I RODE A BIKE WITH NO BRAKES! And I did not fall off, crash, or generally damage myself. And I sort of want to do it again. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about track cycling. I was lucky enough recently to take a trip out of the office down to Herne Hill Velodrome . Considering I lived in Tooting for two years, I am actually now quite ashamed that I never made it down. And I definitely think that if I was still in Tooting, I would go again.
My parents bought me and my sister a track experience at the Lee Valley Velodrome for Christmas. My dad went a few years ago (ironically, we bought him this as a Christmas present also…) and I had popped along to watch and remember thinking it looked fun – and he had a whale of a time. I think my mum was secretly a bit disappointed that I was giving it a go before using the voucher (and my sister is annoyed because she thinks I now have a headstart and will be better than her) but I could hardly say no.
If you’ve been to either of these velodromes – or seen a picture – you’ll know they are a little different. Herne Hill has been around for decades, and is the last remaining venue from the 1948 Olympics (where apparently, their scheduling was’t too great, meaning that the final races had to be lit with car headlights and the photo finish impossible to see!)
It has an inner circumference of 450m, maxing out around 30 degrees in steepness, whereas your typical Olympic standard velodrome is only 250m, with a max gradient of around 45 degrees. Herne Hill has had stars such as Anquetil, Coppi & Tommy Simpson (I was one of the few people fangirling when we were told this) and is an incredible place, having been maintained and saved from destruction, and is now a key part of the London cycling community. There is an incredible history and they are rightly proud of it – the recently rebuilt clubhouse is full of photos from bygone eras, and has local club jerseys adorning the walls. It’s also where Sir Bradley himself first started racing.
If you know the people I work with, you’ll know we have several cyclists and LOTS of sporty, competitive people. But it seemed that track cycling was giving a few people the heebie jeebies before the session, and I think a lot of that was down to a) knowing there were no brakes and b) the banking. However, skipping to after – I genuinely haven’t found anyone who didn’t enjoy it. The good thing about track cycling is that there was flexibility to do what you wanted. If you wanted to keep going round at the bottom of the track at your own speed, go for it. If you want to pretend you’re in the Olympics, go for it. Just be safe, respect the rules, and listen to what you’re told.
Firstly, the bike. It has one gear, no brakes, and we were in toe cages (ugh…I felt like a child again)
Gloves, helmets, long sleeves are all key (unsuprising really) Lean your bike against the railing, get in, toe-caged rather than clipped (eek) in and hold on for balance! (Track cycling means you have to pay attention or you fall over) To start, you basically just check for traffic, use the rail to propel yourself forwards, start pedalling and off you go. AND DON’T STOP PEDALLING.
You can’t freewheel (don’t try it) and you brake by resisting against the pedals and slowing down your cadence. And then grabbing hold of the railing again, ensuring you are going slow enough to avoid pulling your arm out of its socket. This was a mildly terrifying concept to get right seeing as I had zero idea how long it would actually take me to slow down. But you suss it out pretty quickly.
The team of coaches were great, and basically gave us a selection of different tasks and activities.
- Getting used to the bike – cycle round in a circle, don’t fall off, get used to slowing and stopping and holding onto the rail again at a sensible speed so you don’t fling yourself around and dislocate a shoulder. MAKE SURE YOU ALWAYS LOOK OVER YOUR SHOULDER!
- Ride the lines – there are several coloured lines around the track. The aim here was simple – ride one on the white, one on the red, one on the “ghost line” (basically a faded line) and then one between the ghost line and the top of the track. It is surprisingly easy to go high up and no, you don’t slide your way back down, you don’t really feel like you’re about to topple over and yes, it is easier and less scary than it might first appear. The more you pedal, the easier it is.
- Make a shape – ride along the white line on the straights, before hitting the bend hard and riding up at the top. Check your line and drop back down to the white for the back straight. Repeat!
- Play the animal game. Basically ride in a line, with the distance of a named animal in between you and the rider in front. We started with elephants, then ended up with very dubious rabbits. There was also a lot of discussion about whether it was a labrador or a chihuahua when we were told “dog”. Riding that close together is quite hard, particularly when you are worried about the lack of brakes.
- Team pursuit style. One long line, and at each end, the first person peels off, goes up the bank and then drops back in at the end. This definitely challenges your ability to maintain consistent speed relative to the others in your group! It also challenges your ability to pay attention and listen to when you are told to stop (except secretly we just wanted to keep going for another lap)
- Pairs changeover. Ride in a line of pairs – then the front pair peel off to the top, keep riding and drop back in on the end. Again, challenging your ability to maintain speed relative to the others!
It was a great experience – we were then informed we had done our taster session and therefore would be welcome at other sessions, and then could move towards becoming accredited. I was particularly interested when i found out that they ran ladies-only sessions, as well as the ASSOSLDN women’s track league.
Seriously, give @HHVWomen a follow on Instagram, they’ve got workshops, training, ladies night and all sorts! Again, as I said, I wish I still lived in Tooting as unfortunately it’s just that bit too far for me to go.
Unfortunately, we then had to go and do some actual work. Booooooo.
But, it’s made me think more about what I want to get from cycling, including some interesting discussions now about crit racing over the summer…very much looking forwards to my trip to Lee Valley!