I decided to call it a day on my first track experience.
It's your turn
There was so much I was unaware of about track cycling which actually makes it one of the best disciplines for groups, all year riding and addictive fun.
Fortunately, there are a number of accredited indoor and outdoor velodromes in the UK which offer taster sessions, women's nights and private tuition. All you need is to find your local centre, book on and turn up. Your helmet, shoes and bikes can be hired on site and professional coaches are on hand to guide you through.
One of the best things about track cycling is that you can ride in a group. Now, you can do this in mountain biking and road cycling of course, but there can always been a lower skilled rider who gets dropped at the back, or loses the bunch on a climb. With track cycling, you can lap one another, but always be together in the velodrome which is quite a nice experience.
Here's a few indoor UK velodromes to choose from:
This is the home of British Cycling, and they run a ladies track night every Tuesday at 19:00. You need to register and book your spot online, and away you go!
With a number of beginner courses and drop in sessions, the Glasgow Velodrome is aptly named after National, World and Olympic champion, Sir Chris Hoy.
Taster sessions, kids courses and a wide variety of track and multi-discipline cycling is on offer at Lee Valley
The Welsh national velodrome is another popular choice for track cyclists. They have a busy timetable with a whole variety of training and beginner courses to choose from throughout the year.
My scepticism about track cycling has been totally abolished. It's challenging, it's fast and it's annoyingly addictive. The feeling of completing your first lap of the track, is awesome and the skill required has given me a new sense of admiration for track cycling athletes.
There are a variety of indoor and outdoor velodromes across the UK. They are open to the public for visiting, booking on a course and often they host amazing race events to really get you hooked in.
So what are you waiting for? Rope in some friends and book onto a beginners course, or a ladies night.
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