If I had ever become a professional athlete, which I know was always very unlikely but humour me here, I would have become a triple jumper. Or a hockey player. Or, dare I say it, a track cyclist. I’ve always joked that my big thighs would make me the perfect track cyclist – I have always fancied riding round and around a velodrome, winning gold for Great Britain and becoming a World Champion.
I’ve not no basis for that thought. The fact is I have never actually ridden a bike on a velodrome. Well not until a couple of weekends ago, when I had the absolute pleasure of cycling on the boards of the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome at Lee Valley, no less. Something that had been on my bucket list since the very beginning, something that had been in my head since before I even knew what a bucket list was, was going to get the best treatment possible – an hour long session on one of the most famous tracks in the world.
Giddy with excitement doesn’t even come close!
You can book a beginner taster session at Lee Valley VeloPark, which is exactly what I did thanks to a voucher I received as a Christmas present. I know it’s a long time since Christmas, but I don’t get down to London very often, and it’s not really an easy day trip from up here in rural Lincolnshire, with our two direct trains a day to Kings Cross. We spent the bank holiday weekend with family and made a day of exploring the London Olympic Park, including taking in the views from the ArcelorMittal Orbit and playing eye spy with all the places we’d seen from The Shard a few weeks before, before heading to the track in the early evening for my session. Oh I should mention the AMAZING doughnuts we had from Dum Dums Donutterie in Shoreditch before we went over to Stratford, simply awesome; baked rather than fried, and fresh that morning – the shop closes when the doughnuts are gone. A must-try when you’re in town, seriously scrummy. My sharp lemon doughnut was one of the best I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten many doughnuts!). And the Yum Yum Dum Dum LincsGeek had didn’t touch the sides! I digress.
Doughnut from Dum Dum Doughnutterie in London… baked doughnut goodness.
The view from ArcelorMittal Orbit, in the London 2012 Olympic Park – just a tenner to go up (if you book in advance), and some great views across London to be had.
With the Olympic Rings. We couldn’t find the podium for me to stand in my rightful gold medal winning place (!), but this did instead. Maybe I should have taken my torch and worn my white tracksuit!
Inside the cycling track at Lee Valley VeloPark. Huge. And steep.
The Velodrome is open to the public (there’s a coffee shop open during the day) so we went in and had a look around. The first thing I noticed was how steep that bank is!! It looks SO MUCH steeper than on the telly! No, I’ve never even been in a velodrome for real so had no idea what 42 degrees looks like in reality. And it’s STEEP. There was a session going on and I sat and watched, concentrating on what they were doing. I was excited but also very nervous – this was going to be loads of fun and very VERY scary!
Armed with my PE Kit – well some Adidas cycling shorts and a Salomon tee (thankfully I wasn’t the only one not in super tight fitting lycra), I signed in at the track reception and headed into the track centre for my experience. I hired proper shoes as I figured I may as well do it properly and have all the kit, although this isn’t compulsory. Once changed and up in the middle of the track, I got sorted with a bike the right size (me: “have you got one for a really short person” him: “it’s ok I saw you coming”…), got my special shoes and helmet on, and gathered together with the 15 other people taking part in the session to listen carefully to the briefing.
I should say here that not only was this the first time I’d been on a velodrome, or indeed inside one, but it was also the first time I’ve ridden with cleats, or a bike with fixed crank, or a bike with no brakes, or even a bike with dropped handlebars (I love my mountain bike!). As I stood there and realised all the firsts I tried my hardest to listen and watch and take note. I wanted to make the most of this. I really didn’t want to fall off.
We wheeled our bikes up the ramp and onto the dark blue run-off area of the track. A safe and flat area, this was where we would cycle our first few laps to give each of us a chance to get used to the bike and work out how to start and stop without worrying about the boards or the angle or anything else. While our instructor worked his way down the line making sure we were all ok and ready I practised clipping in and out of my pedals over and over again, determined not to get stuck in my pedals should I tip the bike over. It wasn’t long before we were off, pulling ourselves along the fence before cycling slowly and gently around in the specified anti clockwise direction.
My first time.
I wobbled a bit to start with, not used to the riding position or being unable to move my feet about. The gear was hard but not too bad and I soon got into a good rhythm. It felt good. Coming to a stop was interesting with a fixed crank and no brakes, but from a slow speed it wasn’t too difficult. Four laps done, my nerves settled, I was happy.
Our next four laps were to be on the light blue cote d’azur area of the track, the lowest part of the actual track (on the boards) but that is not used in racing (cheating!). We were encouraged to go a little faster, and practice slowing down and speeding up to get the hang of that before we were allowed to go onto the track proper. Still smiling, this was my first chance to drop down the handlebars and try out the lower riding position – it felt strange, but good. I loved how the boards creaked as I rode around them; my skinny wheels enjoyed the slightly sprung floor.
Now getting used to riding the strange track bike, it was my chance to get on the track itself and ride along the black line – this is where the distance of the 250m track is measured from. The instant I steered my wheels over that line a big beaming grin came across my face. I was actually doing it, cycling on a velodrome, and not just any velodrome. Wiggo eat your heart out!
From there we got higher and higher, being encouraged by the instructor to keep the speed up. First we went above the red sprint line, then above the blue stayer’s line around the bends, before being given the okay individually to explore the whole track. I had decided I was going to do my best to get all the way to the very top of the banking if I was allowed, just to say I had done, so as soon as the instructor gave me the thumbs up and shouted “free track” in my direction, I pushed as hard as I could and got myself right to the top around the next bend. Using the track to gain more speed down the straight, I went up and down the banking time and time again in our last 15 minutes on the track. Did you know that the four bends on a velodrome are like cycling up and down a 9% hill on each lap? I didn’t either until I started, and my legs certainly knew it by the end! I rode and rode, smiling, concentrating, doing the odd overtake but mostly being overtaken by other much fitter riders, panting, taking in the view, looking out for LincsGeek and the rest of my family who had come to watch, trying to keep up the speed, smiling some more, and just enjoying myself.
Some shots of me riding the track taken by LincsGeek.
After an hour in total on the track we were told it was our last lap and all slowed down to a stop. I admit I was worn out; I had promised myself I would go for it, I had no reason I keep anything back. Getting off the bike was interesting – I unclipped from the pedals with no problem, but unfolding my legs and dismounting was a bit wobbly. Also, walking in those weird shoes when you’re legs are a little jelly like is a bit dangerous…!
Once I’d racked my bike and got out of those very strange shoes I relaxed again and the smiles returned. Wow, what an experience. Why had I waited so long? If I had done this as a teenager maybe I’d be bestest mates with Hoy and Pendleton now!! Seriously, though, it was one of the best bucket list experiences I have ever had, simply fabulous. Hard work, yes, but brilliant. I definitely deserved my first Shake Shack experience (burger, fries and caramel shake) after all that!!
If you fancy cycling around a Velodrome then Lee Valley is an absolutely perfect place to do it. They offer beginner sessions like the one I did, as well as more advanced sessions for those who’ve done it before or who are looking at taking track cycling a bit further. Don’t leave this experience on your bucket list as long as I have!