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Where to Ride Road

Track Taster Sessions: I Have Tasted (Almost) Every One

Here's why you should have a go on the track, and why we'll be returning after the intro this winter

I am not a track cycling expert, by any stretch of the imagination. However, it occurred to me recently that there’s one area within track cycling where I am absolutely an expert: the introductory, or taster, session.

I’m not sure anyone is ever meant to become an expert at such a session – but I have defied the normal progression – of introduction, accreditation and racing – multiple times. Let me explain.

Before you’re able to take part in training sessions at any velodrome, you almost always have to do a ‘taster’ session where you learn the basics. The session generally involves a coach explaining the nature of a fixed wheel bike, with no brakes, a demonstration of how to move off and come to a stop, and a couple of laps on ‘the blue’ safe area before gradually moving up the banking and some group riding etiquette pointers.

I know all this by heart because I’ve now done four tasters. You could say that I have tasted excessively, in all varieties.

I know all this by heart because I’ve now done four tasters. You could say that I have tasted excessively, in all varieties. My first taster was at Manchester, when I worked in Marketing for a retailer, and my boss and I were invited to ride in a British Cycling session before our meeting with their team. The second was at Calshot, with my cycling club. The third was as a member of the press, at Lee Valley, and the fourth (on Saturday) was as a private individual, genuinely interested in attending more track sessions, at Herne Hill.

herne hill velodrome

The first of my four ‘My First Track Session’ experiences was an absolute buzz. I was so wrapped up in excitement, that it never even dawned on me to feel scared – until we were lined up ‘on the blue’ (the safety skirt of the banking, before the wood panels go up) and I realised that indeed I was meant to cycle on this near vertical surface.  And I’d never ridden a bike with no gears or brakes in my actual life.

I realised that indeed I was meant to cycle on this near vertical surface.  And I’d never ridden a bike with no gears or brakes in my actual life.

Pulling off from the barrier, I felt an immediate lurch and a little jump in my stomach – but as soon as I was pedalling, I was happy and felt more confident than I ever do cycling through the heart of the busy city. We experimented with ‘On/Off’ efforts – pedalling super hard for short periods before rest intervals.

Baby Michelle, several years ago
Baby Michelle, several years ago at Calshot

The second session, with my cycling club, was much more focused upon etiquette – the skills required to sit close to the wheel of the rider in front, and how to monitor speed by pushing back on the pedals should you need to slow down. The skills are absolutely necessary, but I have to admit the child in me was more interested in having fun on two wheels than – you know – learning stuff.

Lee ValleyVelo Park

Session three – at Lee Valley was more recent, just a few weeks ago – and after a stint in which I’d not been on the boards for a couple of years. It mainly served as a reminder quite how much fun, and how much hard work, track cycling is.

Many cyclists spend time on their turbo trainers over winter to improve their pedal stroke, work at higher intensities, and complete intervals uninterrupted by traffic. The track provides all three –and then some, throwing in leg speed on a fixed gear and the ability to push through the turns of the wooden boards.

All set up and ready to go
Track just as beneficial for fitness but more fun than turbo? Probably!

Lee Valley was a prompt – reminding me how excellent track training can be for any rider, and how much structured, coached, short, hard sessions can add to fitness. Unfortunately, it’s harder for me to get to than – say – Herne Hill. It was this realisation that found me visiting the 1891 concrete track on Saturday.

Herne Hill offer introductory sessions every Saturday, at £10 with bike hire included. These stop over winter, and you’ve got just two more Saturday’s to get down there and get in. They also provide skills training sessions, and women’s only sessions, that you can take part in as soon as you’ve done your introductory taster.

To take it further and go to race training, you do have to do your accreditation stages, and rightly so – but it’s inviting and encouraging to find a velodrome which offers training before the accreditation stages. The skills session will cease for winter soon, but Sunday’s two hour women’s training will carry on all year.

The session at Herne Hill was attended by around 15 people, about a quarter I’d say were also women which was really encouraging to see. They ranged from a whippet-like roadie in Look Mum No Hands! kit and speedplays, to baggy shorts wearers and couples in gym style kit. Some looked nervous, others eager. There really was no ‘typical’, I pondered as I sipped a coffee form the on-site catering and chatted to some guys I happened to know, and hadn’t expected to see – they’d just finished their morning skills training. It’s funny how friendly the cycling community is – and how interwoven and genuine.

Putting on regular non-commercial events (time trials, track sessions, anything but sportvies where riders pay £50 to partake) requires the assistance of riders dedicated to passing on their passion

There were four coaches, some of whom were clearly wizened veterans on two wheels – the kind of pillars of the cycling club community that you come across if you frequent the 6am roadside starts of Time Trials. Putting on regular non-commercial events (time trials, track sessions, anything but sportvies where riders pay £50 to partake) requires the assistance of riders dedicated to passing on their passion and experience and these coaches were certainly of that variety.

Being concrete, with a much shallower banking, riding at Herne Hill was very different to any other taster experience. The shallower banking took away some of the challenge, and any of the nerves that I’ve previously experienced. However, in its place was the technical demand of negotiating the effect of the wind. Headwinds meant riders in front slowed, speeding up as they shot around the corner and into shelter, then gaining an extra push.

Pushing off from the barrier – this time beginning from the top of the velodrome, as opposed to the bottom as you would at an indoor ‘drome – I still felt the lurch, but after my previous three tasters, was notably more confident applying pressure to the pedals to slow.

We began with some simple laps, moving on to each taking a turn on the front. A Time Trial rider at heart, I was notably happiest on the front, always feeling a little pang of regret when I had to swing up the banking to rejoin the rear. This is why road racing doesn’t suit me, I expect.

Next, the coaches led us in snaking lines up and down the track in an exercise called ‘lumps and bumps’ where we followed their movements – much like a Mexican wave on wheels. Finally, as the close of the session crept closer, we rode in pairs, with each duo taking a stint on the front before swinging back, one behind the other.

It was with regret in my heart that I climbed off my loaned track bike, and handed it back – but with joy that I pedaled my road bike away, thinking of the possible future of winter sessions every Sunday that stretched ahead. My legs spun in happy circles, confident in the memory of that constant pattern on the track.

After every one of my four taster sessions I’ve attended, I’ve always wished I could do more – but the distance to velodrome has always been too great, and the cost of accreditation been somewhat large for someone who is simply wanting a little winter fitness. This was the first time I’d left with every intention of returning next week, and hopefully the week after that.

We nipped down to Herne Hill Velodrome today for an induction. Induction done, you can go to mixed pre accreditaton sessions on Saturday or women’s only sessions on Sunday. Give it a try! www.hernehillvelodrome.com

A photo posted by Total Women’s Cycling (@ttlwomenscycling) on

Track training provides a confidence in group riding,  a perfect opportunity to finesse pedaling technique, and an excellent fitness boost for those looking to progress over winter. Go on,  give it a go – at least a taster. Or four.

Not sure where your nearest velodrome is, and what they offer? Check out our velodrome guide. 

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