18 June 2012

A Saturday in the Herne Hill Velodrome

We've posted here about our first visit to the mythic Herne Hill Velodrome in South London. Back then I had developed a sore knee and could not even cycle to the venue, but promised myself I would be back to have a go at it. Not that I am so much into racing these days (I was when I was younger!) but it's always interesting to try out new disciplines.

Saturday 9th of June. Weather had been pretty rubbish since we made our return journey from El Camino. No planned rides for the day, the weather seemed to be behaving (for once!) and it looked like the perfect day to take myself down to the Velodrome.

Rode from home the 15 km to the venue, and turned up minutes before the start of the induction for people that had never been on a velodrome. For £8 you get a track bike (a proper fixie these days) and tuition for 1 hour. Not too bad.

The day, although relatively warm to cycle in shorts and short sleeves, turned out to be quite windy. Later on I read that it was gusting up a to 45 mph (close to 75 km/h). The coaches confirmed that it was far from ideal, and that we would have a hard-ish time battling with the wind.

A veteran track cyclists told us about the main rules when cycling in a velodrome: always look for other riders behind you, look ahead of you beyond the rider just in front, and remember that the velodrome is a like a highway. Always look before entering it. A crash at 50 km/h with an oncoming cyclists would be painful. He also insisted on how easy it was to ride a fixed wheel bike. My experience with this is very limited, and I still think they're non-sense for environments other than the velodrome. For the un-initiated, your pedals are fixed to the back wheel, so if the bike is rolling your pedals are rolling. They don't have brakes and the only way to stop is by playing with the pedals. You obviously cannot come to a sudden stop easily. But everyone is in the same situation once in the velodrome, so it's actually ok. 

My bike for the day, a steel Fuji
After that, we entered the tarmac. While holding on to the railings, both feet clipped in, another instructor explained the first exercise. Just go round, one lap, keeping two bikes distance to the rider ahead of you. Get a feeling on the fixed wheel. Brake with the pedals. Do not let go of the handlebars. Seems pretty easy, doesn't it?

On to the next task. We would go for two laps, over two of the different sections of the tarmac. The white ring, closer to the bottom, is meant for people riding fast. The blue, for people rolling a bit slower, and the top for the slowest of riders. We would need to keep the distance with the rider in front of us and also keep to the white and blue lines. This time the instructors seem to accelerate/decelerate more frequently so as to make us get used to the braking with the back wheel. Mind you, sometimes I thought I was going to eat the rider ahead of me, and it was a little tough of my knees. But I managed. And these sorts of sudden decelerations should not happen often in the track. I also think I was too focused on the rider in front of me and not in the ones beyond, which was one of the mistakes of the un-initiated.

We then took a break and split the group (about 20 of us) into fast and slow riders. I still was not fully confident with the bike, so went for the slow group. Slip streaming was the next task. It is well known by cyclists that the one in the front of the bunch does all the hard work breaking into the wind. This exercise would teach us how to share this task in a group, without crashing. The most important thing. Look right before leaving the front. Slow down and let yourself fall back on to the back of the group. Upon looking right, you stick your right elbow out to indicate your move to the following rider. You then are past by the last rider, who should shout at you "last rider". Smoothly, you re-join the group. And so on and so forth.

The session finished after this last exercise. I did not feel too exhausted physically, but it requires your full attention, so it was a bit tiring mentally. I once forgot about the fixed wheel and had to be reminded by an abrupt push up by the right pedal

Luckily, we were allowed on to the next session free of charge. After the induction, you still need three more sessions of training before moving on to the advanced. During that hour, we practised the same exercises, but in a bunch of six. Sometimes riding in pairs, sometimes passing other groups. By the end of it, I was quite tired as sometimes I reckon we were rolling at >45 km/h against the wind. It's amazing how smooth you can ride on nice tarmac like this, especially if slip streaming. Towards the end of it we were at least 50 or 60 riders rolling at the same time, so it was a good exercise for looking out before making the next move. 

I had fun. It was something new and definitely good training for those days when you do not feel like cycling far or for a prolonged time. I may give it a another go sometime soon, and maybe make it a weekly thing to keep me motivated. Maybe even try to get Lucy to come along too? But she's scared of the fixed wheel thing and the speed...so not quite sure I will succeed.

The deserted velodrome after the session was over

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