Ned Flanders: “You were bicycling two abreast?”
Homer Simpson: “I wish. We were bicycling to a lake.”
The Simpsons, ‘Dangerous Curves’ (Episode 2005), first broadcast, November 10th 2008
Velodrome – from French vélodrome, from vélo ‘bicycle’ + -drome
1. An arena or structure for equestrian and other spectacles.
2. In ancient Greece and Rome an oval track for horse races and chariot races.
Ok, so it’s time to tell you about my velodrome experience. I’ve lived in SE London for 19 years and I love it. I love the proximity to the centre of town (3 miles from Waterloo, it takes me an hour to walk to the Southbank from my house), the green spaces within walking distance (Ruskin, Brockwell and Dulwich parks) and many other goodies on offer, Brockwell Park Lido (of course), and Herne Hill Velodrome, where the 1948 Olympics took place. I’m not one for cycling in traffic, commuting on two wheels is definitely not my thing. But how was I to get used to a bike without braving London traffic. The velodrome in Herne Hill, that’s how. In late autumn 2016 I realised that this could be the solution to all my cycling woes. The gym bikes are not the same as cycling on the road or a track. Herne Hill Velodrome is close to the house, I already had the helmet and gloves, bikes were on loan as part of the £5 charge. After extensive research, Thursday mornings or Sunday evenings were the only slots for my level. Thursday from 9-10am is for the over 40s and women’s easy riding session. Sunday from 5-7pm is women only. So far I haven’t made it to the Sunday session, Thursdays are easier and a great way to start the day and only one hour long.
Before my first session began I had to find a bike that fitted me. I’m a 49 frame. I wheeled the bike over to the track and watched as other riders kitted up, pumped up tyres, changed pedals so they could clip in and then I watched them cycle past and I was very nervous. It was a beautiful sunny day, not too cold, I was prepared with layers of clothes. There are two tracks at the velodrome, the main track, which has a 30- degree gradient, I’m not sure what the technical term is for that, perhaps someone can tell me, and an inner, flat track, used for inductions and other sessions. The first thing they teach you is how to push off and stop. No gears and no breaks. Fixie bikes. Called Fixies because they have a fixed gear. Some people find this daunting and wouldn’t go near a fixie, but I love them. Less to worry about and if everyone was braking there would be loads of accidents and pile-ups. Makes sense. But it is bloody hard, relentless work, because you physically cannot stop pedalling.
Once my toes were in the clips, hard to adjust when you’re sitting on a bike without falling off, I had to steady myself and then push off from the barrier. When you want to stop, you cycle against the pedals, which eventually slows you down and you edge towards the barrier and as you come to stillness you hold on. I found this quite easy, once you’ve got it it’s not hard to do and came quite naturally. Cycling on a small, flat track is one thing, progressing to the main track was a very different experience. I was terrified. What if I fell off the gradient? What if I crashed into someone else? What if I couldn’t do it? I cycled around the main track for about fifteen minutes, just to get the hang of it, but also to work my way up the gradient along the different colours that differentiate the next level of slope. Cycling at the very top of the gradient is hard, but shooting down to the flattest level is a feeling of utter joy and exhilaration and 10-year-old Shelley loved it. Fifty seven year old Shelley loved it too. Time to go home, with my legs a little wobbly, I would return the following week to join the regular track riders. I thought of the Brownlee brothers, running that distance after cycling so long after swimming so far. I shook all the way to the car…how would I hold up after swimming 750m, cycling 12 miles and running 5k with wobbly legs?
The Thursday morning riders at the velodrome are a mix of super speedy men and women who are all younger than me, and they are super speedy too. I am not. They are all lovely, friendly, encouraging people who give advice like YOUR SEAT IS TOO LOW. I have made a bike buddy with a 71-year-old, who had never ridden a bike before setting foot on the velodrome several months ago. He is slower than me. Every week is different, but usually starts with a warm up of several laps and then you all ride round together in a peloton – French, literally ‘small ball’ because of the concentrated grouping of the pack – except for me and my 71-year-old bike buddy. It’s hard to cycle twice as fast as everyone else to ensure your front wheel is practically but never touching the back wheel of the rider in front of you and keep doing it for 25 laps. I tried, I couldn’t keep up and yes men are generally stronger than women, but those women, wow. And I thought I was fit. Week 2 proved more difficult than I imagined and I was beginning to have doubts about track racing and sprint triathlons, what on earth was I doing and why was I doing it? I went home deflated. I hate not being brilliant at anything immediately, this was proving no different to any other challenge I set myself. The great thing is, at the velodrome, no one minds what anyone else does as long as you STAY DOWN and let others pass. That’s what the speedy cyclists call out, if you’re down on the lowest level and they are approaching they shout, STAY DOWN, in case you decide to shoot up the slope and cause chaos. You learn the rules fast, you have to. You have to stay focussed. The last thing I would want to do would be to hurt anyone. I also discovered that it was actually okay for me not to keep up, to take things at my own pace, to gradually improve. All the other riders were cycling enthusiasts, they cycled everywhere. They’d had practice. I was doing it for pleasure, for exercise and as a means to an end. It is the hardest exercise I have ever taken. The good thing is that my bottom doesn’t hurt at all, probably because my glutes are so tight, I have no pain during or after a session. My legs have become used to the pressure and each week I have improved. I even took part in a race before Christmas. Split into two groups, the slower one starts up at the top of one side of the track, the faster riders at the other end at the top. The person at the front of each group does a lap and pulls off, which means whoever is at the back has to do the most laps…and then we see who has won. I went third in the slower group and apparently I stormed it. Perhaps sprinting is my thing?
