Track cycling: A roadie's voyage into the unknown

John Whitney hits the boards for the first time

I struggle to think just how many hours I've spent in the saddle over the last few years. 99 percent of my time has been on the road with the occasional foray into mountain biking. Yet not one single minute has been spent on the track, an unfortunate situation which I got the chance to put right this May at the UK's National Cycling Centre's (NCC) velodrome in Manchester.

It's not that I've never been intrigued, far from it. Each and every time I've watched the pros go hell for leather round the 250m track, I've been itching to jump out of my seat and have a tear round myself. While it doesn't quite stir the juices in the way the road does, it's been on my to-do list for some time.

So why has it taken so long to actually try it? Accessibility was the main reason, with the near 50-mile distance from my home in Bath to the nearest indoor track in Newport an obstacle I haven't always been enthusiastic to overcome. Trepidation was another; the sight of the shard of wood being removed from the bloodied leg of Malaysian cyclist Azizulhasni Awang at the World Cup in Manchester last year still looms large in my memory and has probably made me believe track racing is more dangerous than it actually is.

Despite this, I had no hesitation in accepting an invite to a track tutorial evening hosted by car firm Fiat, along with a bunch of BikeRadarcompetition winners. It was a perfect opportunity to break my duck and coax out an enthusiasm that I knew was lurking within.

What to expect

The four-hour session wasn't typical of what newcomers can expect at a taster session, which costs £10.50 for adults and £8.30 for under 16s. We had much more time and subsequently moved faster through the range of introductory skills. This cost will increase should you not have your own kit or equipment; track bikes (Dolan, £10.80 adults/£8.30 kids), shoes (Lake, Look Delta cleats, £4.80) and helmets (Limar, free with bike hire) are all available to hire.

The Lake hire shoes at the velodrome have Look Delta cleats, which means typical road cycling shoes will be compatible. Bring your own and save the £4.80 hire fee

After changing, we moved track side and picked up our bikes. Those of you familiar with traditional road bikes may be in for a shock - it may look like your bike from a distance, but the lack of brakes and freewheel mean it's anything but. If you're turning the pedals, the chain turns the wheel, which means to slow down, you need to decrease your cadence. You can't just stop pedalling. If you do you're in for an almighty shock, and the wrench of your knee ligaments will mean it's the last time you do it.

NCC track bikes are supplied by local Ormskirk firm Dolan Bikes

With my bike collected and size 10s on, my group of nine moved onto the track. Because there's no free wheel, it's much harder to clip into the pedals without holding onto something, which means we all started by clinging onto the barrier around the track, clicking our shoes into the pedals and pushing off with one arm. Clinging tentatively to the side, it was similar to the first time I ever went ice skating. 

The coaches gave us a couple of laps to get used to the bikes and the idea of stopping without brakes. Once that was out of the way, it was onto the light blue edge of the track itself and what the Manchester guys dub, for obvious reasons, the Côte d'Azur.

The light blue 'Côte d'Azur' strip is an intermediate section between the wooden track and the blue cement floor. It's rubberised, making it ideal for killing speed

As confidence grew we slowly moved up the track, first onto the black line, then onto the red and finally the blue. For anyone already comfortable riding bikes, there really isn't that much to learn. As long as you are riding above 18mph on the bends, the natural centrifugal and gravitational forces will ensure you get round the bend while doing very little with the bike. Simply hold your line and speed, and your momentum will do the rest.

The black, red and blue strips go right the way round the track and are the best method of gauging position

Words of warning

Once we'd got to grips with bike handling we quickly moved onto more intricate skills, such as peeling off the front of a large group to the back. This is much more tricky, as we would learn to our cost later on.

The first thing you notice when you visit the track is how steep the banking on the bends actually is. The 45 degree angle looks like a wood-lined wall in the flesh and requires high speeds - and confidence - to negotiate. One wrong move by anybody, such as a clipped wheel or a drop in speed, can mean calamity for the whole group. If that mistake occurs towards the front, it creates a domino effect that can cause carnage.

What you must never, ever do is slow down when attempting to drop to the back. You should simply maintain your speed, because the extra distance you're travelling by moving higher up the track means you will naturally lose the ground you need to. During our first attempt of this, the rider at the front moved up on the bend, but slowed to an almost halt, which meant he dropped like a sack of spuds to the foot of the track. The domino effect ensued, causing an unfortunate pile up behind him.

Olympic champion Ed Clancy, who was on hand to impart his considerable wisdom alongside Team GB teammate Andy Tennant, said crashes were common on the track - even at his level - but you shouldn't let it put you off.

Ed Clancy (left) with Team GB teammate Andy Tennant, along with two competition winners

Dusting ourselves down

Once everyone had picked up their bikes (and confidence) we had a go at a one-lap time trial. From a standing start, we made our best efforts at a 250m dash, following the track's black line - the shortest route round the track. More of a climber than out-and-out power brute (another reason why I've avoided the track), I struggled to make much of an impact at the top of the leaderboard. Crossing the line in a disappointing 21.4 seconds, I was a full two seconds behind the winner.

The evening flew by in what turned out to be a crash course in track cycling. The coach, Greg Newton, told us we'd tried out more skills than is typical at a taster session and I certainly felt I'd made huge strides. There's really not that much to say about getting started; Newton himself says as long as you arrive in sensible clothing - Lycra shorts are the best choice - and don't ride too slowly, you'll be OK. The tricky part comes, as was amply demonstrated in our spectacular crash, in overtaking and learning how to ride tightly to the wheel in front. That can all wait for another day, though, and after an exhilarating introduction like this, that day surely won't be too far away.

To find out more about taster sessions at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, click here.

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