The Spoke August 30, 2014

What is it like riding around a Velodrome?

I had always wondered what it was like to ride in a velodrome. Sitting in front of the television during the Olympics in 2012, it looked like an exciting experience – and one that I’d like to try.  In recent times I’ve ridden round a couple of outdoor velodromes, one in Brighton (Preston Park) and one in a small town just outside of Paris, called Senlis. The Brighton velodrome contains a very shallow banked track on one side – so much so that the ‘bank’ is rendered unnecessary.  Senlis on the other hand has a genuinely banked track at either end and measuring 333 metres in circumference it’s a 250 meters shorter than the Brighton track.  However riding indoors would offer a more controlled environment; with no wind, a considerably shorter track (rounded to 143 meters) and steep corners (45 degrees), it would be a completely different experience. All this, plus we would be riding fixed wheel bikes. That would take some adjustment.

Calshot itself has another dimension that appealed to me also. The reason the track is so steep is because it was designed into an old aircraft hanger; it used to be the home of the Shorts Sunderland flying boat. There’s a number of static display boards that describe Calshot’s history as an airbase as well as its current guise as outdoor activity centre.

We had booked a 90 minute session. It would be 2:1 coaching, just myself and Frank on the track at any one time.  We would learn how to enter the infield, stay riding within the Cote d’azur (the blue band), conduct exercises between the black line (measurement line) and the red line (known as ‘Sprinters Lane’) as well as sweeping in and out to the blue ‘Stayers” line located half way up the track. At the end of our session we would get to do a flying 1 km lap to see how we rated against the course record (less than a minute, I believe set by Eddy Merckx).

Frank and I rolled up with plenty of time to spare, allowing for a detailed recce of the track and tea over looking the Solent estuary the narrow band of water that separates the mainland with the Isle of Wight.

Our allocated time arrived; with requisite forms signed we waited with a degree of apprehension for our instructor, James. He was a young guy, hung-over from a heavy weekend. He seemed very chilled out, very relaxed, a perfect approach for a tutor. Initially he wanted to assess our cycle skills (we could be in trouble here I thought). Having chosen an appropriately sized bike we acquainted ourselves with the fixed wheel. Barely 5 minutes later James was satisfied we had the where-withal to get on and off the track combined with the ability to stop without breaking our knees off. An important feature with a fixed rear wheel.

Our first foray around the track was riding on the Cote d’azur. To be honest, even that was exciting. We were still getting a feeling for the bike and getting used to our legs always in travel. It was evident how easily power could be transferred from the rider to the bike and then the track. The bikes were very responsive.  Riding within a specific zone (on the track) was alittle challenging, but we quickly became used to the motion. We progressed to following the racing line and then switched between sprinters and measurement line. We were told to do 2 things; (a) stay half a track length away from one another and (b) keep the speed under control. James was looking for precision and track awareness more than our ability to hammer round as fast as we could.

His advice to us was to look 20/30 meters ahead at all times; allow the bike to slingshot its way around the corners and trust the bike to go where it needs to go. Focus on a smooth pedal motion and maintain a constant distance between ourselves. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was harder than it looked. The trick was to relax and let the speed of the bike carry you through the corners. We were doing between 8-10 laps per exercise and time was racing by. It was an interesting experience getting coached on how to ride a bike – an activity we both took for granted. James continued to shout out instructions to us throughout our session, either words of encouragement or things for us to concentrate on as we rode around.

This was just a taster session. You could see how you could easily get hooked on this event. The ride was so smooth and the power transfer was so immediate. I would never look at roads like the ones round Stocksbridge in the same light again! Finally, after 7-8 exercises we were ready for our flying lap. We would get up to speed, indicate we were ready to James and he would start the timer. 6 laps at 85% power (don’t go mad he said) and see how we did. Frank offered to go first. 

He looked pretty neat on the first couple of laps as he whipped by. On about the third lap he ‘caught a crab’ (old rowing term) on one of the bends and wobbled about, drifting up to Stayers but quickly got things back under controlled. From my vantage point in the centre of the he looked pretty smooth and composed. He clocked a time of 1:28.6 which sounded ok to me.  The standard had been set.

My turn.

You should know by now that I am not very good at being non-competitive. I was mindful of the advice James had just reiterated; don’t go mad. I got up to speed, the adrenalin beginning to course its way around. I passed James and said ‘Next Time!’ I increased speed and that was it – I was away. I kept my pace steady and tried to focus on being as smooth as possible. I put more power through the pedals. I wanted to keep the bike steady as it tended to wonder up on the entry and drift down on exit. However, with this track though it was not long before you had another attempt! The laps seemed to last longer and I could hear my heart starting to do some proper work. I entered one corner and momentarily lost concentration and wobbled all over the show. I quickly recovered and rode on through the straight. 2 more laps to go. I upped the pace again and slingshot my way around the corners. Final lap. Finish with a flourish; I did; in 1.28.6 – exactly the same time as Frank. Honours even. Seemed fair enough to me. It had been a great way to spend 90 minutes.

If you get the opportunity to have a session in a velodrome you must do it. It was great fun and I would not hesitate to do it all over again. Calshot was a great venue, steeped in aviation history as well as being blessed with some terrific views of the Hampshire coast. Well worth a visit.

Finally, my thanks goes to Emma; this experience was more entertaining than the time trial which would follow a week later……..

For more information about Calshot velodrome go to www.3.hants.gov.uk and navigate from there.

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