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Velodrome cycling with Team Sky’s Ben Swift

19 Jun

Few things are more exhilarating than cycling at speed round a steeply curved velodrome track, others on your heels and the single golden rule in your head: “whatever happens, do NOT stop pedalling”.

Raring to go with our fixiesI discovered this thrill after spending yesterday afternoon at the Herne Hill Velodrome with Team Sky professional cyclist Ben Swift, the fantastic velodrome coaches and the brilliant team from Human Race. On a muggy London afternoon, thankfully with dry skies, I headed to the velodrome – the only venue from the 1948 Olympics still in operation – with a friend Kate and fellow FT staff Ben and Tom. Tom’s an FT journalist and a keen cyclist, and his previous close encounter with the velodrome track did nothing to quell my nerves about my first time on a fixie bike (that means no gears and no brakes). The event was part of the FT’s partnership with Human Race, also including the FT London Sportive on 30th of June (which there are still places available for, if you get in quick).

On arrival the team fitted us and about 30 other riders with the kind of single speed old skool bikes you’d expect to see trendy East Londoners riding, sans helmet. As he adjusted the seat for my height, coach Tony told me this particular red bike was ‘Wiggo’s old ride’. (Only the massively impressive 2012 Tour de France and Olympic gold medallist Bradley Wiggins.) Must go fast then, I thought…

Lining up to startTeam Sky’s Ben Swift (what a brilliant name for a pro cyclist) is an incredibly nice guy who was very generous with his time and advice. After a quick pep talk: “Whatever happens, do not stop pedalling. Always look to your right before you move up the track and left before you move down. To stop, simply slow your legs down. Have fun, smile, and whatever happens, do NOT stop pedalling” – we were off. By ‘off’ I hardly mean a racing start, more that we held rigidly on to the fence beside the track as we strapped our feet into the pedals, before ever so gingerly moving off onto the flat part of the track. One lap round on the white line, one lap moving up onto the blue line, one lap up onto the red line and a final lap sitting at the top at a very odd sideways angle thinking desperately, do not stop pedalling! Slowing down takes some time as you gently ease off your legs, reducing the pace until you can grab the railing beside the track to stop fully and unclip your feet.

Round the trackAfter the comfort of my usual road bike with brakes, riding a fixie was daunting. Add to that a track that slopes upwards at what feels like a 90 degree angle as you round each corner, and the initial experience is unnerving. In actual fact the steepest gradient is a mere 30 degrees, gentle compared to the 45 degrees of the 2012 Olympic Velodrome. “Hoods or drops!” the coaches yelled as we sped past – most of us were gripping the handlebars at the front where the brakes should have been. No use doing that. Much as I knew the force of gravity and traction wouldn’t let it happen, I still felt like every time I rounded the bend at the top of the track, the bike and I would slip down to the centre and crash catastrophically.  It was only when I’d been round a few times and proved this wouldn’t happen that I felt confident to build up speed – and that’s when the fun began. Because when you forget about the slope, forget about the risk of crashing, forget about the lack of brakes and just think about going round as fast as you can, the sensation is electric. Your focus is honed on pushing your legs round at speed, looking fleetingly to each side as you move up and down the track. Then on tailing the rider in front of you closely to catch their
draft, before pulling up and accelerating the pace to overtake. The higher up the track you are, the better visibility you have and as Ben explained, “it’s all about your vision”. From there you can check where your opponents are, view the track ahead and plan where and when to attack.

On the trackOur second drill was an attempt at group riding. I say attempt because what was supposed to happen was a tightly spaced peloton of riders moving smoothly at the same pace, the leader pulling up and away at each halfway point, before easing in to the back. What actually happened was a haphazardly spaced and paced jumble of riders trying to stick close together, but not really wanting to sit on the wheel of the cyclist in front just in case someone forgot to stop pedalling. In the end four of us managed to make the formation work for a while, and the oomph that you get from sitting behind the leader of the peloton is substational. At the front you’re battling the wind and pulling the others along but behind, your legs spin easily and you roll along almost effortlessly.

Kate and I with Ben SwiftThe final session was the best – an eight lap scratch race. So called because all riders start from scratch, rather than at intervals like in a pursuit race. Here, the object was simply to go as fast as possible and I promise, eight times round the 450m track was hard work. When you really push it your thighs are burning and lungs are gasping and legs are flying so fast they’re a blur. (In my head they were, anyway. Photos may show otherwise.) On the last lap the coaches rang a bell so you know it’s the final one and can really go for it. I have no idea what the time was, but I do know that eight laps was quite enough. Ben holds the record for the 15km race around the track – that is 33 laps. Don’t ask me how you keep count.

The whole experience was sensational, simultaneously terrifying and intoxicating. I can’t wait to go back. In keeping with the theme of this blog (to encourage more women to give cycling to go), there were about five women to 30 men there, so I asked the coaches about the male/female ratio. Much more men than women was the answer, but Kate and I were strongly encouraged to join the ladies session, run by women for women and taking place every Sunday from 5-7pm. Just £6 to turn up and give it a go… I might just be there next week.

Kate and I ready to go