Dr. Hutch: Track cycling

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, I promised any new readers who’d been inspired to join us that before long these back pages of the magazine would be examining in wonderment the technical regulations of the Union Cycliste Internationale. Well, you’re in luck. It’s happened even sooner than I could have expected.

You will remember this summer of 2012. In particular, you will remember it as the summer of 3.2.112. That’s the ‘mishap’ rule, in case you didn’t recognise it. The rule applying to track time trials that states, ‘In the event of a mishap, the rider shall take a new start after a rest of approximately 15 minutes.’

The equivalent applies to the team sprint in the form of close cousin 3.2.154. There are other similar rules for other events – but I will not spoil for you the adventure of finding them for yourselves.

It was the mishap rule that Jody Cundy tried to invoke after a, well, mishap during his kilo start. And it was the refusal of the commissaires to allow him a restart that resulted in a bit of bottle-hurling so fine that he was head-hunted by the club-throwing talent ID programme. (Incidentally, full bottles are a tremendously satisfying thing to throw.

I’ve managed to wean Mrs Doc into throwing bottles at me rather than teapots when I get in late from a ride. It’s saved a fortune, and she’s perfectly happy with the arrangement, as I am reminded most evenings.)

Act of Godzilla
The problem is (ta-da!) regulation 3.2.021, which defines just what constitutes a mishap in the eyes of the UCI. A puncture. A fall. The breakage of an essential part of the bicycle. That’s it. Skids and slips don’t count. Earthquakes don’t count. Godzilla attacks don’t count, unless he breaks an essential part of your bicycle or you’re so surprised you fall off.

And interestingly, starting gate failures don’t count either, so the other riders at the Paralympics who got a restart after a failure of the official equipment ought really to have been sent packing on the basis it was their fault for entering.

Contrast with the master of mishap, Philip Hindes. When Hindes’s team sprint start at the Olympics turned to spaghetti, he fell over the instant he had enough control to do so. This is what you’re supposed to do. If you don’t want another go sufficiently that you’re prepared to fall off to get it, you don’t deserve it.

The rule was designed like that in the early 20th Century so that they didn’t have to give restarts to the kind of dilettante who wanted another go merely because an inadequacy of moustache wax had led to a trivial handlebar tangle.

I remember a national championships a few years ago when a novice kilo rider pulled his foot out of the pedal as he started, and wobbled perilously all over the track. In those days the crowds at the national track were smaller, but very well informed. ‘Fall off!’ they bellowed as one, in the friendliest of spirits. We had the pleasure of his coach screaming, ‘Fall over, you fricking idiot.’

Break with tradtion
This kind of thing was nicely surreal, and not even that uncommon an occurrence. The rider did fall over. He broke his collarbone doing so, which we all felt showed commitment, if not good sense. He got a restart, though it wasn’t much use to him.

Philip Hindes is clearly an appreciator of cycling’s rich history. A man who knows when to fight for an unnatural uprightness, and when to let physics and gravity take its course. I propose that he be promoted immediately to British Cycling Strategic Head of Falling Over.

Great Inventions of Cycling – The Tandem – 1880s
The tandem followed on relatively swiftly from the invention of the solo. And while solo bicycle design settled down relatively quickly into a pattern very similar to today’s bike, tandem designs were much more diverse.

One early effort was essentially an ordinary (penny-farthing – but always call it an ordinary unless you want to look like a tourist) with an extra rider perched in front of the main drive wheel, pedaling through a chain-gearing arrangement. This weight distribution left it extravagantly prone to falling over forwards, meaning the forward rider was also a pretty significant step towards the modern airbag.

The sociable, or side by side, was designed so that two riders could share an easy conversation. The very high aerodynamic resistance of this set up, combined with the weight of ironmongery required to join it all together, had the outstanding advantage that when it broke, as it invariably did, you didn’t have to push it too far to get home.

A natural concern with the rules of etiquette led to tandems (more often tricycles than bicycles, if we’re being picky) that were steered from the rear, so the gentleman could avoid showing his back to a lady, but not leave her with the stress of being in charge of anything except smelling fragrant and reproducing.

Inevitably, tandems grew extra seats. At an extreme, five-seat quints were used for pacing track cyclists before the motorbike took over, and cycling has seen few things in the intervening years to equal the excitement of twenty men on four quints swapping in and out of pacing a solo rider on a one-mile effort.

Dear Doc
“Dear Doc, a few weeks ago you published an article which, among other things, dealt admirably with the sock issue – what colours, lengths, logos and so on were acceptable. It was illustrated with a montage of different pro riders’ ankle-wear. I have identified all the riders concerned, and attach a list. I hope this entitles me to a small prize, even if it wasn’t billed as a competition.”
Sarah Vaughan, email.

Sarah, you must really be aware by now that this kind of geekery is its own reward. But I’m sure that if you tell your friends about your sock-prowess, their acclaim will make it all even more worthwhile.

This article was first published in the September 13 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio and download from the Apple store.