My wife has a habit of buying me ‘experiences’ for Christmas and birthdays. I have a habit of not getting around to going on them.
I’m not sure mi amor has entirely forgiven me for not going to a driving track day that she bought me very early in our courtship. More recently I only got round to attending a sailing taster session (birthday present) a few hours before the voucher expired (i.e. my next birthday).
This ungrateful behaviour doesn’t seem to stop her.
And to be fair, she’d be forgiven for thinking that a voucher entitling me to a series of track sessions at the recently-built Derby velodrome, would be a Christmas gift I’d (i) be delighted to receive; and (ii) be motivated to book myself onto the session.
She was right about (i). Delighted.
The issue was (ii).
Time slips away. Derby City Council do not make it easy to find and book yourself onto a session. I finally got round to organising my first session in November.
And here is how I got on (spoiler alert: it was brilliant).
How To Get Track Accreditation At Derby Velodrome (And Probably Most Other UK Velodromes)
In order to attend open training sessions at Derby velodrome, you have to have completed four instructor-led sessions where you learn the skills and conventions on the track, such that you don’t present (too much of) a danger to yourself and other riders.
I was attending session 1. This is also a ‘taster’ session for cyclists that just fancy trying track cycling out as an experience.
I can’t say in detail what happens in sessions 2 to 4 (as this was session 1), but I understand the aim is to get you used to riding in a much closer group of riders (in front, behind, side-by-side).
Once you’ve completed all four sessions, you’re
road track legal and can sign up for any mixed training sessions you fancy. If you’re already acredited at another velodrome, I think you just need to complete one instructor-led session (presumably to confirm that you’re not making it up) and you’re good to go at Derby.
Some Introductory Words About Track Bikes
They don’t have brakes (THEY DON’T HAVE FUGGING BRAKES!).
Nor do they have gears. Well they do. But only one of them. A single chainring at the front; a single cog at the back.
Most importantly (and probably usefully, given the lack of brakes), track bikes do not have a hub that freewheels.
You can’t stop pedalling when the bike is on the move. If the wheels are turning then so do the pedals (and so do your feet).
You can ease off from pedaling and let the momentum of the wheels/pedals carry your feet around as you gradually slow down. You can slow your pedal stroke quite rapidly and you’ll slow down quite rapidly.
But if you try to stop your feet from moving then you’ll go over the handlebars (we were reliably informed).
Track Bike For Hire Or Rent (Shoes To Let, 50 Cents)
Needless to say, velodromes don’t allow you to use a road bike on the track. Not only are there more bits on a road bike that can be damaged in a crash, or damage riders, it is dangerous for a rider to have the ability to brake.
Track riding involves cyclists moving at speed very close to one another – a touch of the brakes and the rider behind is into the back of you. Safe track riding relies, to a degree, on the predictability of what a rider can do in terms of speeding up and slowing down.
On the assumption that most first-time velodrome cyclists will not have invested in a track bike for the occasion, bike rental comes included in the session cost, as does a pair of cycling shoes. You can also hire a helmet if you wish, although it’s fine to use your own road helmet (as long as it doesn’t have brakes).
The Track At Derby Velodrome
Wikipedia tells me that the track at Derby is 250 metres long. There are two straights, with two steeply-banked 180 degree turns at each end.
The instructor did tell us the angle but I promptly forgot the number, instead classifying it as ‘bloody steep’.
One interesting (to me at least) fact is that the incline is the same whether you’re at the bottom of the bend or the top of it. I think I expected it to be steeper at the top. It’s not. Just higher.
What is different at the top of the track versus the bottom is the distance that the rider has to travel to get around the bend. It sounds obvious when you say it (or blog it down), but it’s relevant when you remember the lack of brakes.
If we found ourselves gaining on the rider, we were told to move slightly up the track. Whilst we were still riding at the same speed, we now had further to ride and we didn’t gain on the rider ahead at quite the same pace. How far you move up the track depends on how much you want to ‘slow down’.
The Fast And The Furious
And why might I be bearing down on the rider in front? Because I want to ride as quickly as possible.
Why ride as quickly as possible? Because ‘as quickly as possible’ is generally greater than ‘fast enough’.
