I was on my commute home from work, scrolling through Twitter and I noticed a Tweet from British Cycling. Without hesitation I found myself clicking through to the registration page and before I’d even had time to stop and think I was signed up for British Cycling’s South East women’s track skills session at Lee Valley Velodrome. I’d been told by cycling friends riding track was a great way to become more skillful on my bike but until now fear had got in the way of me trying this discipline.
I’ve never ridden a fixed gear bike before and I was very nervous about riding a bike without brakes. My biggest fear was forgetting to pedal (freewheeling) which can result in being thrown off the bike and I couldn’t stop thinking about this, track cycling wasn’t my idea of fun. However the more I ride my road bike the more I want to get better at it. I’ve improved my fitness and now I want to craft and perfect my skills. I shared the news of my next adventure with the women of Ampthill RCC and 2 of them agreed to join me.
Before the session, I spoke to my cycling coach Mike Charlton and I asked him for his top tips for riding the track. His immediate response was “I love coaching track, it’s the single most rapid advancement in rider skills” which reaffirmed why I was putting myself up for this. He went on to give the following tips:
- The angle of banking at the bottom is exactly the same as the top so if you can ride on the datum line you can ride up the wall.
- Push down more on the left leg.
- Pedal in perfect circles to stay smooth and straight. If you’re a stomper you will wiggle all over the place.
- Look over your shoulder BEFORE you move in either direction.
- Don’t try to freewheel !!!!
Tip 1 immediately set my mind at ease, that high wall looks so steep and I had visions of myself sliding down it and ending up with very large, wooden splinters in my bum. Tips 2, 3 and 4 were very practical so I parked them in my mind and decided they would be put into practice once I arrived and tip 5 sent my mind into overdrive, forgetting to pedal was my recurring worry.
This was a women only session, the group was of mixed ability, some who had and some who hadn’t. Those that had were set off on the track. Jen and I were complete novices so after an initial briefing that covered bike checks and kit, entering the track, starting, stopping on the rail (this worried me) and looking over your shoulders we headed for the safety of the track center with our new bikes under the guidance of our coach for the day, Terry. He introduced himself as one of the old school and we should be prepared to be pushed, I immediately liked him. He explained how to mount the bike and we were on our way, initially letting go of the rail was like taking my very first step but once I allowed my legs to take control of the situation (instead of my head) I was riding around a carpeted course, feeling quite happy and getting a feel for the bike and the way it handles. Terry asked us to ride towards him and bring the bike to a stop and unclip, immediate panic set in my mind, my palms went clammy and I was shaking. As I rode towards him I was controlling the bike and slowing it down, I learned very quickly these bikes are quite simple and very responsive. My perceived fear of having no brakes now seemed stupid, as I reduced the effort and slowed down the bike stopped, I unclipped, and everything was fine. Terry declared “you’ve all presented yourself to be competent cyclists, we’re off to the track”. Jen and I looked at each other, slightly scared, slightly excited, this was it, we were actually going to ride on the track.
We were clearly briefed before each track session and we were also led out by Gemma, a club cyclist training to be a coach. Her input into the session was so valuable, there’s a lot of information to take in so having someone to follow made a big difference. We did a couple of warm-up laps around the apron then Gemma led us up onto the Cote D’Azur then the red and blue line, we were always looking over our shoulders before making a move and the importance of this was really reinforced throughout the session. The track feels flat when you’re riding it, that aggressive slope seems to disappear, it’s a strange sensation. I was also surprised at how relaxed I was, I felt at one with that bike, my legs just naturally kept spinning, I never thought about my fear of freewheeling.
We rode around on a fixed route, following Gemma until Terry instructed us to come in, slow down and ride up and stop at the handrail. It surprised me again how easy it was to slide my hand along the rail and come to a controlled stop. Terry had given us the tip to take in a good deep breath or 2 before we unclipped to dismount, to allow our legs to settle and this was a good tip. My legs were teaching me that track cycling is a very intense workout, we were doing sessions of approximately 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off and during the off time, I was ravenous. Luckily we had a picnic of food in the car for the journey down so we quickly fetched this at the next opportunity and munched our way through pancakes, bananas, and coconut milk rice pudding.
