Last weekend I finally tried track cycling at the Herne Hill Velodrome. This iconic open-air track, built in 1891, is the only remaining venue still in use from the 1948 Olympic Games. It is also where Bradley Wiggins started out, so I was definitely in the right place!
The induction was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. For a start, it was my first time on a fixed gear bike. This means you can’t coast as you would on a normal bike, you have to pedal all the time. Track bikes have no brakes, so instead of stopping suddenly you gradually adjust your speed (or go around if there is something in the way ahead). At the end of my first ever lap I felt sheer panic when it came to slowing down. The only way to do that is to try to pedal slower and this is a very unusual feeling. Instead of a gracefully motioning to a halt, I panicked, flailing my feet back to break the momentum. But after a couple of practice stops, you realise there’s no need for frantic action – you have to stay cool and trust your legs to do the stopping in their own time!
The lift-offs and landings were a tad daunting at first too. You feet are strapped in and you can’t stop by just squeezing the brakes. You push off the barrier to take off and grasp the railing before you come to a stop. If you happen to be too fast to grab hold of the barrier in a classy way, it’s advisable that you just keep pedalling and do a lap of shame around the velodrome. In the centre there’s also a really lovely patch of grass, which (I thought to myself) would make a soft emergency landing! Thankfully, that wasn’t needed as I got the hang of it … just about.
Then there’s the slightly raised banks (30 degrees to be precise, although it can be much steeper on other velodromes), which from the outside look like you might slide down if you’re not pedalling fast enough. In reality the physics of it all worked pretty well – we did a few loops of just climbing up and down the banks and even in a row of six or seven of us: you look up and there’s a pyramid of cyclists all the way to the top of the bank!
The instructors were really chirpy and excited to get a new batch of newbies on the track. They explained everything in a really straightforward way. All the various drills we did also made me appreciate how much skill and teamwork there is in this sport, as well as incredible fitness, strength and endurance.
It was such a fun experience to whizz around the track – I would highly recommend it to everyone. You can hire a track bike and a helmet from the velodrome, so you just have to show up. The group itself wasn’t particularly big so we had pretty much individual training. The velodrome provides numerous sessions for all levels, which you can find here. I went to the Saturday induction, which starts at 1pm (arrive by 12.30 to get the bikes) and for £10 includes bike hire. Then there’s also women’s only inductions once a month, and women’s training sessions every Sunday from 5pm (only £7). So give it a go!