And what is ‘fast enough’? Well, it’s the minimum speed that you need to carry through the bends such that the bike doesn’t slide away from under you. Which would hurt. And involve splinters.
Different tracks have different ‘fast enoughs’. It all depends on the angle of the incline on the bend. The steeper the incline, the greater speed that is required in order avoid sliding out.
The minimum speed at Derby is 14mph. Manchester is 17mph (so it must be steeper).
Now I agree that 14mph doesn’t sound too fast, but there was no way I was going to see what it felt like to go around the bend at 14.2mph. The quicker you go round the bend, the more stable you feel. I felt like I needed to cane it round each time (neither my collar bone nor my ego would survive a fall).
I guess it’s a bit like the skiing mindset, where you need to trust to lean down the slope in order to let the ski edges carve properly. The faster you take the bend, the more you can lean your upper body towards the floor and get the bike more perpendicular with the track surface.
The Taster Session
The session lasted about an hour. It started with a 10 minute briefing about the bikes and the track, then we got riding. I’d say there were probably 18 of us. The riding was broken into a few mini-sessions.
The first one involved getting comfortable with riding a fixed gear bike, speeding up and slowing down. This took place on the light blue coloured section (the “Cote d’Azure”) at the bottom of the track which (I think) was a much lower angle in the bends.
The second stint involved getting used to gradually moving wider on the straights (the instructor stood at various heights on the track and you had to ride above him) and then returning to the Cote d’Azure.
Then we starting riding the bends properly, initially on the black line (at the very bottom), before moving up to the red and then beyond to the blue.
By the end of the session, the instructor had us moving as wide as possible on the straights, such that we were high coming into the bends, then angling down in order to gain as much speed as possible. We then took the bend at the tightest point and looked exactly like Chris Hoy (in my mind).
Photo Reportage (Or Some Photos I Took With My iPhone Which You Might Find Interesting…)
Here are the ‘innards’ of the velodrome, or the changing rooms as they’re more commonly known. Behold the nice smooth ramp that takes you up to the track:
Here you can see the stands. It was a slightly disappointing turnout from a spectator standpoint, given that this was my first track session. I’m hoping there’ll be more when I make my hour record attempt.
Here be hire bikes (note the rather steep looking track in the background…):
The track bikes, straining at their leashes, eager to put into action. Note the single gear at the back, and no derailleurs anywhere to be seen…
Racks of hire bikes:
In addition to the hire bikes, this area is where riders meet and warm up prior to their training session. As our hour went on, this area started to fill up with the riders (including a few young guns in Team GB kit) that would be on the track after us. The rollers that you can see in this shot were all in use later.
The infield of the track at Derby plays host to music concerts and the like:
Another look at the hire bikes that we used. They’re made by Moda, which is a Derbyshire-based firm (according to their website) and the bikes are “UK-assembled”.
And finally, an action shot (though not of me…):
Some Thoughts On Track Cycling (For What They’re Worth)
I thoroughly enjoyed the session. I’m keen to book session 2 (though we’re back to Derby City Council’s booking procedures making it as difficult as possible…).
Riding a fixed gear was novel. Before trying it I had some trepidation. Unlike for some of my fellow ‘tastees’, the fixed-gear-and-lack-of-brakes situation was not a surprise. That didn’t stop me having some concerns.
Concerns which it turned out were unfounded. I actually found it quite intuitive. I didn’t find myself having to remember to keep pedalling in order to avoid falling off. Slowing down was pretty straightforward. The attraction of the closed track environment is that you’re not constantly on the look out for cars and other road users coming from a variety of angles. Everyone rides in the same direction on the track (you hope…).
Time passed quickly (surely a sign of having had a good session). It also felt like I’d done a good job of work. Whilst maybe this was a reflection of my lack of bike fitness currently (ever?), there is something about the track that encourages you to go hard.
In an ideal world (or one that involved fewer hours at work at least), I could see a track training session (or two) being a perfect weekly boost to winter training. It’s just the small matter of finding an available space on sessions 2, 3 and 4 first…
Have You Tried Track Cycling?
Well, have you?
Did you enjoy it? Where did you go? Anyone tried out Manchester or the London Olympic stadium? Let me know by leaving a comment below.