Last year, I tried track cycling for the first time.
Since then, I’ve ridden the track only a handful of times, and always alone. That was partly due to circumstance (it turns out most people can’t get to the velodrome in their lunch break), partly due to the fear of making others crash.
This week, for the first time, I rode with others.
Bankstown Sports Cycling Club runs biweekly training sessions at Dunc Gray Velodrome. On Monday evenings, it’s a 100-lap paceline (or “100-lapper”), meaning everyone rides in one long line, swapping turns at the front, for one hundred laps. On Wednesdays, they bump up the distance to 160 laps. Both sessions are preceded by junior skills training for kids.
Last Monday, with my wife working the evening shift, and persistent rain quenching any thought of road riding, I tried the 100-lapper.
Bankstown’s club coach Anthony Brown, known universally as “Brownie”, welcomed me warmly.
Brownie is highly accommodating to new riders; I wasn’t the only newbie that night, yet he altered his program so he could personally take us (separately) through a beginners track familiarisation drill.
The drill involved pacing me behind his electric motorcycle, gently weaving up and down the straights, increasing the pace until we could use the steep banking.
“Stay one bike-length behind me, and go exactly where I go,” he said.
This was the confidence-builder I needed. Before this session, my two fears were a mixture of:
- Going too slowly around the banking and sliding down; or
- Going too quickly around the côte d’azure and wiping out.
By following Brownie’s moto, I knew that we’d only be on the banking when quick enough to do so.
Next, Brownie had me practise rolling through in front of him, doing a head-check for safety, then swinging up and back behind the moto. This is the fundamental movement of rolling through in a 100-lap paceline, so it was essential that I could do it safely.
I’ve rolled through plenty of times in road cycling, so this was a breeze. With the drill complete, I exited the track for a quick break.
While I took a drink of water down in the infield, Brownie started rallying the children for their skills session. To my surprise, I heard my name mentioned.
“We’ll be joined by Ryan tonight. He’s new, so please welcome him,” Brownie said to the kids, who’d assembled on the track apron. “He’ll come up here when he’s ready.”
Oops. I hadn’t realised I was meant to be part of this.
I quickly grabbed my bike to join the kids on the track.
So, there I was, one full-grown adult lining up alongside a dozen small children from the Bankstown club. I felt like Billy Madison from that Adam Sandler movie.
In pairs, we were doing a “follow-the-leader” drill where we’d ride slowly, weaving in and out of plastic cones that Brownie had laid along the straights. This would teach us to comfortably move up and down the track at low speed.
Right away, one of the kids shot up his hand and volunteered to pair up with me. That was heartwarming. After all, nobody wants to be last choice for the schoolyard pick-up game.
I followed my little partner (Peter was his name), who boasted that he’d done this drill before, that it would be fun, and I just had to follow him. That raised my confidence even more. If a kid can do it easily, I should be fine.
Sure enough, we performed the drill smoothly and safely. Again, following a more experienced rider around the banking was the best way for me to lose my fear of slipping off the boards.
Afterwards, Brownie checked in to make sure I was ready for the 100-lapper. He said it would have a relaxed atmosphere. “When I ask if anyone’s new, make sure you put up your hand,” he told me. “That’s all I ask.”
The seniors began assembling for the 100-lapper.
One hundred laps of an Olympic velodrome equates to 25 kilometres. As a roadie, the distance wouldn’t be a problem.
Could I keep up with the pace, though? There were some strong riders there: I recognised one as a 35-39 Masters world champion. But (and don’t take this the wrong way) when I saw some bigger sprinters, older Masters and casual cyclists show up, I felt assured that I wouldn’t be the slowest over that distance.
I did, however, have two simple objectives:
- Don’t crash.
- Don’t make anyone else crash.
Another Bankstown Club volunteer, Craig, set the lap counter to 100, and away we went!
I slotted myself towards the back as we formed up single-file along the bottom of the track. We became a snake around 20 riders in length — a relatively small turnout, so I was told.
Once we’d picked up some speed, we headed up onto the track. In the slipstream, the pace was comfortable. If you asked, I’d put it in the middle of “moderate” on Strava’s scale of Perceived Exertion.
The rules of the paceline were simple:
- Ride for one lap at the front, then swing up and rejoin at the back
- Keep the pace smooth and steady; no surging
- Stay near the blue line. Sprinters would be doing drills on the lower part of the track; don’t get in their way
- If you’re tired, give the rider behind you warning so they can come past. Don’t leave a massive gap for that poor rider to close
- If you pull out, roll around on the bottom until you’re ready to rejoin.
I concentrated on NOT hitting the wheel in front of me. It took a while to become accustomed to the ebb and flow of the paceline; we seemed to speed up around the banking, then slow down slightly along the straights.
Without brakes or a freewheel, I left a larger-than-normal gap to the rider in front as a buffer for my inexperience. If I saw that gap closing, I’d move up the banking slightly to naturally slow down and re-establish the buffer.
I took my first turn at the front without incident. The absence of hills and gears made it easy to maintain a smooth pace. All I had to do was keep the same cadence (Whether or not I was successful at keeping it smooth, I don’t know — you’d have to ask the riders behind me!)
The laps quickly ticked down as we completed lap after lap at around 40-45km/h. At one point, with about 30 laps remaining, the front riders accelerated and a huge gap opened up near the head of the snake.
I bridged the gap with the help of a few other guys, but Brownie wasn’t happy with the higher tempo. It was shelling too many riders. For the rest of the evening, he’d lead the paceline on his moto to dictate the pace, enforcing a more inclusive speed that most could follow.
That was fine by me. I could have done with the higher speed (and my racing instinct desired it, to some extent), but in my 100-lapper I was content to follow along.
Much to my satisfaction, I completed the 100 laps from start to finish without any issues. In the end, we covered the 25km at an average speed of 45km/h. That’s a fair bit quicker than my normal rides! But in a paceline on a smooth timber velodrome, it didn’t feel too hard at all.
Why do a 100-lapper?
So, for the price of $10 and an hour of your weeknight, why should you try a 100-lapper at your local track? I can think of a few reasons.
For starters, it’s beginner-friendly. Most clubs are happy to show newcomers the ropes. Even if you’re not ready to join the paceline on your first session, they’ll do what they can to help you develop.
The training sessions have a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Most riders seem happy to teach their skills and tips to newbies. Certainly, that was my experience with Bankstown.
Smooth and safe
For another reason, the 100-lapper is a safe and smooth workout. There are no cars, traffic lights or potholes. And if you’re lucky enough to live near an indoor velodrome, you’re guaranteed a training session — rain, hail or shine.
Because you’re always pedalling, the paceline teaches you to practise active recovery. If you’re tired, you can’t sit up and start freewheeling; you must keep pedalling. I think this will help me in road racing, where I’m tempted to sit up after attacking hard and getting caught by the peloton, for example.
What makes a group ride better than a solo track session? A paceline like the 100-lapper lets you pedal at speed and spin a bigger gear. Like motor-pacing out on the road, you can simulate race speeds. And like all group rides, the challenge of holding the wheel will push you further than you could push yourself. Finally, it’s just more fun to ride faster, and with company.
So, I’d highly recommend checking out your local club’s next track session. Some clubs offer loan bikes to get you started. Before long, you’ll be pulling turns with the best of them — for one hundred laps or more.
(PS: For those on my wheel last Monday: sorry if I left gaps, surged or pulled through poorly, which I’m sure I did at times. I’ll try better next time!)
Note: This post was not sponsored and I paid full fee for the session. Thanks to Will Peyrera for taking the feature photo.