A few days before Christmas, it was a beautiful freezing cold, sunny day. Thick socks, cycling shoes, which I invested in, because the trainers I’ve tried are either freezing cold or too bulky. Sale cycling shoes, they didn’t cost a fortune and I intend to try clipping in at some point. What was that I said about not clipping in? Glove liners and gloves, a thin beanie to keep my head and ears warm under my helmet. I bought a pair of cycling glasses that have chromatic lenses on the outside and prescription lenses clipped inside. I am short sighted and need to see! I tried wearing my regular glasses, but the ones with the magnetic sunglass clips fell off and if I wear regular glasses, sudden glare or sunshine is too much for my delicate, green eyes. Changing glasses mid ride is impossible. These are probably the best accoutrement I have bought. I use them for running too. They stay on, they are brilliant, I don’t even feel as if I am wearing glasses. Thanks to the Bike Rooms for patience and assistance.
So, 3 days before Christmas and we’re about to end the session when it is decided that we will turn our bikes around and cycle around the track in the opposite direction which most people didn’t warm to. We were to do as much or as little as we could, making waves, so up and down the gradient, staying safe all the time. At the end, all of us holding on to the barrier, the instructor asked if anyone enjoyed it. Guess who put up her hand? It felt more natural to me, sorry, but it did.
After a few weeks break due to holidays, icy conditions or rain, I returned today. I managed 40 laps – 5 warm up laps, then 25 then 10. I couldn’t stay in a peloton with the others, they are all too fast for me, but it was the first time I did 25 laps non-stop. My bike buddy was with me. Cycling behind, he kept calling to see if I was okay. I’M FINE ARE YOU OKAY? A voice called back, ‘I’m not sure I can do much more.’ YES YOU CAN. After two more laps, we checked on each other, all the time STAYING DOWN while the speedy riders whizzed past. ‘I think I have to stop.’ DON’T STOP, YOU CAN DO IT, KEEP GOING. And then the bell and I smiled to myself, because I had done it, but so had the 71-year-old. He patted me on the shoulder. ‘You did that, you made that happen, you kept me going, thank you, thank you so much, I’ve never done that before.’
Others congratulated me on keeping going, on doing better, on not stopping. I was jubilant, my legs were jubilant. I am fixated on fixies. They are trendy but not new inventions and some now have brakes. I wouldn’t want to ride one in real life, all those hills and no brakes and traffic, but riding around a track on a fixie is pure joy. Fact – in 1876 Madison square garden was originally built in order to accommodate fixed gear bike racing track.
I bumped into the 71 year old (I must ask his name) when I went to the bank straight after the session. He shook my hand. ‘Thank you, thank you, I wouldn’t have done it, if it wasn’t for you, you kept me going.’
Yes, I said, but you kept me going too. I was learning to ride in a team. As someone pointed out to me, be ready to run, swim, bike with others around you. I was learning and learning fast, now all I need to do is cycle fast…
Next time…day 6. My first back to back.
4 thoughts on “Day 5. Fixation”
Sounds scary, really pleased you are starting to enjoy it. Glad you have found a good glasses combo that works well for you: can you wear contact lenses? I don’t use them very often day to day, but have them under goggles for sprint tris and then pop a pair of sunnies on for the bike/run.
Good luck with your first brick session
Prob with contacts (which I tried) is that I can’t see close up with them…and I still see sun glasses. These do it all in one and are easy to take off! I have my first pair of prescription goggles…which work…again, if I wear contacts I can’t see close up. The main reason for getting these is so that I can find my way to my bike after the swim…appreciate all the advice Gael.
Love this Shelley. You are awesome!
Ah, thank you!