I’ve been to velodromes before, of course. I’ve been inside the Stab velodrome at Roubaix, and the Olympic one in London too, but I have never been on the track before. I’ve cycled Herne Hill too, but yet again that feels quite different from the vertiginous slopes of the indoor boards I’m in front of here in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.
It helps that I have Sir Chris Hoy, one of the most successful track cyclists of all time, at my side to impart advice and tips before I head out on the track.
“Keep pedalling”, the six-time Olympic gold medallist tells me, which is incredibly useful, considering I was considering just freewheeling round the 250m of wood in front of me. “I was saying to someone earlier not to stop pedalling, but that’s too negative,” he adds. “Instead be more positive, keep pedalling.”
Of course, it’s a fixed-gear bike that I will be cycling around the track; I will literally have to keep pedalling, or I’ll fall over.
The next piece of advice is just as rudimentary: “Keep breathing!” I have to admit, I was hoping for more.
My session at the National Velodrome of France, the host of the World Championships this year, and home to the Olympic events at the next games in 2024, will consist of some warm up laps heading around the track, trying to get high up the banking, and then a flying lap to conclude, once I’ve got the hang of it, once the whole going round in circles thing starts to make sense.
There is one piece of advice that Hoy told me that I do hang onto, for use in the flying lap - to hug the black line as close as possible; there is no point going up the banking when you’re against the clock, as this only increases the distance you have to travel.
First up, we get shown how to clip into the bikes. This bit is easy to me, a veteran of the clipless pedal, I’ve even brought my own shoes with Look cleats on them; I’m ready for this bit. The Spanish journalists in front of me look a bit more unsteady, so I feel confident already. I’m not a complete novice.
Pedalling a fixed-gear bike is tough for an, ahem, endurance cyclist like myself, used to a whole range of gears to get myself going, and the ability to freewheel chucked out of the window. The first lap goes reasonably successful, following the wheel of the person in front of me, getting used to the feeling of pushing through the gear.
All of a sudden, one member of the Australian team sprint world champion squad, Matt Richardson, powers past at the top of the oval; that is real speed, something I can’t even get my head around.
I begin to notice that some of the people at the front of my training group have struck off the front, led by the coach, Charlie, and realise that some people have been selected as superior by the people in charge of the session, something I strongly feel I should be part of.
I go as hard as I possibly can in the hope that I get noticed by the Frenchman directing things, and in a few laps, I’m told to follow Charlie; they have worked out that I’m strong after all. Joy at last.
I was never one to be picked first during PE at school, but here I am, being singled out as someone good enough to get to the top of the track. Cheers.
After the outrage of not being selected first, I’m determined to do well in my flying lap. Even Charlie believes in me now, I think, although through my limited French it’s reasonably hard to understand what he’s saying. I think he knows what he’s dealing with, though, this moustachioed, mulleted boy with a silly little earring suddenly thinking he’s some kind of Ethan Hayter.
I get a bit of focus time in between the practice and setting off against the clock, here’s when Hoy’s tips come back into my head: breathe, and pedal. I might have this.
The lap goes all too quickly (and also not nearly quickly enough). I get two warm up loops and then the big one. I miscalculate where the timing actually begins and come down from the banking too early. Who knows, I could have broken the world record otherwise.
I go as hard as I can, and it’s over before I can even think. Charlie tells me I did well, which is more than enough for me, but I don’t think anyone at British Cycling should be paying any particular attention. I’m not bad, but I’m bot good, just like most other kinds of cycling, I suppose.
The data shows that I maxed out at 46.6kph, which sounds impressive, until you compare it to Richardson’s 74.92kph. Likewise, he managed a maximum of 1609 watts while I could only peak at a measly 411, practically a quarter of his power.
To add insult to injury, my heart rate got to 200bpm, while his only got to 194. You can see why he is the world champion and I’m not. To conclude, that is why I went round in 15.45 seconds, while he could smash it in 9.61.
He promptly threw up in a bin, though, which I didn’t. Clearly, I didn’t push myself hard enough.
Despite not defeating all comers, I loved the track. The feeling of speed and effort is difficult to replicate on the road, and is a handy option if it’s particularly grim outside. I’ll be heading over to a velodrome closer to home as soon as possible to try it out again, but don’t expect me to be winning any international competitions soon, unlike Richardson.
The UCI Track Champions League continues on Saturday 18 November in Berlin, and can be watched on GCN+, Eurosport, and Discovery+.
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