Lee Valley Velopark Part 1
Before we start, there's a confession I need to make. I had never ridden a fixed wheel (unless you count a spin bike which is probably blasphemy to the fixies out there!). I could never get my head round how you stop (yes some have a brake but its common design that fixed wheels do not have this option), control the speed of the bike and when you throw in clip in pedals, I picture many awkward moments of having a painful meeting with the pavement.
Previous year I had attended the Track Cycling World Cup with the sarcastically enthusiastic other half (she won't admit it but she enjoyed it more than I did!). The whole occasion with the atmosphere, speed of the racing and the fact it was an Olympic venue blew me away. Loved it all but what did not prepare me was the sheer steepness of the banking that they were racing round. We luckily had amazing seats, 2nd row from the front on the back straight although there wasn't a restricted view anywhere in the venue and the angle of the banking really does overwhelm you. You try to imagine yourself on it but somehow I had myself falling off on every replay.
I had the chance to put this premonition into practice. The now 'Team Sky' following other half kindly brought me track session taster vouchers to use for my birthday. Come the day, I felt oddly nervous. No experience with fixed wheels (I'm a demon on a spin bike though, sweat more than a pig on National Bacon Day!) and there's not many opportunities to ride around a track in the West London area. Accompanying me on this particular adventure was Dave also known as @test_richie on Twitter and Instagram (@RouteSurreyUK had unfortunately training that day although I smelt the roses from far away, I knew the real reason!). We both packed our lyrca (we had our own clothes, there's no sharing in this friendship!) and set off towards to the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park. If you haven't visited the park yet, its worth doing but I have issues with the whole thing. As an Olympic Legacy, it feels very half hearted. Credit where its due, the whole park is completely accessible to the public, you can swim in the Aquatics Centre or see what sports event is on at the Copper Box Arena. I have had the privilege to visit both sites; Aquatics Centre to watch the Diving World Championships and the Copper Box to be part of the Panathlon Challenge, a sports charity aimed at providing sporting opportunities with those with SEN thanks to my role as a PE teacher. But as you venture through the park, you only get a glimpse here and there that something amazing in 2012 had happened. Try to out jump Greg Rutherford or can you out sprint Usain Bolt is a couple of the challenges dotted around. Apart from the upon the hill just outside the velodrome, there is no Olympic Rings structure or eye catching banner welcoming you to the park. That orbit tower is just weird, no one knows what it represents and its just an example of letting a designer run wild without nailing down the meaning of the Olympic Legacy. A better design would be an interactive building of rings where each ring would represent a sport or activity for people and especially children to interactive with. Just a thought Boris....!
Think Dave felt the nerves too, we didn't have a clue what to expect and how hard the session would be. I read a few reviews before we began and most were positive but also warned you to expect producing some sweat in the process. As we were early, we registered in at the desk then made our way up in the velodrome to watch the conclusion of the previous track session. @test_richie was impressed and just like my first thought back at the World Cup event, he too noticed the banking gradient. The group out on track were whizzing round, some pushing high up on the track. We both wondered if we had the cojones to do the same?! The changing rooms are located just under the track and you are greeted by awe inspiring Olympic images from the games, you get the feeling legacy was the core ingredient here unlike the rest of the park. As we walked up the steps into the middle of the arena to collect our rented shoes and helmet, you get to appreciate the venue in all her glory. It's not overly big but its tight which acts as the catalyst for the electric atmosphere which was created when riders such as Chris Hoy and Laura Trott graced the wooden surface and pedalled to eternal glory and legend status. Even though there was a few friends and family watching in the stands (we had no loved ones there, cue that person playing that tiny violin in the corner!), the velodrome was empty. The cafe in the gangway behind the seats were serving but they weren't exactly dealing with an elite event so all was quiet.
