I was at Manchester Velodrome recently for the UCI Track World Cup. It’s the first international track event they’ve had there in several years — London and Glasgow have hosted recent events. But it’s still the most important track in Britain, because without it the last 20-something years of British bike racing would be totally different.
It was built as part of Manchester’s unsuccessful bid for the 2000 Olympics — the IOC wanted to see some evidence of commitment in the form of some venues, and a velodrome, built to the minimum acceptable specification on the contaminated site of an abandoned coal mine beside a canal full of shopping trolleys in East Manchester was what the bid committee offered them.
Unaccountably, the IOC preferred Sydney. The track became known as the medal factory. It looked a lot more like a double-glazing factory.
I feel like I’ve got quite a lot of personal history in Manchester Velodrome. The first time I was there was in the winter of 1994, the year it opened. I almost froze to death because it hadn’t occurred to me that it might not be heated.
My friend Bernard was there, and one of us had among the stupidest crashes ever, when in an attempt to do a team-pursuit style change they went straight on at the entry to the curve, up the banking, and crashed into the fence at the top.
These days we can remember all the details of this humiliation, except which one of us it happened to. This makes both of us feel rather old.
The next time I was there, in September 2000, I’d been invited up for an assessment for the GB squad. Minutes after I arrived, a doping story concerning a GB athlete broke. (It was Neil Campbell, and if you knew that already you may consider yourself a doping nerd.)
I was warned by performance director Pete Keen: “We’ll probably be under siege from the press, so don’t talk to anyone on your way out.”
Leaving, I was approached a single bored-looking man. “I’ve been told not to talk to the press,” I said. “Do you think you’re effing Elvis?” said the man. “I work in the cafe. I’m just looking for someone with a lighter.”
These were the days when cycling in the UK couldn’t even make the headlines with a failed dope test.
Setting aside my first visit, I had two verifiable idiot crashes at Manchester. Once, riding down the ramp from the track, I kicked back against the gear to slow down, and the sprocket on the back wheel unscrewed.
I freewheeled helplessly all the way down the ramp and out of the track-centre, and was only stopped when I collided with Sir Chris Hoy, who was exiting the toilets. To say he was unimpressed would be a considerable understatement.
The other was on my first session with the GB squad when, as a very novice trackie, I was asked to do two flat-out flying laps. At the end I flung my bike forward at the finish line, and like an idiot stopped pedalling. The fixed-gear launched me into the air.
I overtook Olympic medallist Bryan Steel while I was still about three feet clear of the floor. He was every bit as impressed with my skills as Sir Chris.
That was the only time my track career ever showed any signs taking off. But the track careers of most of those who survived my best efforts did take off, and some of them are even still prepared to say hello to me.
It’s a place for which I, and a lot of others, will always have a lot of affection. Other tracks may be newer, come with more impressive buildings, but as far as I’m concerned they will always be second best to that big round shed.