We head down to the rather alien world of the Lee Valley Olympic Park Velodrome and give track cycling a go!
I'm not a hardcore road cyclist, in fact entering the Velodrome was one of the first times I had ridden anything vaguely resembling a road bike with drop handlebars. It was also the first time I had ridden a fixed gear bike, and the first time I had to clip myself to the pedals. As I looked over from the stands and saw the sheer scale of the track and the steeply banked corners at each end, its fair to say I was starting to shit myself a bit!
So why the hell did I find myself in this situation, you might ask! It was thanks to the team responsible for the Six Day London event in October this year who invited me down to try out track cycling and learn how to ride the track from their team of expert coaches and also cycling superstar Robert Forstemann (aka quadzilla) on hand to show us how it's really done and to give us his top tips for a good result.
So after the initial "shit this thing is big scary and steep" moment, I was introduced to my trainer for the session and kitted out with a helmet, clipless cycling shoes, gloves and tech to track heart rate and speed. I nervously headed onto the track to start my session.
Once on the track, it appeared just as intimidating as it had from the sidelines. But I was here now and I didn't want to look like a twat in front of everyone so thought it best to give it a go.
I'm up for most things and am not adverse to adrenalin fueled activities, but for some reason this track really had me spooked. I had very little experience on a bike with thin slick tyres and dropped handlebars as all of my cycling had been on a mountain bike up until this point. I was also nervous about the prospect of being clipped to a bike which had no gears, no freewheel and no brakes. All these things threw me out of my comfort zone and despite being a keen cyclist on trails and offroad routes felt like I had entered a totally alien world of cycling.
I hesitantly made my way out on the track for the first time, having been advised to get a feel for the bike around the blue (flat) part of the track. A couple of laps in and I was starting to feel more confident and started to tease the bike onto the wooden panels at the base of the track. The track has a little rounded section at the base of the track before it starts to get steep and for a few more laps than I care to divulge this was about as far up the track as I was happy to go. With shouts of reassurance from my trainer as I whizzed (it felt fast to me...) past him each lap, I started to build up my speed.
The big problem with fixed gear bikes is that they don't provide any ability to stop. Once you start pedalling you really do have to keep pedalling until you have reached a complete standstill to avoid what I can only describe as a terrifying moment of chaos just before a complete wipeout. I discovered this uncomfortable place due to overexerting myself and running out of steam. When you are totally knackered on a bike the normal thing to do is to have a little chillout and freewheel along for a bit, but that only works on bikes with a freewheel! I stopped pedalling and my back wheel was instantly crashing about all over the place trying it's best to throw me onto the track headfirst.
Thankfully my desire to not be that person who fell off first and looked like a tit in front of everyone took over and my survival instinct or sheer horror kicked my legs back into peddling me along again and the chaos returned to just being mildly terrified again and I was able to slow down and find the comfort of the railing at the side of the track where I unclipped myself from the bike and regained some level of normal composure.
After another councilling session with my trainer, I clipped myself back onto the bike and started to build up some pace around the track. This was to be my last practice before doing a solo timed lap with everyone watching so I was determined to make a little more progress this time, as I had barely ventured onto the wood panelling of the actual track so far! The main issue with track cycling is the need for speed in order to make the steep corners more stable and the main issue with that is in order to gain speed you need to have confidence and muscle power.
These were not things I had arrived with an abundance of so I needed to pace myself and leave enough energy in the tank to pedal back to a standstill. I decided to push myself a little harder "it's only a short burst" I kept telling myself as I pushed on faster and faster with the continual shouts of encouragement coming from the side of the track.
I managed to tease the bike up a little way up the track but each time finding myself moving quickly down to the bottom of the track as I approached the downward slope of the corner exit. I felt I had failed to really gain any confidence for my timed lap and with that came off the track to watch a humiliating display of skill and speed from Robert Forstemann before I took to the track once more to time my lap.
For those of you not familiar with Mr Quadzilla, he looks like a guy who wrestles tigers and drags reluctant elephants into their cages at the zoo, rather than a cyclist. Most cyclists I know are pretty lean looking physically whereas Robert looks like a guy from an advert for protein shakes who's assets have been modified in photoshop.