This was a skills sessions and I could feel the learning curve increasing, each session on the track pushed us that bit further and taught us something new. On the next round Terry instructed us to ride right to the top, to the black line and it was incredible how much force and power goes through your legs to stay up there. I felt a few wobbles and Mike’s tip to pedal in perfect circles came into my mind, I tried to relax and make my pedal strokes more fluid and the wobble went away. We rode through and off, in a group of 4, as we approached the corner the front rider peeled off, up the wall and dropped to the back. We started to learn how to use the banking to control our speed. The team I was in quickly adopted brilliant communication, calling “all on” each time the rider was back in line and it was poetry in motion to ride in a group with these 3 girls I’d never met before.
Space and pace pushed the skills further, forcing us to slow the bike down and maneuver around obstacles, Terry instructed “use your hips” and the next laps when I came around I stopped trying to steer the bike with the handlebars and I used my body instead and I immediately felt the difference. On the next lap he’d moved the obstacles and made the angles more aggressive, it felt like I came close to the wall but I slowed the bike down in time and around the obstacles, I was learning fast. As I came around the track for another time Terry instructed me to stop, at the top of the wall, on the outside rail. This was way beyond anything I was really prepared for, I slowed down and held on to the railing, looking down on the track below. The velodrome was filling up now, a kids session was happening in the track center and the cafe was buzzing with people. My bike slipped from underneath me but fortunately, I managed to unclip in time to prevent any further incident. I got back on my bike but my legs were shaking, I was at the front of the group and I felt conscious the riders behind me were depending on me to make a good start. Terry instructed us to start riding and it was, without a doubt, the biggest challenge of the day for me, dropping back in from a fixed point near the bend but as with everything else, I did it and I didn’t fall down the track. Terry instructed us to ride around back to the same position, he wanted us to try that again but this time we should ride off together in a line, this added to the pressure that I had to make a good start. Letting go of the railing and applying maximum power to the pedals ticked the box of being pushed way outside of my comfort zone during that session, I struggled to let go but I forced my fears aside and went for it.
The session finished with an Italian pursuit race, starting from the outside rail again. The accredited riders and novices like myself were all mixed together and we were set up in 2 equal teams. Terry and Alsion the coaches explained the rules of the race and we decided our starting order. This final challenge brought together all of the skills we’d picked up throughout the day, pacing, communication, observation as we cleared the track and finally the last riders put in a great sprint and finished with about 3 meters apart.
Here are a few of the things I learned:
- Riding on the track forced me to be more skillful on the bike, skills I have already transferred to my road bike
- I didn’t freewheel or think about freewheeling
- Stopping is much easier than you think it will be without brakes
- Track bikes are simple to ride and you can learn to control them quickly using your body and the track bankings to either increase or decrease speed
- It’s a great way to improve pedaling techniques and velocity
- Track cycling offers a very intense workout, bring lots of food and hydration tablets for your water bottle. I was exhausted after the session and I slept for 3hrs when I got home that afternoon
- As with all types of cycling, the more relaxed you are the easier is will be
- I gained a lot of confidence from this session
- The session took us to the equivalent of level 2 accreditation and we were awarded level 1 accreditation
- Track cycling is exciting and fun, I can’t wait to go again
The British Cycling South East series has now finished but The Lee Valley Women’s Track Skills Series commences 23rd April 19:00 – 21:00. More information here: http://visitleevalley.org.uk/en/content/cms/london2012/velo-park/track/#skillseries. To book, log in using your Lee Valley membership number, click on Lee Valley Velopark, and then find ‘Women’s Specific Track SkillSeries’ in the menu.
Track riding isn’t just indoors, Herne Hill Velodrome has one of the most thriving women’s track cycling scenes in the country. They run a women-only track race league once a month on Saturdays, with the first round on 15th April. More information: http://www.hernehillvelodrome.com/womensleague/ They also run their women’s training sessions every Sunday evening 17:00 – 19:00. Herne Hill also has its own accreditation system. More information here: http://www.hernehillvelodrome.com/whats-on/training-sessions/pathway/