Velodrome track racing

Track Racing – As Easy as One, Two, Three

By Chris Colford, Blue Peter Presenter

Are you tempted by the thrill of competition, but not exactly fond of the hills? Are you up for the big sprint, but not wild about racing for 50 miles before you get there? Are you foaming at the mouth to race, but too lazy to change gear? Are you someone who has never really seen the point of brakes? Yes to all? Good. Track racing is for you. Here’s how to do it in three easy stages.

Editors note: We published this elsewhere years ago and feel it is still valid today so have reinstated it on Bikesy. Chris really captures the atmosphere and friendliness of a track league perfectly. The prices will have gone up in the intervening years but it’s still a very affordable way to get into racing.

Stage One – Track Induction Session

Every Saturday at 9.30am (weather permitting) there is a track induction session for beginners at the Herne Hill Stadium in Burbage Road. Unless you’ve got a track bike, you’ll have to hire one for £2.50. The session itself lasts for about an hour and costs £5.50. That’s £8 to learn to ride the track.

If you do hire a bike, it’s a good idea to bring your own pedals and a pedal spanner. Otherwise you will have to use the pedals on the hire bike, which will be of the toe-clip variety. It’s a good idea to get to the track at about 9.00am, to give yourself time to use the loo, change pedals, adjust saddle heights, use the loo again etc.

Beginners are generally nervous of riding on the track, and are led to believe:

(a) That it is impossible to stop on a track bike, because it has no brakes;

(b) That you need oxygen to ride at the top of the banking; and

(c) That if you stop pedaling for a nanosecond, the bike will transform itself into a catapult, and throw you over the handlebars.

There is an element of truth in all of these ideas, but not a very big element. The position might be more fairly stated like this:

(a) It is not possible to stop suddenly on a track bike. There are no brakes, but there is a fixed wheel. This means that the pedals go round whenever the bike is moving. They can’t help it. They are attached to the cranks, which are attached to the chainrings, which is attached to the chain, which is attached to the rear sprocket, which is attached to the wheel, which is to say it is fixed to the wheel, so that when the wheel goes round the sprocket goes round. And when the sprocket goes round the chain goes round, and the chainrings go round and the cranks go round and the pedals go round. And if your legs don’t want to go round, that’s tough titty, because the bike has a whole lot of momentum, and it will force them round. This means that, if you want to slow down, you exert slight downward pressure on the pedals during the upstroke (ie as the pedal moves backwards from the bottom to the top). Believe it or not, it is probably safer riding in a bunch with bikes of this kind, because no-one can slam the anchors on in front of you and cause a pile-up. Not that it feels that way to start with.

(b) As a beginner, you will be allowed to ride half a dozen laps with no-one else near you on the track. This feels nice and safe, because there is no-one on hand to crash into. The first couple of laps are ridden at the bottom of the track. The next two laps are ridden about half way up. The final two are ridden at the top of the banking. It does feel as though you are quite high up, but you get used to it pretty quickly. The trick is not to lean. Normally you would lean to the left, when going round a left hand bend. But the whole point of having a banked track is that the banking gets you round the bend without the rider having to lean (or slow down). You just ride perfectly vertical, as though you were going in a straight line on a horizontal piece of road. It’s marvellous.

(c) It is actually important to remember to keep pedalling. If you come up behind a rider, it is natural to stop pedalling, and start freewheeling. Track bikes do not have a freewheel. They have a fixed wheel. If you try to freewheel, the bike gives you a little jolt, as the pedal continues on the upstroke, even though your leg has stopped. The most important time to remember to keep pedalling is after a big effort, such as a sprint. You will be going quite fast, and may even get a big enough kick to unbalance you, and take you down.

One you’ve done your half dozen laps or so, you will spend the rest of the induction session riding with the other beginners, novices and youth riders who attend these sessions. (This is always assuming you are confident enough to ride with others. No-one is ever pushed beyond what they can safely do.) This final part of the session is a good opportunity to get used to slowing the bike slightly when necessary, by exerting slight backward pressure on the pedals, as you ride up behind a group, for example. The other thing which helps to slow the bike is to move slightly up the track.

