Fancy riding your bike on a nice easy to follow route? No rain, no mud, no puddles? No cars to avoid? No dodgy right turns at junctions? No junctions at all in fact! Just one slight problem.....the corners are on a 42 degree slope. You read that right - 42 degrees! Oh yes, and you won't be on your own bike, you’ll have to borrow one - one with drop bars, one gear, no brakes, no freewheel.
Yes - it was Fat Lad (and Lasses) at the Track. After 9 months of trying to get a slot - it is REALLY popular and busy - I managed to get a one hour intro session for my FLAB group at the velodrome at Derby Arena. And from the speed the other 15 places got snapped up, it was obviously something other people were keen to try as well!
OK, I'll admit that I've done a few of these intro sessions since the track was opened, but I'd not been for the best part of a year. So as we gathered in reception, I recognised that some of the forced smiles and too loud laughter among the group was hiding a slightly hollow feeling of butterflies under the (mostly) on message array of FLAB jerseys we were modelling. Quite big butterflies to be honest.
It doesn't get any better as you walk out into the arena. Even with the infield being taken over for this year’s Derby pantomime, it's quite an awe inspiring sight as you walk out under the track and take the steps up to the "D" where you meet your coach, your bike, and your destiny. The D is inside the bend of the track. As you sit there in the pre-ride briefing, you only have to look over your shoulder for that 42 degree banking to loom high above you like a wall of Siberian pine. Imagine, if you will, a very open plan sauna. I was certainly beginning to sweat.
Our coach, Simon, talked everyone through the basics of a track bike - yes, it really doesn't have any brakes, it really does only have one gear and because it's a fixed wheel you really can't stop pedalling. You should always ride on the drops of the handlebars. Oh, and if you don’t go round the banking at 15mph then gravity will have its wicked way with you, so pedal hard in the bends. We took our borrowed bikes and clipped and clopped our way up the ramp in what to many of us were unfamiliar road cleats and onto the flat safety zone that runs round the inside of the track. Coach Simon had recognised me from my previous visits. "You've been before, you know what you're doing," he declared to me and another of the group who is a regular there and fully accredited track rider. "Off you go while I talk to the rest". I really wasn't feeling quite as confident in my abilities, but begging seemed rather undignified in front of the group.
You don’t even start off like you do on a normal bike. You hold on to the railing with your left hand while you clip in with both feet. Then you realise that the pedals are all at the wrong position and try and back pedal to correct them – except it’s a fixed wheel bike and you can’t just spin the pedals. Unclip both feet, hop off the saddle, lift the rear wheel, rotate the pedals to where you want them, hop back up on to the saddle, clip back in, right hand on the top of the handlebars, reach along the rail with your left hand, grip it tight, look back over your right shoulder to make sure no one is coming up behind you, then in one smooth motion you pull on the rail with your left hand while you push hard on the pedals and you wobble off along the safety zone praying you have enough speed to stay upright.
That fixed gear seems like hard work until you get up to speed and then suddenly you are moving more steadily. As I come round to complete my first lap on the safety zone I can see the rest of my group wobbling away from the rail one by one, like little ducklings taking to the water for the first time. Which forces me to commit to the first, flat wooden section of track, the light blue “cote d’azur” – get me, with all the fancy terms! – to give us all room. “More speed” Simon instructs me and points to the brown wooden track itself. The one with the big steep bend in it!
On the back straight I build up my speed and pull on to the track properly, following the black line just up from the safety and security of the flat cote d’azur. I can see the bend approaching, it seems ridiculously steep but at least I’m only a foot or so higher than normal if I come off now! Am I doing 15mph? I’ve no way of telling, so I push harder on the pedals and the bike and I tilt into the bend and due to forces of physics my long forgotten “O” level never really explained to me I have survived and got round the first bend and just as the elation is about to kick in I realise that the next bend is right there in front of me. On a 250m oval track, the bends come at you thick and fast, so I keep pedalling hard as I bring the bike up to the next, red line, a bit higher up the track and hold it there, feeling more confident each lap as the warm dry air begins to dry my throat at a surprising rate and my legs begin to complain at the fact that they absolutely have to keep pedalling as I simply cannot relax and freewheel.
The group have had a couple of goes at starting and stopping so Coach Simon signals for me to come in and stop. Stopping is pretty much a reverse of starting – come down the track to the cote d’azur, relax your legs to pedal more slowly and lose speed over 1 or 2 laps until you ease gently up to the railing and reach out to grab the rail with your left hand just as your legs stop turning and the bike stops. Except that I’m still going a bit too fast, overshoot the rail and have to pedal round again for a second, more successful attempt.
The group are chatting and smiling to each other – they’ve all successfully started and stopped one of these wonderfully weird bikes without mishap. And it wasn’t as bad as they feared. On the flat. And this is where Simon’s excellent coaching skills come in to their own – as he drops some flat cones along the track in the start/finish straight, he explains that we are going to set off again, three bike lengths apart, building up our speed on the cote d’azur, and then when we come into that straight we have to go up the track around the cones and then drop back down. And we do – round on the light blue bit, up on to the wooden track above the cones then drop back down to the light blue for the bend. Easy. Confidence on the bike improves each lap, the speed eases upwards in response, and the cones move further up the straight section of track with each lap until we are riding up towards the outside of the track and dropping back down further towards the start of the bend. Starting to ride the banking without even realising it.
After another all too brief rest, the cones are removed and we are off around the track in a long line while we build up speed to that magic 15mph – relatively easy with no wind, no traffic, no potholes – and Simon points us out to the black line to follow it around all the way round the track. Round the 42 degree banking. And we do it! You can feel the satisfaction, amazement, delight as we all realise we are really riding the track at a velodrome. Simon guides us further up the track in stages, red line in the straights, down to the black in the bends, blue on the straights, red on the bends. He drums into us the vital skill of checking over your shoulders before you move up and down the track, to call out “Stay!” as you are about to overtake someone so they don’t pull out in front of you, and then he lets us loose, giving us the chance to see what we can do on the track, to discover how much speed you can pick up as you come down off the banking into the straights, how much easier it is to hold the line in the bends the faster you go.
Then it’s over – our hour is up. We are all pumped with adrenaline, laughing, caught up in that heady feeling of success that in the space of an hour we had gone from – most of us – total novices, track virgins, to riding laps on the banking. And enjoyed it. For all of us, it was a bucket list ticked off – ridden at the velodrome. No one said they hadn’t enjoyed it, a few were happy to leave it as a one off experience, far more were keen to come back and try it again. It is “just riding a bike” but it’s unlike any kind of bike riding I’ve done before – nervy, anxious, exciting, exhilarating all at once.
A couple of week later I got the chance to go again on a novice session with my local cycle club – same nervous newbies, same routines with the same coach, same delighted reactions at the end. The next time I ride a bike I’m commuting into work – my old familiar bike, brakes, gears, rucksack, traffic. But it feels slightly different somehow. I feel more balanced, more connected with the bike. I pedal faster to speed up rather than changing up and mashing a bigger gear. My pedalling seems smoother, I’m aware of my feet turning circles, pushed by my thighs. It’s the feeling I had on the velodrome.
Tempted to try the track? Then do it – there are 5 indoor velodromes in the UK (Derby, Manchester, London, Newport and Glasgow) – all offering introductory sessions with great coaches for people just like you, people who ride bikes for the fun of it and want to try something different. But be warned - it gets addictive. In another couple of weeks I’m going back again with the club to do my Level 2 accreditation. And there’s a speculative eBay search for “track bikes” on my account. It’s a slippery slope.
And it’s 42 degrees.