13 December, 2010

On Becoming a Velodromedary

I fulfilled a lifelong dream this past Saturday! Apparently only three or four indoor velodromes exist in North America and fortunately one, the Forest City Velodrome, in London, Ontario, is less than a two hour's drive from me. Our tri club booked an introductory session and we had a blast!Rental bikes were included in the very modest price and in addition to our usual cycling kits and pedals we were encouraged to dress in layers; it may have been indoors but it was a former ice rink and very cool inside this time of year. This building necessitated a very small, intense layout. Whereas an Olympic circuit might be 250m long with 45 deg. banked turns and 15 deg. straights, this is 138m (150 yards) around with 50 deg. turns and 17 deg. straights. It was remarkable - and intimidating at first - to walk down to the concrete arena floor and look up as the experienced riders soared past overhead. Several of us wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into, the way one might when queueing up for a giant roller coaster.

Our three instructors were very enthused; you could tell they loved what they do and they quickly had us on our bikes and wheeling about on the concrete to get acquainted our the fixed gears' idiosyncrasies. We drilled some pylon slaloming, grabbing at plastic bottles on the floor, slowing down, and yes, even stopping - I found this to be the skill I need to practice the most!

From there we lapped the plywood skirt circling the track at floor level. Three pylons were placed down the length of each straightaway, the middle one jutting up onto the track surface itself. We were to cut up and around this middle cone, practicing shoulder checks and smoothness as we drilled merging onto and off the track. When we nailed this step the coaches kicked the middle cone further off line toward the outside of the track. This made our swings steeper and we quickly got a feel for pitching the bikes around, which was a far cry from the steadiness we strive for as triathletes navigating crowds of AGers. We then rehearsed safely entering and exiting the track, to and from the middle paddock area, all the while checking the shoulders.

Next up was encircling the track on the metre-wide blue threshold band they'd dubbed the Côte d'Azur. When we showed them we could hold a decent line they had us ride up onto the first, black, line on the track surface at each straightaway, dropping down to the Côte for each turn. Before we knew it we were given clearance to follow the black line all the way around - we were in business! From the fifth highest strip on the Côte d'Azur to the outer track railing it's all 50 degress. Whoops, hoots, and hollers spilled from all around as we got our first tastes of the full track. It was, I must say, breathtaking; I was laughing like a little kid.

Rob and his coaches brought us in regularly to take a breather, stay hydrated, and think about what we'd just learned. These five minute breaks seemed to help us process all of the new sensations, and we approached each new session with renewed vigour (I think they enjoyed working with a group that had the cycling background we did, as we appeared to grasp each new stage with few bobbles). Interspersed with lapping at higher levels on the track were skills drills to give us a better feel for the bikes. We were told to stand and sprint at points, sometimes for several laps. I'm flattered they thought I looked capable. This was particularly challenging on the turns because of the unique forces - some gravity is replaced by centrifugal force, perhaps? - and I found my hamstrings were most taxed. I dearly wanted to coast a wee bit on occasion, but between my pride in not letting down my paceline mates and of course the relentlessness of the fixed gear there's no choice in that matter!

We were drilled to swap our hand positions between the tops and the drops, all around the track. As if this weren't enough, we then rode with one hand off entirely, first shadowing the bar, then held out to the side, and finally tucked behind our backs around the entire circuit! After this it was easy to feel practically invincible, and in an expert stroke of timing the coaches had us break for lunch before any of us found out otherwise.

We continued our lapping and skills development after the break, being coaxed to incrementally narrow our gaps down from seven metres to one or two bike lengths. It got closer at times as we were pressed to crank up the speeds ("Go ahead kids, eat all the candy in the store!") but no one set a wheel wrong and we came away breathless and totally thrilled.

Random thoughts & observations I and some others shared:

- easy enough to speed up and slow down on fixed gears, but actually stopping required an order of magnitude more concentration to learn.

- concentration was the word of the day. Time absolutely flew past.

- the coaches had a great sense of humour. After telling us we had to remain above 30km/hr if we wanted to stay put on the track, a club member asked what would happen otherwise? At this, they smugly referred to the track as self-cleaning.

- they used the term "soft touch". Until then I'd only associated it with stick & ball sports, but I can totally see the finesse that is called for here.

- as with many sports it's relatively easy to do this in a middling way. It's the attacking it and racing it where both the thrill and the challenge will lie.

- these bikes can be twitchier than a tri bike. It could be the fact they weren't fitted for this intro session. Jury's out on this…

- the first laps up on the wood are breathtaking. Wonderful. Transformative. After that, the muscles & brain learn and compensate and, while it is still a thrill, it is about quickly getting down to business. Which, happily, involves quickness. There's never a sense of slipping at any point; tires are sanded from new to ensure there's a good texture on the slick tread.

- my tri club is laced with great riders. We remained accident free, and formed the tightest paceline the instructors would allow, about 1 bike length apart.

- I need to observe how others stop smoothly!

- we were constantly encouraged to keep our chins up/look far ahead. Sage advice in many sports, even driving a car. Sometimes grocery shopping. It was interesting to experiment with also tilting the head "sideways" on the turns, to keep it more upright (perpendicular to the arena floor), to give a different perspective. No doubt more practice will help arrive at the optimum orientation.

- undoubtedly one of the biggest areas to focus on next would be the transition zones between curve and straightway - how long to maintain the steady state through the turn before "releasing" onto the straight, and vice-versa. I was able to stay fairly close to the various lines although these areas were where I experienced my biggest deviations. Practice! Woohoo - more track time!

- a little bend in the elbows goes a long way to relaxing a person. "Elbow fitness" - arm strength - is helpful as the joint itself undergoes some unique stress. Centrifugal force is likely a factor, surely we are being pushed down onto our seats & pedals with a greater force than just gravity

Post impressions: hamstrings pleasantly stiff - although that could be down to a lack of bike miles in the past month.


As a child I recall a theatrical documentary on the '68 Mexico Olympics. I sat there watching, astonished, the velodrome events on this giant screen, and since then have always known this day would come. It really was as thrilling as I'd imagined! I can now happily look forward to making this an occasional dalliance in my love affair with cycling.


  1. Woohoo!! Congratulations Stephen. I have always loved track cycling (watching it), especially the tactics. Did you get any video footage? What speeds did you touch? So you thinking of switching to track now?

  2. I didn't get any video footage, although I know youtube has some, like:


    Related posts include POV helmet cams...

    No idea on speeds - I should have asked what the gear ratios were & could have calculated. No doubt we were around 40kph at points. I understand the slingshotting elites can reach 55 or so. And yes, I am at least keeping the door open to a nice little "Pista" if it ever shows up on Craigslist...