Condor was the supplier to velodrome for the track bikes, you could bring your own but the last time I checked at home, I think the missus threw away the £5000 Pinarello track bike that was rusting away in the cupboard, I did tell her I might need it one day but she needed the space for a new hoover! We were given a safety briefing by the instructor and the main points was to keep pedaling (obviously as it was a fixed wheel!) to prevent coming off, follow his strict instructions with what lines to follow and to keep gaps close so the bunch is not spread too far. Resting up on the side, I managed to clip in but now fully aware that me and the bike are now one, no brakes to rely on and if I am to fall off, it won't be on a quiet country lane somewhere where I can dust myself off and have a little chuckle, no, it'll be an Olympic venue in front of a group of riders, a British Cycling instructor and worst of all, one of my best friends who would never let it down!
The instructor encouraged us to have a few laps of the Cote D'Azur which is the blue safety area inside the wooden track. As a roadie, your mind set is that you can coast when not pedaling so when I suddenly got jolted out of my seat, it rocked my attention and reminded me not to stop pedaling. Dave had the same issue so I was glad I had another novice with me. We were then taught to slow down by applying reverse resistance on the pedals, using our legs to be the force to slow momentum down so if you are closing a gap to fast or need to slow up because of a bunch group, applying small amounts of reverse resistance slows the bike naturally. We were now told to begin riding along the black line which is the exact length of the track, 250m. The laps begin to feel roll off one by one in quick time, you focus so much on staying on the line you forget the amount of laps you are completing. Even with the black line, you feel the gradient rise already. You can't help but fear your pedals are going to clip the surface and throw you off but as you watch others in front keep the pace and are still sitting upright, you begin to build the confidence and commit more to the turns. Each time the instructor calls the group in, you must slow the bike and return the Cote D'Azur and stop at the gate which takes you back into the centre of the arena. Each mini task lasted approximately 10 minutes or so and involved experiencing each track line.
The key lesson learnt was the higher up the banking you go, the more speed you need to keep to maintain stability and control of the bike. I had overcome my fear of clipping the track and started to push more in the turns. Dave started to began more confident too and we had both solved the jolting issue thanks to the reverse resistance technique we had learnt in the session. The session also went through a basic overtaking technique using the stationary instructor as a target, the aim was to come off the banking and sweep up the home straight around the instructor and back into the banking. What you are not prepared for is the significant change in speed when you drop back down to the racing line. You can start to feel what it must be like when the pros begin an individual sprint or make an effort for a breakaway in a scratch race. The last part of the session was a license to roam. Dave and I both looked at each other and had a synchronized thought of hitting the top of the banking. The gradient up there was 45 degrees so it's not one for the feint hearted. Most of the group chose to stay down on the racing line but I wanted to grab the opportunity and get the full experience of feeling what its like up top. One rider bombed off in the distance so he was my target to keep up with. Second confession of the day, I didn't go all the way to the top but according to Dave he did although himself as a source is not totally reliable as he was eating my sawdust all the way round! Being let loose on the track with other riders was a great experience, I was seriously thinking what it would be like riding for a club but I got rid of that idea when I learnt what level 2 in Track Cycling consisted of! Can you ride within 1 metre of the person in front and parallel at similar speeds? I just about managed not to fall off and take wide berths overtaking other riders so I'll pass!
We got given a certificate for our session which makes you feel like a kid again in assembly showing off your sporting achievement but for something you won't experience many times in your lifetime and the fact that you had ridden on the same track where sporting history was made, Dave and I didn't mind being children again! As we were changing, clubs were coming in for their track sessions. If I was local to a velodrome, I would give it some thought about taking up track cycling especially in the winter, its fast, furious, fun and although you racing constantly on an oval track, there are various events which involves a wide range of skills physically and mentally. For now though, we were both looking forward to that nutritional meal with all the key vitamins and ingredients to help your recover after such an intense workout....'I'll have a large Whopper with large fries please mate'...'go on make it a meal then!'
'Never use your face as a brake pad.'