One humble road rider’s first foray on to the boards at Sydney’s Dunc Gray Velodrome.
The first thing you notice is the gradient. Especially should you enter the stadium from the mezzanine rather than the infield, as I did foolishly. Looking down from the faded plastic bucket seats in the cold, empty stands, the banking at the ends of the track is, quite frankly, terrifying. I knew it would be steep, but this steep? Worse than Alpe d’Huez, but no free beer in plastic cups. What am I doing here?
Friends and club-mates had been suggesting I hit the velodrome boards for about two years now. Their voices grew especially loud last summer as my kids began riding track on Friday nights, albeit an outdoor circuit on roadies. “Bring your pedals tonight mate?” “When will we see you out there?” “You’ll be fine, besides if you do come off it’s only a bit of skin, it’ll grow back!” I appreciated their well-intended coaxing, but didn’t share their confidence.
Whilst at 41 I’m no hipster, I have owned a fixie for about 12 months which I ride sporadically, most commonly when no-one is watching. It’s kicked me in the backside a few times, but after a little trial and a lot of error, I felt I’d developed a reasonable handle on the required technique to avoid public humiliation and the constant threat of trauma injuries. That said, the idea of close-quarters racing at 40km/h+ with no freewheel or brakes on a steeply banked surface still scared the beejaysus out of me. Accordingly, even as more and more of my road riding brethren dipped their pedal into the addictive waters of track racing (“It’s like crack,” suggested one club-mate who shall remain anonymous, “you can never get enough!”), I showed evasion skills that would do a conniving politician proud. Yes, I stalled. And stalled. And stalled some more.
Then I lost my job.
Suddenly, in one of those rare life moments of true enlightenment and clarity I thought, what the heck? Let’s do this. Five hours later I was being fitted up for a loaner bike on the infield of Sydney’s Olympic Velodrome, Dunc Gray, as pimply-faced teens and scrawny tweens whizzed around the 250m circumference like lycra-clad mosquitoes. I wasn’t wearing my heart rate monitor but it’s a safe bet my pulse had shifted into the big chainring at that moment.
In an attempt to relax I made small talk with another anxious looking middle-aged fellow nearby, enjoying only his second time on the boards, saying that I was feeling both excited and a little nervous. “A bit like losing your virginity, really,” he offered wryly. A fair summation. But was I in for a happy ending? Or a fumbled, life-scarring initiation? Time would soon tell.
The juniors continued to fly past, but had now been relegated to the bottom of the track by a speeding line of far more serious looking folks. Older, faster, meaner. With noticeably more expensive looking bikes. All I could think of was please don’t let me embarrass myself in front of these people. Or even worse, crash into them. There are inauspicous beginnings. Then there’s injuring people.
After a few minor pedal and saddle adjustments, my bike was sorted. I’d been entrusted with a sleek and remarkably new looking white aluminium bike with, I think, 48-13 gearing. I had no idea whether this was good, bad or indifferent never having ridden a track bike in my life before. But as I did a few laps of the infield my cadence felt comfortable and that was something. My mentor for the evening, a bike mechanic and jovial guy named Ian, was happy and that was good enough for me. The adrenaline was pumping and I was ready to get stuck in.
But first, the riot act. I’ve watched a lot of track racing on TV over the years, but it’s safe to say I learned more in the next five minutes than I’d done in the previous 41 years. Sprinter’s lanes. Blue lines. Duckboards. Aprons. Dropping in. Overtaking etiquette. Suddenly, what only moments earlier had appeared to me as a largely haphazard collection of 30 riders or so, revolving around the infield with no apparent order, was transformed into a highly choreographed and remarkably safe two-wheeled training session. It’s amazing what you see when you know what to look for.
As Ian explained, in quite graphic detail, accidents still happen on the track. But unlike road racing, the absence of brakes and freewheels make things so much more predictable for riders. If you stick to a few basic rules, you should be fine. The use of the word should worried me slightly. But, hey, there are no guarantees on the road either. In any case my health and life insurance were both in order.
A quick drink and, finally, time to ride. As I clipped in for my maiden journey, I was left with some parting advice that, in truth, I’d heard countless times already from countless people; “Whatever you do, don’t stop pedalling!” Okay, I won’t.
I began, as instructed , with a few rather pedestrian laps on the apron to get a feel for the place. No problem, except perhaps one of bordeom as I was passed by a 3-year old on a tricycle (okay I made that up, but you get the point). Soon enough I shifted up to the duckboard where I was comforted by the thought that up close the banking didn’t seem anywhere as fearsome as it did from the stands. Rapidly gaining momentum it was time to hit the track proper and, after a quick look over my right shoulder to avoid manic 11-year olds in ill-fitting jerseys who were no doubt high on sugary energy drinks, I entered the sprinter’s lane; the very same sprinter’s lane so many of the world’s finest track cyclists have also occupied since Dunc Gray was officially opened in 1999. As a bona fide sports tragic, this moment wasn’t lost on me.
By now I’m pretty sure I was smiling, widely. What had I been so worried about? This was fast, safe and bloody good fun. I felt 15 again. The only remaining apprehension in those first five or six laps was learning to trust that my speed and tyres were sufficient that I wouldn’t come crashing down as I banked at each end of the track. In many ways this sensation reminded me of the first time I abseiled. It takes a little courage to trust your rope and harness on that first pitch, but once you do, it’s a wonderful feeling. Same with riding track. Like swirling a bucket of water over your shoulder without spilling a drop, using G-forces to hug the track at high speed was, for mine, pretty much the best bit.
The digital lap counter continued to tick steadily down from 160, and I began to smash the pedals harder and harder with each circuit of the track, working up quite a sweat. Confidence growing, I sat in a few pacelines and took several turns on the front. I got out of the saddle for sprints to the line. And, when safe to do so, I drifted up the banks to the very steepest parts of the track – a mind bending 42% in places – just to see how it felt. (Answer: it felt good.) I was also rather pleased when the advertising signage painted on the upper reaches of the track didn’t send my wheels sliding out from under me. Armed with this important piece of information I’ll feel even safer next time, and no doubt ride even faster.
As I write this it’s now the morning after my debut ride. Yes, I’ve found a few new muscle groups I didn’t know I had. My arms and legs are sore. But no more than after a longish ride on the road. I still feel genuinely wired from last night’s experience. And I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the track, a training session next week closely followed by my first ever race at the increasingly popular Race All Winter (RAW) Series. First of course, I need a bike. Sorry credit card.
Peter Maniaty is Marketing & Communications Manager for Subaru NRS newcomers, Cellarbrations Racing Team, and writes the cycling blog, carbonaddiction.net