We leave the road behind for once, and sample the intense thrill of track racing at Newport Velodrome.
Anyone who follows the Olympic Games can’t have failed to notice that Great Britain is the undisputed world leader in track cycling, and have been for a few years now – from Chris Boardman’s trailblazing performances in the early 90s, through the era of Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton’s total dominance in the sprint events and Brad Wiggins regularly smashing world records in the pursuit, and lately the all-round prowess of cycling’s golden couple Jason and Laura Kenny.
For most road cyclists, the idea of riding round and round in circles is not what you would class as a fun way to spend your time, but there are actually many good reasons to give it a go. Not only is it lots of fun, it can also make you a better rider, with many benefits that transfer from track to road, including building leg strength and developing bike handling skills. Indoor velodromes in particular can also be a great way to get a guaranteed dry ride through our typically dark and wet winter.
Since many velodromes provide bikes at no extra cost, you don’t even need to go to the expense of buying a new bike to get started. Just turn up with your regular cycling kit, shoes and helmet and you’re ready to go (do check what type of cleats you will need on your shoes though, or bring your own pedals).
Walking out, through the tunnel and up the ramp that takes you into the center of the track, the first thing that hits you is just how steep the track is. Watching track racing on TV doesn’t give a true impression of just how sheer those banked bends at are- in the flesh, they appear almost vertical and it’s slightly scary to even think about cycling around it.
If your goal is to race on the track, then you can’t just jump in at the deep end. New riders are required to complete a series of training sessions that aim to prepare you for riding safely in a group and learn some of the skills you need to train and race on the boards. Before we even get on the bike, our coach gives us a trackside talk, giving us some basic insights into track riding – the top tip being, ’Don’t stop pedaling!’
With that advice taken on board, we mount up and are on our way. We begin by pedaling gently around the inside flat section, known as the apron (usually painted blue, it is also known as the ’Cote d’Azur’), with the aim of getting used to the bikes, practicing accelerating and decelerating using just leg power alone.
Accelerating is easy enough and no different to riding our road bikes, but easing off and coming to a stop is a different ball game, with it being more a case of trying to get your mind out of the routine of hunting for the brakes with the hands while also resisting the instinctive urge to attempt to freewheel, which you’ll only make the mistake of doing once!
Lesson learned. ’Don’t stop pedaling!’ ’Gently increasing speed and confidence, we move up the track, with each of the painted lines feeling like a milestone. The low-down black line marks the shortest and fastest way around. Next is the red sprinter’s line (on the last lap of a sprint race, overtaking riders have to stay outside this line). And finally the blue line, halfway up (in a madison race, ’resting’ riders have to stay above this line). Getting higher on the straight is simple enough, but trying to hold a line above the blue line all the way around the 45-degree bends is no walk in the park, and the speed required to stay up there is considerably faster than you might expect.
Against the clock
After just 15 minutes of riding, our legs were already feeling it. A combination of a slightly different riding position, the constant pedaling and, more than anything else, the unnatural feeling of having to push backwards whenever you want to slow down feels more tiring than an hour on the road. Tired or not, though, we couldn’t help but wonder how we’d fare against the top stars of the sport, and we’re given the chance to find out by ending the session with a 500m flying-start time trial. This mimics one of the events of the omnium, where you start with a rolling lap to build up your pace, aiming to hit full speed as you cross the line for two timed laps going as flat-out-fast as you can.
Setting off, we try not to push too hard on the roll-out lap, gaining height on the back straight and taking the bend as high as we dare before using the drop down the banking to gain more speed. Spinning our legs like a lunatic, the clock starts as we cross the line. The aim is to stay low, keeping as close as possible to the black line in order to take the shortest route around the circuit.
It’s only 500m, but long before we finish, the burn in our legs is intense. As they become heavier, our speed starts to drop off long before the finish line comes into view. Into the final 100 meters, we dig deep, pushing as hard as possible, spinning our legs as fast as possible. By the time we cross the line, we’re absolutely spent. Wow, that was hard! Surely, though, the fact it’s hurting so much must mean that we’ve got a pretty decent time.
The coach announces our result, ’38 seconds. Just 2 seconds faster than a12 year old!’ Ouch.
This humbling revelation brings home just how incredible the top athletes are- in particular Sir Bradley Wiggins, who managed to hold a significantly faster pace not just for two laps but for over 200 consecutive laps in setting the World Hour Record back in 2015.
But can track cycling really be a discipline for the average rider? We found it surprisingly addictive and while riding around in circles might sound boring, we can tell you it was anything but-the mental focus required to keep pedaling and follow the line round the track means you can’t allow your mind to wander for even a moment! It’s a seriously intense workout, and just an hour’s taster session left us feeling totally done for, but also incredibly satisfied. Live near a velodrome? Then give it a go!