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COLUMN SIX: Throwing caution to the wind can hurt

The Forest City Velodrome in London, Ontario. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Velodrome racing not for the timid

BY JOHN SWART
VOICE Correspondent

The first thing that strikes you upon entering the arena is the faint rumble, like car tires crossing corrugated safety strips. It does nothing to prepare you for what awaits when you enter the Forest City Velodrome in London, Ontario.

An oval bicycle racing track, just 133 metres around, is jammed into the arena. The “flat” straightaways, banked at 17%, rise from the concrete arena floor to the fourth row of bleachers in their 10-metre width.

The corners, banked at 50%, reach near-vertically from the floor to the top row of remaining seats. Cycling along the edge of the track on the arena floor, while getting up to speed, you can safely extend your elbow toward the track. But stretch your arm out completely, and you’ll fill your fingers and palms with plywood slivers, that’s how steeply the banking rises.

Unless you’re a very avid cyclist, or have attended a World Cup Track Cycling event at the Mattamy-Milton Velodrome, you may have no idea what I’m describing here.

Picture shrinking Daytona International Speedway. Then take out all the seats behind both blue lines in a hockey arena, say the one in London where the Knights played. Then remove the first four rows of ice level seats along the sides of the rink. Now, drop in the shrunken Daytona Speedway. Just to keep it interesting, increase the banking, or slope, of the corners to 50%, and the straights to 17%. Cover the track with wood rather than asphalt, and race your bicycle on it.

You’re starting to visualize the Forest City Velodrome. It’s the shortest velodrome in the world, which means when you’re riding it most of your time is spent in the corners, on a 50% grade. Your “rest” time is a mere two seconds on the front straightaway, and another two seconds on the back straight, per lap.

“Rest” means you’re still riding a 17% slope, crossways. For perspective, Pelham’s infamous Saylor’s Hill is only 14%. But remember, you’re not climbing or descending, you’re racing perpendicular to the grade, trying as hard as you can not to slide down the track.

My racing days are over, but old foolishness never dies. The one discipline I have never tried is track racing, going around in very fast circles shoulder to elbow with other riders.

I’d signed up for a “Track 1” session, in which I’d be oriented, educated, and evaluated during an exhausting day to earn my racing qualification.

I slipped and slid across the plywood track in my street shoes as if negotiating ice, and entered the centre staging area to choose a rental racing bike. The false bravado was gone, and I wondered if I hadn’t arrived a few decades late to be attending velodrome racing school.

I’ve piloted a bicycle horizontally just a few times, never by choice, and it has always ended badly. Today I’ll learn to cycle horizontally through each corner of this track, once every six seconds. Near the bottom of the banking, 30 kph is the minimum speed required to keep the bike, and yourself, from sliding down. Halfway up, on the Stayers’ line, 38 kph is required, and beyond that, up toward the yellow steel pipe guardrail, they say you’ll just know when you get there.

Track racing bikes are elemental. They weigh nothing, have no brakes, and the handlebars are bare and low. They’re “fixies,” single speed direct drive. If the pedals turn, which means your legs are pumping, so does the rear wheel, and vice-versa. And as with any bicycle racing, your feet are mechanically locked into the pedals.

At speed, if you succumb to mental or physical fatigue and attempt to coast, the results are catastrophic. Your momentary lack of pedaling locks the rear wheel, bouncing it high off the track into the air. When the wheel lands, its rotational force, driven by all your weight and momentum, takes hold, and spins your legs around in a terrifying wobble, or pitches you over the bars in a split-second.

I’ve stopped in the staging area to regain my composure after just such an incident, and a coach quips about how the track is self-cleaning, and that there are only two types of velodrome racers—those who have crashed, and those who will.

Despite his remarks, the next three hours are the most fun and excitement I’ve had on a bike in ages.

The session begins with bike control techniques on the arena floor. We’re not allowed onto the track yet. We graduate to negotiating pylons on the straights, and eventually ride to the top lip of the straightaway and tap the railing; the track racer’s equivalent of petting a Doberman through a junkyard fence.

Within an hour we’re flying through the corners, riding a pace line, with four coaches positioned around the track to watch our every move. Five bike-lengths apart, then four, then three, two and one as we ride with hands in various positions on the bars. Then one-handed, all the while speeding and slowing, standing and sitting, legs always cranking the magic speed required to grip the corners, building bike-handling skills and confidence.

After a break, our mixed bag of racers and pretenders like me is allowed to ride freely on the track. Small groups form as we catch one another but are too timid to pass. Then someone flies by above me on a corner, drops down in front of me, and relaxes for a second before entering the next corner. Too late, she realizes she’s slowed below the speed required to keep the horizontal bike glued to the track. The track self-cleans in an instant, and she’s sliding to the concrete floor below. I pedal harder, higher, to avoid her and stay upright. On the next lap I see she’s standing, dazed but okay.

Four minutes at this speed, and my legs are jelly. I’m done, and need another rest.

The highlight was an individual timed flying lap at day’s end, a chance to go as fast as possible for those confident enough to try it. There is no other cycling experience like it.

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