The induction sessions are usually taken by Russell Williams, who is the most friendly person in the world. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d assume that there was an election coming up, and he was a politician. He is an excellent coach, principally because he can shout very loud without sounding ill-tempered. If you ask him nicely, he will tell you what it is like being David Duffield’s co-commentator. Russell’s ambition is one day to have part of a web-site devoted to him, just like David Duffield does.

Russell Williams - track coach
Russell Williams, the friendliest person in the world

Stage Two – Full Training Session

Once you have completed an induction session, you can do a full training session. These are run on Saturdays at about 11am, ie immediately after the beginners/novices session. They also cost £5.50, plus £2.50 for bike hire. This still adds up to £8.

If you are really cocky, you can do the full training session immediately after the induction session. I am only moderately cocky, so I did it a week later, having repeated the induction session for good measure. It’s all really question of how confident you feel.

The full training session lasts about 2 hours, with a 15 minute break in the middle. When I did the session, it wasn’t particularly hard. There is a lot of warming up. After a while Russell Williams starts shouting at everyone, and riding around the inside of the track no-handed. This means he is in charge, and you must obey his every command. The basic idea is for the whole group to ride two abreast. You stay quite close to the wheel in front, as you would in any group ride. Once a lap, the pair on the front peels off by riding up the banking. They allow the group to pass below them, before dropping back down the banking on to the back of the group. This is way cool thing to do, and is worth £8 on its own. It’s a bit like through and off, but much easier, because you naturally slow down when you pull off (because you are riding up the banking) and you naturally get back up to speed when you rejoin at the back (because you are riding down the banking).

The training might also include some interval sessions. When I did it, everyone was riding two abreast, and then Russell sent pairs, or fours, or sixes off the front. Each group had to ride together, and catch back up with the bunch, having gained a lap. This generally took about three or four laps. The convention was to do half a lap on the front, before peeling off up the banking and allowing the others to move through. It was tremendous fun.

For me the main point of the full training session was not the training element, but the practicing element. That is to say, I wanted to get used to riding with others on the track, because I wanted to race as soon as possible. The key thing was to keep your eyes and ears open all the time. As with any group riding, no sudden or unannounced moves should be made. Overall, so long as I concentrated, the track felt quite safe. There were no horrid cars, traffic lights, pedestrians or potholes.

Step Three – Racing

Once you are confident riding with others on the track, you might as well try a race. There are races at Herne Hill throughout the summer on Monday and Wednesday evenings, starting at about 7pm. It’s a good idea to get there as soon as possible after 6pm to sign on, warm up and make some inroads into the world’s supply of toilet paper.

Racing costs an initial registration fee of £20 (for the whole summer) plus £6 per evening’s racing. There are at least 8 races per evening, and you would do up to half of them, as the riders are split into ‘A’ and ‘B’ categories.

It really is the high number of races which makes track racing so much fun. In a road bike race a novice can go out the back early on, and that’s it – a long lone ride back to the HQ awaits. On the track you can go out the back on the first lap of the first race, and be learning from your mistakes less than 30 minutes later, in the third race.

There is also lots of variety in the races. You can choose to sit races out, but it is recommended that you generally have a go, to find out whether that kind of race suits you. I’ll just describe a few of the races that tend to come up, to give you an idea.

Hare and Hounds

This seems commonly to be the first race of the evening, and serves as a warm up. On both occasions I have raced, it was 10 laps long. The ‘B’ cat riders (the hares) start in the back straight, and the ‘A’ cat riders (the hounds) chase them from the home straight. The ‘A’ cats generally catch the ‘B’ cats after about seven laps, and there is a bunched sprint. On of the main reasons that I decided to ride the track, was that Keith Butler told me it would teach me how to sprint. I generally chicken out of the sprint in road races, so you won’t be surprised to learn that I chickened out of the hare and hounds sprints too. On both occasions they were tremendously fast, as the quicker riders in the field swept past me after the bell. I can, however, report that you can chicken out just as safely on the track as you can in road races.

