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In praise of velodromes

Velodrome racing
Trevor Ward
24 Mar 2016

Sweeping, endless and occasionally intimidating, the velodrome is one sport's most dramatic arenas.

The angle of the banking at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow is 45°. That’s a gradient of 1:1 or 100%. It’s the steepest track in the UK. Standing in the cote d’azur – the blue neutral strip just below the wooded boards – the banking towers over you like a vast, billowing wave of Siberian pine. 

The last time I was there, the track had to be closed for 10 minutes while they cleaned up after a junior club rider had vomited during a training session. It wasn’t clear whether it was the result of exertion or vertigo, but the watery trail seemed a fitting testament to the power of a venue where the laws of physics are as important as the UCI rulebook.

Whether an ageing outdoor track or modern indoor arena, velodromes don’t conform to our normal precepts of space and shape. That endlessly flowing track is an invitation for speed, making it the natural home for Hour record attempts, while the perfectly symmetrical geometry is a wonder to the senses. 

 ‘Those curious swooping curves are not a part of our usual visual experience, but belong to a spatial world very different from the one which we normally inhabit,’ says former racing cyclist-turned-historian Scotford Lawrence of the National Cycle Museum. ‘At the centre of a velodrome, you are walled in by the track, but the enclosed length and width are far greater than one imagines when viewed from the outside, creating a sort of cycling Tardis effect.’

German electronic music pioneers and cycling fans Kraftwerk embraced what Lawrence calls ‘the otherness of cycling tracks’ when they performed at the Manchester Velodrome in 2009. As they played their hit ‘Tour de France’, Team GB’s Olympic gold medal winning team pursuit squad – Geraint Thomas, Ed Clancy, Jason Kenny and Jamie Staff – took to the boards in their blue and red livery. Only a velodrome could have hosted such a kaleidoscope of art, music and sport. 

On the eve of the gig, Kraftwerk founder Ralf Hütter, who used to cycle the last 100 miles to each venue when the band were touring in the 70s, waxed lyrical about cycling in an interview with a music journalist: ‘Cycling is the man-machine. It’s about dynamics, always continuing straight ahead – forwards, no stopping. There are really balanced artists who can remain upright at a standstill, but I can’t do that. It’s always forwards. He who stops falls over.’

My coach at the Manchester velodrome was slightly more prosaic when I took to the boards riding a fixed gear Dolan track bike for the very first time a few years ago.

‘Never stop pedalling,’ he said. ‘If you’re going too fast, you’ll get thrown off the bike. If you’re going too slow, you’re going to slide down the banking.’

It took several circuits before I’d mustered the courage – and speed – to venture above the blue ‘stayer’s line’. By the time I finally climbed above the adverts painted on the track, it actually felt colder than at ground level. And when I plunged back down onto the straight, my stomach seemed to take a second or two to catch up with me. I was instantly hooked.

Velodrome toy

‘A Zen-like state can be achieved that is difficult to achieve elsewhere on a bicycle,’ says Eddy Rhead, a regular rider at Team GB’s base in Manchester and publisher of The Modernist architecture magazine. ‘The appeal of the velodrome is its purity. The London 2012 velodrome set new standards with its simplicity and grace of architecture that mirrors the key qualities of the sport it was built to house.’

These days, the simplicity of cycling is often lost in a confusion of incompatible components and haute couture accessories. But in the velodrome, it’s stripped back to its bare, beautiful basics – an endless track without impediment, a bike without brakes or gears.

Yes, road racing can produce its fair share of dramatic spectacles, but there are few sights as compelling as a team pursuit in a velodrome: up to four cyclists in perfect, seamless synchronicity, flying around the track as if they are a single organism, their wheels just millimetres apart, their aero helmets and visors giving them a machine-like veneer that reflects the ‘otherness’ of their surroundings. (What a pity that when Geraint Thomas et al came out during the Kraftwerk gig they chose to do a few, untidy laps of honour rather than some precision drills to match the pulsating soundtrack.)

Attack of the dromes

Velodromes hark back to the earliest days of cycling when they offered an accessible way for the public to view this new and exciting sport (and a better surface to race on than rutted roads).  One of the oldest in the world opened in Preston Park, Brighton, in 1877 and is still in use today, its original cinder track resurfaced with tarmac in 1936. 

Some velodromes were better than others. Scotford Lawrence recalls various European tracks where the transition from straight to curved banking was so abrupt ‘it required a sudden hill-climbing exercise and an equally alarming descent’. One long-demolished track in Munster, Germany, was so steep and tight in the curves that riding behind a motor-pacer ‘produced G-forces with the potential for either the motorcyclist or rider to black out’.

The legacy of Britain’s velodromes – it now boasts more world-class indoor arenas than France and Italy combined – is its supremacy on the track and the number of track riders who have graduated to success on the road. 

For Eddy Rhead, the knock-on effect of this adds to the allure of velodromes: ‘In what other sport can you share the same venue as the best in the world, and where else do world champions have to wait for you to finish your session before they can get on?’ 

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