The Voice of Experience (Sam)
I’m the experienced one. I rode for a couple of years pretty consistently at the Forest City Velodrome in the years before my last sabbatical. (See some photos here). I attended the weeknight training sessions and even did some local racing . I raced in the 2007 Ontario Track Championships and finished 48.60 in the 500 m. ( See here. And here for my previous 500 m time.) It’s not that speedy in the scheme of things but not too shabby for a midlife beginner.
Once hooked I sought out tracks elsewhere while on sabbatical. In total I’ve ridden on four. Forest City here in London, Narrabundah Velodrome in Canberra, Australia (with added snakes in the infield, we might jokingly call FCV the “salad bowl of death” but it’s a snake-free salad bowl at least), Seddon Park in Mosgiel, NZ (see photos here) and Invercargill, NZ (see photos here). The two NZ tracks were both standard issue 250 m. That’s the Olympic size. Narrabundah is 333 m so long and flattish and Forest City is the world’s shortest permanent indoor track at 138 m. It’s also the steepest.
The first and the last are indoor wooden tracks, the middle two outdoor concrete ones. The wood ones feel nicer, they’re faster for sure, and it’s great to have an indoor training option when the weather is bad. I did like being outside though even though it seemed odd having wind be an issue on a track.
If you’re curious, they are all banked to be ridden in the same direction, counter clockwise.
The cool thing about having Forest City Velodrome’s terrifyingly steep track as your home base is that other tracks quickly waive their training requirements. Where do you usually ride? Forest City Velodrome in Canada. Oh, go on in, have fun. You’ll be fine here.
That’s part of the story about why I didn’t go back post sabbatical. After the 250 m tracks, Forest City seemed scary. I’m also not a big fan of late evening adrenaline. Coming home from the track late at night I couldn’t sleep for hours. It threw off my whole schedule.
So I was excited to get back inside the velodrome this week and give it a go again. I loved the idea of a field trip with friends and Tracy and I were there with guest blogger Nat and her clan, guest blogger Kim, riding friend Erin, and Tracy. But it turned out not to be so much fun. Something happened to the tires on my track bike during the year or more of non-use. They became slippery and I slipped twice, once on the concrete infield and once on the track itself. The first time I attributed it to trying to corner too quickly on the cement which is always slippery but the second time, when it happened on wood, I knew there was something up with my bike.
If there is a feminist lesson to be learned here it’s to check out your own equipment, take responsibility for routine bike maintenance. That said, truth be told, even if I had checked them I’m not sure I would have known to look for that. Yes, you roughen up bike tires with sandpaper before using them on the track but I’d done that. Turns out rubber gets weird and slippy left alone and that was new to me. If new riders learned a lesson watching me fall, it was that falls aren’t so bad when it’s just you. Yes, a few bruises, a scraped finger but mostly wounded pride and severe annoyance at my bike.
I was reminded how much I like track riding. I really enjoyed seeing my friends ride the track. Whee! Zoom! And Kim and I are headed back next Sunday for more.
Salad bowl of death, round two!
The Newbie (Tracy)
Why would I go to a place that people were calling the Velodrome “The Salad Bowl of Death”? Because, as with many of the improbable things I’ve done over the past couple of years, it’s an interesting new thing to try and had great promise as an intensely blog-worthy outing. Of course it was Sam’s idea, but she didn’t have to do a lot of coaxing.
She pulled a group together and gave us some tips — bring your own pedals, shoes, and helmets; be prepared for it to be freezing in the Velodrome. Since until Sunday I had no idea how to remove my pedals, she suggested I bring my whole bike.
This set me up for two rounds of mansplaining from more experienced track cyclists. When you walk into the Velodrome it’s not obvious where to go. There’s no front desk with people at it. I’m sure I would have found my way eventually, but I ran into a guy in full kit on my way in, so I asked him.
He looked down at my bike (both literally and figuratively) and said, “You can’t ride that in here.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that, but I need to take off my pedals.” That seemed to satisfy him, but I’m sure he was wondering why I hadn’t just done that at home. “Follow me,” he said. And showed me the way to the track. End of first mansplaining incident.
