My New Year's resolution this year was to try out new and different forms of cycling outside my comfort zone. And although I live just a mile away from Herne Hill Velodrome, have watched lots of track racing there, made my kids do holiday training sessions and regularly helped out at the Inter-schools Championships, I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never ridden the track myself.
The closest I got to riding the circuit was at the start of Dulwich Paragon's Ride of the Falling Leaves which kicks off with a lap of the track - albeit on your road bike. As I approached the first banking, I let out a yell as it looks so much steeper up close than it does from the spectator's stands! I slammed on the brakes and crawled my way round in the safety zone like a complete coward. #Rule 5 went out the window!
A couple of times I went along at the weekend with every intention of signing up to the beginners session - only slightly too late - the lesson was thankfully full and I was turned away. At the same time, a track instructor friend delighted in telling me horror stories about the Saturday inductions where inevitably one poor newbie was carted off in an ambulance with a broken something or other.
As a result, I totally chickened out and refused to even try out a fixie on the many occasions I've been offered one to ride. Tales of exultant riders crossing the finish line only to stop pedalling and fly unceremoniously over the handlebars, coupled with my recent similar crash, were enough to convince me that track bikes were not for the likes of me.
So it was with extreme trepidation that I set out yesterday morning to Herne Hill, Olympic Velodrome of 1948 and with all the best credentials - Bradley Wiggins, Laura Trott and Ed Clancy have all trained here and ended up champions. I had none of those aspirations, I just wanted to not fall off or basically feel any kind of pain. But after a night of dreaming that I was cycling through streets full of zombies trying to pull me off my bike, I wasn't in the best frame of mind!
The rain was hammering down as I left home, and I told myself that the women and over 40s session I'd signed up for would surely be cancelled - and I would be sent home safe and sound. But no such luck. I was met by instructor John, a friendly chap who'd recently taken early retirement from his day job as a PE teacher. He began to put me at ease with tales of how Ned Boulting had recently taken up track sessions at Herne Hill and what a nice and very entertaining guy he was.
He was undaunted by my reticence and had me biked up and strapped into the pedals before I could stop him. He showed me how to pull away while I pushed myself off the barrier - so far so good - all I had to do was follow him. But what about the breaking? After all that's what I'd been so worried about. No problem, just slow the legs down about 100 metres from the barrier and grab hold of the railing to stop. John demonstrated the resistance I'd feel if I pedalled backwards and I recognised the sensation from the bikes we'd hired in Copenhagen; I could do this!
The first bit was easy - basically just cycling in a 450m circuit in the safety zone all nice and flat. Next we moved onto the white line which is the shortest distance around the track and only felt a little bit weird. The red 'sprinter' line was next, at just under a metre further up and I started to worry that my bike was going to slip down especially as it was pretty wet. Then up to blue, half the way up bank and I felt way out of my comfort zone. I found myself wanting to power up the steep sides knowing that the faster I went the less likely I would be to fall, but I had to follow John, and of course I couldn't brake!
But the 'top of the rollercoaster' sensation didn't last long as the bend was over quickly and there was some recovery time on the flat before the next turn. Gradually I got used to not sliding off the bank - that was until it was time to push on up and do a lap at the very top. I was gasping with fear and deliberately not looking down but amazingly my bike held firm on the all weather surface. It was completely counterintuitive, but the more times we practised it the safer I felt.
Then it was time to stop. We rolled down to the white line far more slowly than I would've liked and I had to resist the forward movement of the pedals more strongly than I expected, forcing myself to slow down gradually. Once I managed the backward braking thing I felt much more confident that it would be extremely hard to just stop pedalling and go over the handlebars, as the momentum of the wheels spinning pushes the pedals forward whether you like it or not. John sent me off the practise stopping and starting by myself on the inner 250m circuit for a while. I was happy to catch my breath and reflect on my achievements!
John called me back from my solo circuits and shouted for me to join him but this time he expected me to take the lead. He explained how we should take turns and then pull away up to the blue line which would be my cue to accelerate in front and take the lead. Every half circuit we swapped, and I began to enjoy the feeling of pushing up the slope and dropping down again. It felt good; I was using my legs and getting some speed up.
Eventually I was allowed to join the other riders in their group - I felt very honoured and thought I must be doing pretty well. One of them even spoke to me as we lapped the track. We ended with a race game of 'hound and hare' I was a hare - I could've gone much faster to be honest but I had to remember it was just my first time. I started to understand the thrill of racing - the chase and pursuit. It felt so effortless, flying round the track and my legs felt great. I came third in the race (John gracefully let me pass him!) and as I flew past the finish line he shouted, "don't stop pedalling!" No chance John. I felt like a pro now.
As we did a couple of laps of honour, the sun came out and a huge rainbow spread across the sky - arching from one side of the Velodrome to the other. "Wow," I thought, "it's a sign! The rainbow jersey lies ahead!" I couldn't have felt more optimistic about my track prospects. "So how did I do John?" "Well, there's a 78 year-old Iron Woman who rides here could beat you...but you can come back next week if you like." Yes! Yes! I passed my induction and I'll definitely be back for more. Track riding is great fun.
Herne Hill is great for beginners like me thanks to its longer than usual 450m track which means the banking is gentler than at Lea Valley, Manchester or Newport, for instance. An induction session costs £5 on weekdays and £10 at the weekend, making it pretty good value for money too.