I was at the Eddy Merckx velodrome on Saturday. Far from being a fully equipped rider, I pitched up with a pair of plimsols. I sat in well with other riders in sneakers and dress shoes. But I was on the track, racing about, riding the line, finding slipstreams and enjoying the thrills.
It was an inauguration event at the velodrome and just about everybody there were first-time riders. Great collection of men and women, street riders and retirees. The very people you would not imagine being trackies.
People pitched up wearing whatever cycling clothes they have. Some in full spandex and professional jerseys. Others in cotton shorts and t-shirts. The common theme were the shoes. Almost nobody had proper track shoes. Definitely beginners dress.
The Eddy Merckx track has a room teeming with track bikes – no surprise that they are almost all Eddy Merckx frames. They even have two massive boxes filled with helmets, in case you do not have one. They have something that will fit you (my head is gi-normous, and they had one for me).
Just a quick 20 minutes later, all the debutantes were riding the curves, holding the white or red lines. Just keep minimum speed and you will not slip off the track. It sounds bad, but then, when you learn to ride a bike, the basic instruction is, “Keep some speed and you will not fall off”. The same lesson, decades later.
To be clear, it was not the first time I have ridden a velodrome like this. I was lucky enough to have ridden the Montreal velodrome back in the seventies… before it became a biodome and one of the best tracks in the world was dismantled. I sat and listened to the advice, pressed off and spent a few laps getting rid of my nerves. Then it all started coming back. The speed, the higher line, the trick of riding high on the embankment then swooping down to get a surge of speed.
An hour later, a group of four had created a team time trial structure, taking turns for a lap or two before peeling off and moving to the back. OK, far from World Championship standards, but it was all starting.
Last year, I spent an hour on the Herne Hill track in souther London., It has a gentle embankment, easy in comparison to the hard-core tracks. A perfect starter’s level.
But even tracks with these intimidating bends are taken on quickly, once you have done a few laps, let you wheel stay on the embankment for as long as you can. A few laps of a third, quarter, half the turn, before you get the nerve to hold the line, keep your wheel steady and get the first bend in. The second comes far faster.
Ten minutes later – and I saw this on my ride – people who are daily commuters, city bike riders, not speed monsters, are holding a moderate amount of speed, and their bike is fixed on the blue line.
And two hours passed by so quickly….
Really. Just about anybody can ride a track.