Road Cyclists can be a stubborn breed, we are sometimes known to be very dedicated to our tarmac based subcategory of cycling, perhaps neglecting to push our horizons and challenge ourselves with new riding disciplines. We all know the occasional mountain bike ride can have massive benefits to our bike handling skills and thats easily accessible, but what about the velodrome? Are there skill improvements to be made? How accessible is it? Is the track fun? Is it safe?!
Our very own club member Jools Scutter took the time to share his experience over the past year and explain everything.
Returning to cycling after years of not riding, I’ve been keen to try as many different things as I can. I’d never ridden on the track before and the taster session organised by East Grinstead Cycle Club last year at Herne Hill Velodrome (HHV) gave me the opportunity to have a go. It was great fun, so much so that I joined two more of EGCC’s tasters before becoming a regular attendee at HHV training sessions and then joining my first ever race meeting in September.
Did I have any worries at the beginning? Yes, a few! Amongst these were: riding a fixie; riding in a close group at speed; and falling off and getting hurt! I’m in my sixties, so I don’t bounce very well and falling off has been fairly high up on my list of worries. More about all this below!
Regular tasters are available at HHV for £20 which includes bike hire and training from a coach. The EGCC taster sessions that I attended were arranged exclusively for our club and each one was also run by one of HHV’s coaches. Rest assured, the coach was very patient and was used to helping people who had never ridden a fixie or ridden on the track.
The first drill was really simple! All we had to do was hold onto the fence, clip into the pedals, ride once around the track and then stop again at the same place on the fence. What could be easier? For those who, like me, have never ridden a fixie before, it doesn’t freewheel (ie when the wheels turn, the pedals turn) and there are no brakes. Stopping is achieved by slowing your pedalling. Guess who missed the stopping point and had to do the ‘lap of shame’? Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one!
You would be surprised though at just how quickly we all progressed from this early embarrassment! The main advantage of having no brakes is that nobody can do anything sudden. This makes riding close to the rider in front of you a lot easier and safer and, obviously, the closer you can get, the greater the drafting effect. We were all nervous about riding close and the next drill was simply for all of us to ride around the track in a long line with two-bikes gap between us. As we gained confidence, the coach progressively got us to close the gaps until soon we were riding within just a half-wheel of the bike in front. Several more drills followed, all aimed at riding closely together and changing position safely. My worries about the likelihood of falling were rapidly diminishing!
Taster sessions are run by HHV for Juniors, Men, Women and Women & Over-40s. So, if you’re worried about being unfairly matched, then there will be a group to suit you. And don’t worry about being completely new, it’ll be the same for almost everyone there.
Once you’ve done a few taster sessions, chances are that, like me, you’ll be keen for more! There’s plenty of choice ranging from Track Skills and Intermediate Training to the faster Race and Sprint Training sessions. These cost just £10 a session and, again, include coaching and bike hire. However….. before you can join any of these you will need to pass your Track Accreditation Test. Sensibly, the purpose of this is to ensure that everyone riding in a training session has absorbed the basics and can ride safely without risk to others. I was confident enough to try this test after the three EGCC organised tasters. How many you need will depend on your skill level and confidence but I would expect most would be similar to me.
Once I’d passed the test, there was no stopping me and I’ve been attending the Intermediate Training (‘inters’) every week since May! HHV runs a lot of these training sessions every week and these are excellent for fitness and for improving bike handling skills. Like the ‘tasters’, there are separate sessions for Men, Women and Women & Over-40s. I attend the latter every Thursday from 8:30 until 10:00. There are also evening sessions, the timing of which might well suit those who work in London. For anyone unfamiliar, HHV is in Dulwich and there’s a train station a short walk away from the track. For me, travelling by car to HHV during the rush hour takes me about 70mins from Lingfield.
The ‘inters’ sessions regularly attract 30-40 riders and it has been great fun, I’ve made a lot of friends and I’ve gained fitness and learned a huge amount about riding fast and close to others. There’s also great camaraderie within the group and it’s great fun afterwards chatting over a cup of coffee at HHV’s track cafe. You don’t have to worry about not being fast enough either. The sessions allow for different fitness levels, it’s very friendly and nobody gets humiliated!
After I’d done half a dozen or so training sessions, I started to think about having a go at racing. HHV has a regular weekly Track League as well as separate Veterans and Women’s Track Leagues that meet once a month from April to September. To be able to join in, I had to pass HHV’s Race Accreditation Test and obtain a Race License from British Cycling. All fairly straightforward.
The racing at HHV takes account of ability levels. Of course, you have to be fairly fit but the race license system has different categories (Cats A, B & C) so that you only race against people of similar ability. As a novice rider you start as Cat C and, as you accumulate points from your result placings, you can rise through the ranks to ride against the fastest riders. Thankfully, in the Vets racing they also have an Over-60s category for those of us that can’t keep up with the Cat Cs!
Each race meeting includes many different types of race (eg scratch, elimination, pursuit). I’m still learning about all of these but you’ll probably know some from watching on the TV. Each race type has separate races for each license category.
The ‘scratch’ race typically consists of about a dozen laps. Everyone starts against the track fence and the first half-dozen or so laps are neutralised so that everyone rides together at speed without actually racing. Then the whistle blows and we’re off, racing flat out for the final laps. The winner is the first to complete the set number of laps and cross the finish line.
For the ‘elimination’ race, otherwise known as ‘the devil’, the riders start together in the same way as for the ‘scratch’ race. Then the whistle is blown every other lap and the last person to cross the finish line at the end of this lap is eliminated and has to drop out. The last two riders race each other for the win. Exhilarating and huge fun too!
I managed to get myself fit enough and confident enough to join the last Vets Track League session in September. Thankfully, this wasn’t part of the League and was an ‘end of term’ team event. There were eight teams and each comprised six riders from a mixture of different license categories. The event consisted of a scratch race, a team sprint relay, a reversed points race (complicated!) and an elimination race. The scratch, reversed points and elimination races were divided into separate races for each license category and points were accumulated by the team from individual’s placings in each race. We came fourth. In all honesty, I was off the pace but my teammates didn’t hold it against me, it was a lot of fun and the buzz and banter in the cafe afterwards was great!
And as for my fear of crashing? Well, it’s still there but it won’t stop me from continuing and having fun! Realistically, a key aim of HHV’s training is to improve skills and safe riding so I don’t think the risk of falling is any higher than riding with a group on the road. I know that my own bike handling skills and awareness have improved immensely since beginning training with them. And, of course, there’s the added safety benefits on the track of having no traffic to avoid and no potholes to negotiate!
I hope I’ve given you some idea about track cycling. It really is so different to riding on the road and so much fun that I do hope some of you will decide to give it a go.
By Jools Scutter.
If you’d like to know more about either individual sessions or the organised group track days that EGCC organise, please message Jools or Peter.
HHV’s website https://www.hernehillvelodrome.com/.
Alternatively, the Sussex Cycle Racing League meets Wednesday evenings at Preston Park in Brighton where there is also an outdoor track. You can find out more from their website https://scrl.co.uk/