Old Dog. New Tricks.
I think I’m still in denial. Denial that I am, in fact, 46 years old and not 26. Denial that my body is slowing down and it’s definitely harder to get out of bed the morning after (or maybe that’s the week after!) a hard training session.
I’m probably also in denial that I’ve left it way too late (not to mention having a lack of talent to start with) to be the next Chris Hoy or Jason Kenny. But having never even set foot in a velodrome before, the chance to have a track session at Newport with the newly-formed Newbury Velo cycling club was too good to pass up.
As I mentioned in a recent post, not only had I never ridden on a track before, I’d never ridden a fixed-gear bike with no brakes. And so I reluctantly assigned myself to the ‘complete beginners’ group at the Velodrome, jealously looking on as the more seasoned track riders headed straight out and into a neatly-formed pace line, making their way up higher onto the banking every couple of laps.
Meanwhile, me and the other novices got our first taste of riding our rented track bikes around the flat area in the middle of the track. I tried to use the session to get a feel for what it was like using a little back pressure on the pedals in lieu of brakes and testing my nerve (and lack of skill!) to see how close to a track stand I could get before bottling out! The answer was pretty slow but not a complete stop. I also practiced a few accelerations, as one of my big concerns was not being able to freewheel after an effort and doing myself an injury by forgetting to keep pedaling (spoiler alert: I did forget once or twice, it wasn’t nice, but I didn’t injure myself either).
Out onto the track
Eventually the “pros” came off the track and it was time for us newbies to have a go. We started lined up along the railing, clipped-in and ready to push off, with strict instruction that the first few laps we’d be just riding slowly around the concrete. Then we’d be allowed onto the boards as we demonstrated to our instructor that we were competent at not falling off while riding in a straight line.
I admit I felt a bit embarrassed and frustrated. While guys I regularly compete against in time trials on the road were recovering from their first track efforts, I was pootling around the concrete looking like a clown (in my own head, anyway).
After a couple of laps, I was allowed onto the Cote d’Azure (the wider blue bit at the bottom of the boards), then the black measuring line, then the sprinter’s red line and then up to the blue line about halfway up. The first time round the bank on the blue line was eye-opening, but then you realise the bike doesn’t fall over or lose grip and you relax a little!
Eventually I got the nod from the instructor to start using the full track, making my way up to near the top of the track towards the end of the straight and then slicing down to take the shortest line through the corner to then climb the track again on the exit. Woah! That was A M A Z I N G! The acceleration as you dive into the corner, the tightening of the corner itself (feeling those G-forces, man!) and the slingshot release out of the corner back onto the straight. It was addictive!
All-to-soon, it was time to come in and let the advanced team have another go. Selfish bar stewards…
We weren’t allowed to put Garmins on the rental bikes, so I just wore my Forerunner on my wrist with an HR strap. Pausing it after the first session I was quite surprised to see my heart rate had got up into the 160s; I must have been pushing harder than I realized, distracted as I was by the new sensations of the track.
Our next session on the track had us newbies in a pace line and, at the sound of the instructor’s whistle, the front person would accelerate off the front and go as hard as they could to rejoin the back of the group.
This was more like it! Just riding on the blue ‘stayer line’ you didn’t get the full sensation of dive-bombing the corners, but the acceleration was more direct than you’d ever get on a road bike (makes sense really, no gears, no pickup points in the freehub!). I loved how hard you had to work to accelerate off and then maintain the effort to get the group back in sight again. And then the new experience of timing when and how to come off the gas so that you rejoined the group without overshooting it or piling into the last rider.
Turns out I was pretty good at the rejoin and that using back pressure on the pedals wasn’t as difficult as I figured (I can imagine it’s quite different in the heat of a race!). But it certainly felt like it took longer to sprint off and then hold that power long enough to do the catch.
And, of course you can’t freewheel. Ever. So that has an effect on how you recover before it’s your turn to accelerate off the front again. I’d discover later I’d hit 179bpm on the sprints.
Then it was time to surrender the track to the other group. Except this time I was invited to join in. The idea (I think!) was that we’d have two groups running at the same pace at opposite sides of the track, with the instructor’s whistle acting as a signal for a rider to leave the current group and sprint to the other group. It didn’t quite work, though! Still, more time on track was good for me.
The final hurrah
And then it was time to rejoin the novice’s group for a last outing on the track. No rest, but I wasn’t complaining! This time it was a straightforward pace line with the instructor’s whistle denoting the time for the lead rider to peel off to the right, allow the group to pass and rejoin at the rear. Fail to rejoin and that’s you done, easy pedaling down at the bottom of the track.
Being in a pace line we could use the whole track again and so I was in my element bombing into to corners, perhaps having a little too much fun (I think the instructor got his own back by leaving me on the front for very long stints!).
Eventually there was just three of us left, the others down enjoying the inside of the track and we had a last semi-sprint for the line before our fun was done.
I have to admit that I Ioved my first outing on the track, despite any frustrations with the cautious start (fair enough, really). If Newport wasn’t so far away, I could definitely see it becoming ‘a thing’ (not that I have any idea if I’d be any good or whether I’d be a sprinter or an endurance rider). So maybe it’s a good thing that it’s far enough away to be a ‘treat’ rather than somewhere I could visit on a regular basis. And I really, really cannot afford a track bike!
Thanks to the guys at Newbury Velo for arranging the visit, I think we all had fun and I suspect the places for our next velodrome session will get booked up quickly.
If you’ve never tried it, do it!