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Tasty sessions at Lee Valley Velodrome

Lee Valley Velodrome main entrance

I’m afraid of heights. Thats a strange way to begin a blog article about track cycling. Now, I know that sounds like a passive, matter of fact statement, but I really need you to understand that this isn’t just some small aversion to heights. It is, in fact, a great big bum loosening fear of heights, where even watching someone do something at height instantly makes me start making whistling puffy noises when I breath, accompanied by cold sweaty palms and walking around in circles mumbling statements like “now why would they go and do something like that”.

Carefully concocted chemical infusions being my usual, and typically favourite catalyst for reaching great heights now being a long and distant past time hobby, means that today, in my now sober and acutely aware brain I must endure the discomfort and all too real thought of the distance between myself and the ground when scaling anything taller than standing on a chair to change a light bulb. The fear is very real. If you want to have a real laugh, stick me in the elevator that’s been sellotaped to the outer side of Heron Tower and watch a fully grown man become a gibbering wreck as the elevator ascends, and the ground becomes a long lost and deeply missed memory as London plummets away beneath you. A ride I will only ever endure when the need to visit Sushisamba again becomes absolutely desperate.

So, why begin this review discussing heights and my all too real phobia of them. Well velodromes on the whole have, to some degree, height baked into them. This is due to the banking on the corners. When travelling at speed on a cycling track it means there’s less of a need to lean around a corner, in reality the banking “flattens” out the track. I’m no physicist so please don’t ask me how that works, my brain hurts enough already.

When it comes to Olympic velodromes, they are the full fat, hairy bearded, buxom breasted real deal. The land where only those with a strong constitution dare to tread, where both men and women who brave the boards have bigger… Thighs, that’s right thighs… much bigger thighs than me.

At Lee Valley, the velodrome has a banking angle of 42 degrees. That’s very nearly halfway to 90 degrees, which is what a wall normally stands at if you’ve built it correctly. Now you might think that that doesn’t seem all that scary, and really it isn’t, until you apply the 7 meter, or thereabouts, width of the track in to this mental equation. Now my Pythagoras is reasonably, well, very weak in fact so I’ll leave you to work out the actual height, but to my uninitiated brain, full of fear, it is about a thousand meters up and a shear drop to the floor when you ride the outer edge of the track. Cue my anus opening like a set of theatre curtains on my first ride around the top of the corners.

The pringle

I’ve banged on long enough about my fear when really I should be discussing the finer points of this really very excellent experience. So this is a taster session. It’s designed to give you the experience of riding a bike on the Olympic track, and to give you a feel of the velodrome at lee valley. It does just that. When you arrive at the velodrome, you’ll be confronted with a building nicknamed the Pringle, yes the crisp that once you pop you can’t stop. Named so, due to its distinctive design. To me it actually looks like a massive shape of a velodrome, which is it’s intended design purpose, but to others, I guess it looks just like a popular salty snack… This is the world we live in now where buildings are called the bulge, the walkie talkie or the gherkin (Londons biggest buttplug)… I mean come on people… Awards were won for the design which is amazing because the building really is something to behold…

Once you’re through the front doors you’re welcomed by the reception, who make sure you are who you say you are and directed you to the track entrance. As you then walk through the underground parts of the velodrome you’ll eventually come to the ramp that takes you up into the centre part of the track where cycling greats such as Sir Chris Hoy, Wiggo and Dame Laura Kenny have walked before you. It’s quite a moment if cycling is a thing for you. The walls are lined with signed cycling jerseys and the sound of the track wafts down the ramp tunnel towards you as you ascend. When you then step out of the ramp the full 360 degrees of the track looms above and around you with its steep banking at each end. Your eye is drawn up from the track into the seating area which again completely surrounds you. I believe it’s free to come to the velodrome on a normal day to view, so it’ll be likely there are people dotted about watching the cycling. Once you’ve taken that all in, you see that the area you stand in is the pre stage area for where people get ready to go out on the track. There are areas sectioned off so a person can sit with their kit and get ready. But before you get ready you need to go and find your way to where they dish out the bikes.

You’re again greeted by someone who’ll ask to see your wristband, courtesy of main reception, and ask you to sign an agreement dissolving any liability to the track owners should a meteor strike you while on the track or some other such thing… Bike hire and other sundries are included in the taster session price so once all the form signing is out the way it’s time to pick out a bike and get introduced to your coach for the session.