When I got to the track, I saw Sam in the middle. There were at least fifteen cyclists whipping around the short, sloped track (the salad bowl, because it’s a bowl and it’s made of wood). To get down to the middle, you have to wait until you get a space between the cyclists and then run for your life. That was terrifying moment #1. Finally another colleague of ours, recognizing that I wasn’t going anywhere, came up to help me out. He even grabbed my bike for me, carried it down, and offered to remove the pedals so I could put them on the rental bike. Thank you, Ben.
I should say that I would have removed my own pedals if someone had supplied me with the right tools and pointed me in the right direction. I’m pretty good that way. But I was happy to let others give it a go.
I’ve never tried to remove the pedals. Ben passed the task on to another guy. They were on there pretty tight, apparently. They also needed to be removed not in the usual way (with a pedal wrench) but with a very large allen key (I may have been able to do that at home, actually).
When the guy who helped to it but whose name I didn’t catch finally got them off, he said to me, “Next time don’t screw them on so tight. That’s why you couldn’t get them off yourself.”
This made me feel the need to explain myself: “I have never tried to get them off and I didn’t screw them on. I haven’t touched my pedals since I got the bike last year.”
All this goes to the same feminist lesson that Sam learned and that, frankly, I already know: be capable enough to handle your own equipment. I should have known how to remove the pedals and done it myself. Mansplain #2 over.
Track bikes are different from road bikes. A little bit scarier in that there are no gears or brakes and if the bikes moving, the pedals are moving. Once I got my pedals on the other bike, I felt a wave of fear at the thought of actually clipping into a bike that had no brakes. And the guys (because they were at that point all guys) who were flying around the track were really moving.
It was comforting that Sam, Natalie, and Kim were all there. And I was glad that I’d seen the Rick Mercer Report on the Velodrome. If you are not Canadian and are unaware of who Rick Mercer is, here you go:
Our instructor, Rob, has taught the Track 1 training class umpteen times. There were twelve of us altogether, including Kim, Natalie’s family, Sam’s friend Erin, and a bunch of people we didn’t know. The track cleared and our class started.
The first task was to ride on the flat of the concrete really slowly so that Rob could make sure our seat was the right height. We did that for about five minutes and I wasn’t willing to clip both feet in quite yet. I had to make a slight seat adjustment and try again. On the concrete, we moved slowly. And then Rob asked us all to dismount so we could review The Rules. These aren’t the same rules as the road cyclists’ rules.
No. These are more simple. There aren’t 95 of them. There are just four. 1. Don’t get hurt and don’t hurt anyone else (I think they’re rolled into one); 2. Shoulder check; 3. Always get on and off at curve #2; 4. I can’t remember rule #4, but I do know that in our class we weren’t allowed to pass anyone or to ride above the black line.
We also learned about the track. There’s a flat part called “The Apron” that is the first step above the concrete. It’s about a foot or so wide and you get up on that before you actually get onto the track. The blue area where it starts to slope up is called the Cote d’Azur (I don’t know if this is in all Velodromes or if it’s just a cute name for the blue part in the FCV). From there, there’s a few feet up until you get the black line. Our task for the day was to learn to ride the black line. Since it’s hard to stay on the line exactly, for most of us this meant riding between the black line and the next line up — the red line.
Despite my initial flashbacks to my hellish first motorcycle “learn to ride” class (where they said “anyone can do it” but in fact, I was an exception and kept dropping the bike), I actually got comfortable on the flat fairly quickly. By the time we finished the exercise where we did the pylon course on the concrete a few times at really slow speeds, I felt comfortable on the bike. I was especially comfortable while moving. I never did quite master stopping, but that’s okay. There is room to coast to a stop. I always unclipped in time and didn’t take any spills.
They built up gradually. After riding slowly around the pylons, the next step was to ride slowly around the apron. Then they set up pylons in two spots on the straightaways so we would ride up to the black line and then back down to the apron. It’s really sloped. If you’re not used to riding up on a sloped bank, as I’m not, it’s sort of unsettling. I kind of screamed a few times. I thought my bike would lose its grip and I’d slide down past the Cote d’Azur to the Apron.
