South London’s open air track has nurtured champions since the 19th century
This open air track, just off Burgage Road in Dulwich, South London, has sung to the sound of the silk tyres of Olympic, world and national champions for well over 100 years.
Built in 1891, it is the only remaining facility from the 1948 London Olympic Games and is now enjoying a new lease of life with a new surface, safety fence and floodlighting.
The 450m concrete track is in such demand that riders are regularly turned away from Saturday morning training sessions due to the sheer numbers wanting to ride on one of the world’s most historic tracks.
George Lacey Hillier, an amateur racer in the days of penny-farthings who later became a journalist and a writer (one of Hillier’s many books basks under the splendid title of Wrinkles for Cyclists, wrinkles being a Victorian term for tactics) was the man behind the building of Herne Hill.
W. J. Peacock Building Company constructed the original velodrome with packed red shale. This surface was replaced with wooden slats in 1893, and then concrete in 1896, which turned Herne Hill into a record-breaking track.
Racers in those days were divided, like greyhounds are, into sprinters and stayers, and it was the stayers who proved most popular around Herne Hill’s wide, shallow bankings. At 24-hour races like the Cuca Cocoa Cup, crowds of over 10,000 people were the norm.
In 1936 Ernie Mills and Bill Paul of the Addiscombe Cycling Club set a tandem World Hour Record of 30 miles and 793 yards.
It was a superb performance that inspired Cycling magazine, the grandfather of Cycling Weekly, to raise money for Mills and Paul to travel to the Velodromo Vigorelli in Milan to see how far they could ride on a much faster track.
In October 1937 they set a record in Milan of 31 miles, 113 yards that lasted until the year 2000.
Herne Hill had its longest association with the Good Friday Meeting, which was first held in 1903. These meetings attracted huge crowds that came to watch the world’s best track racers in events like the Champion of Champions sprint and the Golden Wheel.
The meeting was cancelled due to deterioration of the track in 2010 and has now moved indoors, and north of the Thames, to the Lee Valley Velopark.
Herne Hill Velodrome became an Olympic venue for track cycling in the 1948 London Olympic Games due to being in situ. The Austerity Games — as they were called — were born out of the post-war era and economic slump, when existing facilities were a boon.
Britain won two silver and two bronze medals in the four track events, the two silvers being won by Reg Harris.
Decades later, a young Sir Bradley Wiggins followed in his wheeltracks around HHV. Going by current use, it’s only a matter of time before another star in the making starts their career at this legendary velodrome.