Now a word about the bikes. They are track specific bikes, which means they have no brakes and have a fixed gear. The no brakes part is easy enough, there’s a never ending track to roll around on till you come to a stop but the fixed gear might take a moment to get used to. For those who don’t know what a fixed gear is when it comes to cycling, it means that the pedals and rear wheel are directly linked via the chain. There is no freewheel which is the thing that clicks when you stop pedalling on a normal bike. So, you must keep pedalling. If the bike is moving, so are the pedals, and the pedals will be clipped to your feet. For the uninitiated all you have to remember is to not stop moving your legs as you pedal. You’ll get over it soon enough cause the first time you forget and think you might want to freewheel you’ll get that unexpected and wonderful surprise that almost everyone that’s never ridden fixed gear gets. Let's just hope you’re sat down when it happens. The coach will talk you through all of this before you begin.

Cinelli Vigorelli

On a side note. I originally had decided to take my own bike with me, because you’re allowed to do so, as long as your bike is track specific. You will be disappointed if you rock up on your Halfords special because it’ll be a hard no from the staff. So yeah, I have my own track bike. I’ve already done some track riding over at Herne Hill Velodrome, shallower banking if you were wondering, and an older track, so I have a little track experience already. I didn’t end up going with my track bike though due to the overground to Stratford being closed, and riding there with a huge gear and no brakes seemed like a silly idea at the time.

So you’ve got your bike and your coach has run you through the basics, it’s now the time that you’ll be taken out and introduced to the track. You’ll do a few warm up skills and eventually you’ll be sent out onto the track properly to do basic skills blocks. These are all designed to get you slowly used to track riding.

Now, I don’t want to get into too much detail here as my session will likely be different to yours, and yours will likely be different to someone else's. The specific skills blocks will be that of the coaches choice and likely depend on the confidence and skill level of the riders within the group. On the day I had my taster session I was in a group with two other people, all of us were keen cyclists and two of us already had some track experience. So the coach almost immediately sent us out onto the track. One thing I can say though that everyone will end up doing is looking over your shoulder. You will be reminded and told to do this all the time, this is a good thing as is all about safety and etiquette. The last thing you want to do is swing out on to the track right into someone else. Only bad things will come from that, so it’s paramount you do this.

Now, rounding this off to the beginning of this review and my deeply vicious fear of heights. On the track there are many markers and lines. You’ll be told about them as you go through the session, but the main ones you’ll be focusing on are the black, red and blue lines that go around the whole track. The black line is the closest to the inner part of the track and is the shortest way around the track at 250 meters. The red line is the sprinters line, when it comes to racing, sprinters must go round this line if they want to over take a lead rider, but for the taster session it’s no more than an area of the track where you’ll be asked to ride and is further away by about a meter from the inner part of the track. Finally there is the blue line, know as the stayers line. The stayers line is an area of the track where racers go to to recover during Madison races waiting for their partner to come by and pull them into the race. Again for the sake of this taster session it’s only an area of the track where you will be asked to ride. It’s situated roughly about half way in the middle of the track.

Now that we’re familiar with what these lines are and where they sit on the track we can begin to understand what that means when it comes to the banked sections of the track. It’s worth noting here that the angle of banking is the same at the bottom as it is at the very top of the track, way beyond the blue line. So if you’re cornering on the black line, which you will, it has the same degree in bank as it does at the top. Only you’ll go round the corner way quicker, and should you decide you want to have a crash, there isn’t very far to fall before you’re safely skidding to a halt on the ground. Now in comparison, and for me this was a very big deal, so big in fact that I wasn’t even allowed anywhere near dragons den. You will be asked to ride on and eventually above the blue line, fine on the flat parts of the track but it’s about a million miles up in the sky a long, long way away from the ground.

Falling off here is not advised,

Speed is your friend.

Thankfully, everyone got round safely. The coaches will reminded to keep up your speed as you go into the corners and in actuality the likelihood of anything happening which results in a long skid down the banking is normally only reserved for racing, when there’s lots going on with many people on the track. Taster sessions are all about safety and getting to know the track.

So why do the taster session? Well firstly it is just plain good fun, and being able to ride a track that hosted the Olympics and many other great races is a privilege. You’ll learn about track racing and how to correctly ride a track bike in a really great venue. Secondly you’ll get to push yourself out of your comfort zone a bit. This was especially true in my case.

The banking of the track is both daunting and exhilarating and once you’ve managed to get round it’ll leave you with an amazing sense of achievement. Further to that, you’ll get a certificate of achievement too.

If you’re planning on riding regularly at Lee Valley velodrome, you’ll need to do this taster session to progress to, and through their staging sessions. These will lead to track accreditation which is shared across a few other UCI cycling tracks. So if track cycling is your thing, this is where it’ll begin at Lee Valley Velodrome

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