Whenever I got the part where I had to bank up, Rob yelled “pedal faster!” If you don’t pedal fast enough, you will slide down. In fact, they impressed upon us that if you crash or fall or anything like that, you will slide. Hence, if you see someone in front of you crash, you always go around them by going above, not below. If you go below, they will slide into you. At the steepest part (the ends) the track is 55 degrees steep. You cannot scale it on foot.
Before I knew it, we were riding around the track in a group of six with the assignment of staying on the black line. I tried. But the bike’s steering is really responsive. I went by Rob. He hollered at me (he told us ahead of time that he would be hollering and it was nothing personal) to relax my elbow a bit. It was at that point that I realized I was kind of tense. I put some give into my elbows.
But for the most part I remained a bit stiff on the bike. I did the drills and held the line and, here’s where I’m thankful for my years on the motorcycle (I did finally become a skilled motorcycle rider), undertook the shoulder checks with a religious fervor. I even got a few “good job” reassurances from Rob, a high five from Natalie, and some encouragement from Sam who told me I looked good out there.
How does it feel to fly around the track? It’s an adrenaline rush. As you’re going into the curves at each end, it seems scary and treacherous. But I kept telling myself that as long as I kept pedaling, there really wasn’t anything that could go wrong. There was no one above or below me. The track is totally smooth with no hazards. The momentum of the bike kept me up on the slope as it should.
Our final drill we got to each get on and off the track and do a full lap all by ourselves, with no one else on the track. And then, at the very end, after we all got little cards confirming that we’d completed “Track 1,” we got to get back on the track and ride. I did a few laps as fast as I could and it’s exhausting.
The last “pointer” Rob gave me was to relax again. Even by the end, I was still looking kind of tense. And that comment ushered in a transformative moment — I think I’m always a bit like that on the bike, not just at the Velodrome. Maybe, just maybe, if I can learn to relax my shoulders and keep some give in my elbows and not hang on quite so tight I’ll feel more comfortable on the bike!
If I didn’t have so many other things on the go, I might go out on a Tuesday night and do the next level, Track 2. But as it is, I’m taking a cycling class that Sam’s doing with her coach on Tuesday nights for the next little while, I’ve got my swimming sessions twice a week, and at the end of the month I’m starting a marathon training session. So the Velodrome will have to wait. But I’ve got a taste for it.
Oh, and it wasn’t cold.
The Spectator (Natalie)
I had enjoyed a 30km ride the day before and was feeling a bit sore but mostly opted out of the Track 1 as I don’t feel I have the control and muscle endurance to do velodrome cycling.
I marshaled my partner and 2 teenaged boys, aged 13 and 15, to go for their first time at Track 1. What struck me first was the wide age range of participants from my 13 year old son to folks into their senior years, at least 2 in their 60s. I was also struck by the wide range of cycling experience and competency off the track from a young woman who is an accomplished rider wearing a full sponsorship kit, to Kim and Sam, both really experienced and skilled cyclists to people new to the sport.
I liked watching how the training rolled out and knowing the progression from getting familiar with a track bike to actually completing a few trips around the sprint line.
Watching my family do it I was so impressed with their willingness to try something new. Circumstances led to me being able to chat with Sam about cycling this fall and how I can totally see myself doing a 100km ride in the spring.
I’m intrigued by the technical aspects of track riding, the level of control, situational awareness and leg strength. I’m not ready to try Track 1 yet but watching a diverse group of folks all get it the first day out was very encouraging.
To feel ready I think I may have to get pedals and shoes, be able to click in and out, do some hands free cycling but mostly rollers, rollers, rollers. I have the terrible habit of coasting and rollers help me stop that. I also weigh a lot and need to work on my explosive strength to get up to speed before the first turn, all manageable. I never thought velodrome cycling would be something I’d want to even try.
Thanks Sam, Tracy and Kim for showing me what it can look like!