“Well, that was bloody brilliant!”
The words of my fellow track cycling inductee succinctly summed up the feelings of the group as we dismounted the track bikes in the Lee Valley VeloPark’s velodrome, grinning ear to ear, and made our way back to the infield.
In fact, the hour-long women-only track taster sessions at the Lee Valley VeloPark, one of the first all-women’s session run here, had induced a spring in my step worthy of Tigger. I, along with the 14 others in my group, had just cycled the world’s fastest velodrome, and we had the certificate to prove it.
Track taster sessions are a chance to try out the discipline for the first time, with no prior knowledge assumed, other than the ability to ride a bike. My group included seasoned club riders and women who had never used clipless pedals before. Some intended to advance through the four stages of track accreditation, while others just fancied giving it a go. One had come from as far afield as Cambridge for the sell-out session.
I should declare this was not my first excursion on this track. The first, several weeks ago, rather a disaster as, gripped by fear, I refused to ride on the sloping part of the track at all until almost the end of the session, despite gentle and persistent coaxing from the kindly coach.
Our female coach this time, Alex Elmquist, assured me nerves are par for the course – a product of the strange discipline and formidable venue – though she feels having women-only sessions mitigates this somewhat.
“The women here really enjoyed it. Everything seemed a bit more laid back, and equal. I think today they just seemed a lot more relaxed than I perceived on mixed sessions.”
“I think that unfortunately women seem to feel a bit intimidated [in group sessions] because they tend to think: ‘These guys doing it, they’re going to be better than me,’ which isn’t the case necessarily at all, but once they’ve got that in their heads then they kind of handicap themselves from progressing further.
“Here it felt like everyone is just on the same level.”
It’s hard to say whether or not it was the all-female setting or my understanding of the feel of the banking, but there was no sign of my former nerves this time around.
After setting up the bike, we clipped in, holding onto the fence, and did our track orientation, at which point Alex Davies, the woman who had never ridden with cleats, fell over in slow motion behind me. She said afterwards she actually felt better for it, like the worst was over and she could relax and get on with riding.
After the odd limbo of being attached to a static bike, gripping the fence, our feet clipped in, receiving instructions, we made our way from the rubbery certainty of the safety zone, through the section of flat boards, aka the Cote d’Azure, onto the track proper – the black measurement line, the red sprinters’ line and eventually the blue stayers’ line. Here, high above the ground, with an odd, squeaky, grippy sensation on that curved banking – never looking down, just following the line – I could hear the cranks of other riders turning behind me.
That’s not to say it was all politeness and gentility: once we were given the green light to overtake one another, the gloves came off, and women started coming past, yelling ‘stay’ to let me know they were passing. Meanwhile I grinned from ear to ear, pretended to know what I was doing for spectators with cameras, pedalled and let the bike do its thing.
When I saw my coach from last time, on the infield getting ready for the next session, I had to yell at him that I’d made it up the banking this time. It was a proud moment, for me at least.
Abigail Armstrong (no relation), a keen mountain biker and member of Hackney GT, said of the experience afterwards: “The main difference I think is not being able to free wheel or brake. As a mountain biker I’m used to doing some quite scary stuff that you have to commit to; I do baulk out and put my foot down and with this I couldn’t, I just had to keep going, so when it came to going quite high on the banking it was a matter of forcing myself to do it!”
Alex Davies, who, it turns out, manages the PR for cycle cafe Look Mum, no Hands!, like me fell in love with the experience, after some initial jitters.
“I was really scared, to be honest. Not scared enough to not come but pretty shaky at the beginning. It’s quite scary when people are overtaking you, it’s going so fast.
“Once you’re going it’s great and you don’t want to stop. That’s what these bikes lend themselves to, the pedals and the wheels keep moving and you want to keep pushing and you don’t want to stop. It was so much fun, I want to come back!”
She’s not the only one.
Interested in taking part? Here’s what you need to know:
Women’s only sessions will continue to run every two weeks on Sundays, dates are released two months in advance on the first day of the
month, i.e. on 1st March, May’s sessions will be available to book.
Cost: £30 standard, £22 concession
Cost from 1 April 2015: £35 standard; £22 concession
Be sure to book in advance as places are snapped up pretty promptly once they are released.
Alternatively there’s mixed sessions on an almost daily basis, which
may be easier to get into.
More information is available here.