The Devil Take the Hindmost

Hannah and I were in one of these, for ‘B’ cat riders. At the end of every lap, the last two riders across the line are eliminated. When there are only four riders left, they sprint it out over one final lap. If there were a field of 30 riders, the race would last 14 laps. But only for the four fastest! For Hannah and me it lasted two laps. I saw this as a great triumph, as I fully expected to get eliminated at the end of the first lap. I thought that Hannah might have tried a bit harder though. The trouble with the Devil is that the folks at the front don’t generally sprint very fast. Why should they? They are safe from elimination. The folks as the back sprint to avoid elimination, which basically means that they are going faster than the riders in front. The whole thing bunches up terribly, and the two riders eliminated are generally those at the back who didn’t dare to squeeze into a small gap. My tactics of waiting at the back, and just trying to sprint past the last two, in other words, were rubbish. Why? Because I chickened out. Not for me those teency weency gaps. Next time I will ride at the front, and stay out of trouble. No doubt this will be rubbish tactics too, as riding at the front saps your strength. I did enjoy this race, though. I wish it had lasted longer for me.

Herne Hill Track racing bunch
Hannah (in yellow) in the thick of the action

The Points Race

This one was my favourite. It was a 10 lap race. The first three riders across the line at the end of every lap get 3, 2 and 1 points respectively. The rider with the most points at the end wins. You can actually cross the line last at the end of the race, and still win.

Stung by my failure in the Devil, I rode this one at the front from the start. I was overtaken by one rider at the end of each of the first two laps. Two second places! Four points for Chris! I don’t generally approve of exclamation marks, but sometimes the occasion demands them. Unfortunately I was so knackered after the first two laps that I didn’t get any more points in the last 8 laps, but I didn’t go out the back either, and I was a very happy boy.

The Scratch Race

This is just a bunched race, like a mini road race. In both the meetings where I raced, the last race was a 20 kilometre (42 lap) scratch race, for ‘A’ and ‘B’ cat riders together. This meant it was really fast. But there were separate points for the ‘B’ cats, so in theory you could win the ‘B’ cat race by being the last ‘B’ cat out the back. In practice a few ‘B’ cats often hang on, but I got about 5th place out of the ‘B’ cats just by hanging on for about 25 laps.

It was so fast. It was like all the hard bits in an attacking road race, compressed into 12 miles. There were several ‘A’ cats who just kept attacking. The pace went through the roof for a couple of laps, and then went down again for a couple of laps. Then fast again. It was by far the best interval training I have ever done.

As the whole point of writing this is to get my photograph on the website, I got Jean to come and take as many photos as possible, so long as they were all of me. Here I am mixing it with the big boys.

Waiting for a race to start
Chris looking relaxed: this track racing is no big deal

Herne Hill Track Race
Chris riding second wheel in the scratch race: no big deal at all

Off the back at Herne Hill
Five laps later: that’s quite a big gap in front of Chris, who is looking less relaxed by now; we expect he got back on, trying that hard

Track racing at Herne Hill with Russel Williams
Hannah is still attached to the bunch

The Sprint Competition

I should also mention the “pure” sprint races, where 2 to 4 riders battle it out over 2 laps. There are heats, and then finals. That’s all I know about it. This competition hadn’t started when I rode. But it will have started by now, as the light now lasts long enough for extra races. You will have seen sprints on the telly. The riders tend to start really slowly, until one cracks, and goes for it. The others jump on the wheel, and swoop past off the final bend. I can’t wait. Surely even I can’t bottle a four up sprint. Famous last words.

Executive Summary

For those of you too busy or important to read this rubbish in full, but stupid enough to want to know what it says in outline, here it is encapsulated in five bullet points. The lack of grammar is for the benefit of senior management types, who have better things to do than read proper sentences, which are no doubt less “pro-active” and have fewer “synergies” than non-sentences written alongside blobs:

  • track riding great fun/good training
  • no traffic except for fat man on underpowered moped (or “Derny”, which is not a word in any dictionary I have seen)
    not too scary (even for big cowards like me)
  • permanent toilet facilities
  • Herne Hill Stadium £8 Saturday 9.30am beginners

Visual Aids for Executive Summary

Herne Hill Velodrome Toilets

The permanent toilet facilities, a must for nervous beginners; there are also facilities for women, and the gents includes equipment suitable for number twos

Russell Williams - track coach
Russell Williams again. We only took one photo of him, but it’s worth seeing twice. He won’t mind being next to the loos. He’s just happy to be on the website

sunset at Herne Hill velodrome
Is the sun going down on Herne Hill?

Russell Williams - track coach
Not if this man has anything to do with it! It’s Russell Williams, the friendliest person in the world

Chris Colford 2 June 2002

Header photo by Andrew_Last (c) Creative Commons

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