There was no camera-trickery here though, this guy was the real deal. He's been known to pedal his bike with a dynamo wired to a toaster and successfully make toast with the power of his legs alone, so I knew he was going to put down an impressive yet humiliating display of track skills when he set off on his lap. He didn't disappoint! He wasted no time to wind up to a flying lap and blasted around while we watched his technique ever hoping it would help improve our own attempt.
I now know what it must have felt like for James May (aka captain slow) on Top Gear when the stig would go out and set a timed lap to beat. The only word to describe my feeling was futility. I was rapidly residing myself to a humiliating lap time at the back of the pack.
There were around 10 riders with me, some with a similar mix of experience and terror as me, and other riders with track experience and all the gear to infer they have spent a fair while on the saddle of a road bike and none of the shame to wear their lycra in public. Thankfully I wasn't the first to head out on my solo lap, so I gratefully watched from the side of the track as each rider set off on their timed laps. The key is to build speed and to start to build height on the track then when the bell rings to swoop down from the heights and nail the bottom black line on the track and pedal like you are being chased by one of Roberts tigers. Everyone who went out before me seemed to really grasp this concept, and as I had failed to even make it halfway up the track in practice I was sceptical about my ability to follow suit and get the line right.
It was my time to shine and I clicked into the pedals slightly more confidently than I had previously and started to make my way around the track. I had the whole track to myself this time and with my name and stats flashing up on all the screens of the arena I got a glimpse of what it must be like to compete for real in this iconic building in London. I built more pace than I had in practice and despite the terror of doing so I started to make my way up to the uncharted territory of the top of the track. To my surprise, it was far less terrifying than the prospect of looking like a complete pussy in front of everyone and before I had had a chance to enjoy the view from up here, I heard the bell ring and I swooped down onto the bottom line of the track and commenced my lap.
When you get going the pedals are spinning at quite a rate, with no gears to drop down you really spin up your legs which is a sensation I was unfamiliar with. It's also quite a long time to go flat out for when you are unused to that level of cardiovascular exertion.
In reality, I was going much slower than Bradley Wiggins did when he smashed the 1 hour record on this same track and he did 218 laps for my one! These details didn't offer much consolation as I got to the end of my lap hyperventilating like my lungs were about to burst. But I had done it, I had made it around the track without crashing and without making a complete cock of myself either. Whilst I had created no risk to Robert or Bradley's career, I did get a feel for what they must experience when they are flying around this track with the crowds cheering and the flex and groaning of the wood panels as they thunder around.
Despite my fears initially of coming last. I managed somehow to go faster than a few others and finished in a far less humiliating position than I expected and now that my heart was thumping back inside my body I was able to enjoy the moment and soak up the excitement of this sporting activity.
After the session I caught up with Robert "Quadzilla" Forstemann to find ask him a few words of wisdom -
1. What are your top tips for an aspiring track cyclist? Desire to win, perseverance, diligence and ambition are the cornerstones of a sports career. Cycling - especially track- cycling is a very rough sport - I always call it boxing on two wheels. You watch your opponents, try to impose your own tactics on them. You always want to be one step ahead of the opponent - and when he dishes out, you have to move your tactics really fast. Because of the lack of experience, you have to take a lot of defeats at the beginning and sometimes crashes too. Recuperating quickly and motivating yourself is what makes a successful track cyclist.
2. Where are some of your favourite rides off the track? Road training with my road bike is also an important part to lay the foundation/ basics for a good shape on the track. That is the reason, that during my 15 year career, I have seen many beautiful places off the track. My favourite rides were road training at New Zealand, Capetown and Guadeloupe. Also a really beautiful memory is my ride to the bay of Sa Calobra at Mallorca. After a hard fight over the mountains (and this is really not so easy with these huge thighs!!), I was rewarded with a beautiful landscape which invites you to stay there for a while.
Lee Valley Park Velodrome offers plenty of taster sessions throughout the year for anyone who wants to try out track cycling, and also plenty of club meets and sessions for people who want to be more competitive and take things further. It will also be hosting the Phynova Six Day London event between the 23-28 October 2018 bringing the party to the track and offering a unique event of racing, music and fun with some of the biggest names in track cycling including Mr Quadzilla himself. https://sixday.com/london/