My office is literally inside a velodrome, so you’d think I would have tried the track much sooner. As it stands, it took 12 months since starting my job at Dunc Gray Velodrome before I actually rode on the track.
I still remember my first impression when I walked in: “Wow. That’s steep.”
The banking at the velodrome is a whopping 42 degrees (that’s a 90% gradient in road cycling terminology). Watching from the spectator seats at either end is like peering over a cliff.
For many track newbies like myself, the steepness and height of the banking is probably their biggest fear. The other worry is the unfamiliarity of riding a track bike, which is a bicycle without brakes and without a freewheel—so you can’t stop pedalling.
But put your fears aside. I’m living proof that a road cyclist can ride on the track at a velodrome—and survive!
Cycling NSW runs what’s called “Try the Track” sessions, where, under the guidance of a coach, you’ll be introduced to a track bike, learn to ride safely along the lower part of the track, and, if you’re up for it, ride behind a motorbike higher and higher up the banking until you reach the top. I joined one of these sessions held by beloved NSW coach Tom Dawson (who’s a super nice guy as well as an experienced coach). Verdict: I had a blast!
From my brief experience, here’s why I think road cyclists should give track cycling a go.
1. Refresh your riding
Track cycling is different enough to be a novelty, yet similar enough to be familiar. Pushing a fixed-gear bike (don’t stop pedalling!), handling the twitchy bikes and, of course, rolling around the wooden boards of the velodrome are all new experiences that bring something unique to your cycling journey.
If road cycling has become second nature, trying the track will re-stimulate your brain. You’ll find yourself having to concentrate on the basics again: pedalling, cornering, balance, smoothness. It’s a great mental refresh and brings a novelty factor.
2. Feel the speed
The more dangerous it is, the faster it seems.
That might not be a stone-cold fact, but it’s certainly how I saw it. I may only have been rolling around at 30km/h, but when you’re focused on not accidentally stopping your pedalling, sliding down the banking or clipping the motorbike in front of you—and you haven’t quite figured out how to slow down without brakes—riding on the track feels fast!
It becomes an unexpectedly adrenaline-raising experience.
3. Learn new, transferable skills
In many ways, track cycling is just like riding any other bike. Get on the saddle, put your feet on the pedals and push.
However, there are some unique skills that you won’t pick up on a road bike. Even in my short 90-minute introductory session, I picked up a couple of these subtle techniques.
For example, riding on the velodrome gave me much greater appreciation for gravity. Since you only have one gear, the most efficient way to speed up or slow down is to use the banking. To pick up speed, ride down the slope. To slow down, point your front wheel up the banking. So I learnt that if you think you’re going to run into the back of the moto, you should ever-so-slightly steer up the banking to slow down.
Likewise, I learnt that if you stay towards the right-hand side of the rider in front, you’ll be covering a slightly longer arc than them, which helps you to control the gap between your front wheel and their rear wheel.
I could see myself using some of these techniques out on the road, too, like when choosing my line when cornering during a criterium. I’m sure that with even a little more time on the track, I’ll improve my road riding in more subtle, unexpected ways.
4. Better appreciate the sport
Track racing is a massive part of cycling’s history, especially in Australia. Crowds used to pack out the SCG and MCG to watch world champions battle it out on concrete tracks. From Dunc Gray himself to our world record-beating team pursuit squad, our nation’s enjoyed much success in the sport. In some small way, then, trying the track gives you a part in that decades-spanning legacy.
The track bike itself is one of the simplest, most elegant machines. With just one fixed gear and no brakes, it’s a design that’s stood the test of time—no fancy shifters or power meters required. Sure, you could drop thousands of dollars on carbon fibre and deep-dish wheels if you want, but the fundamental design has remained unchanged for over a century. It’s fascinating to hop on one of these bikes and appreciate its timeless functionality.
For me, therefore, riding on the velodrome has given me a newfound appreciation of the history and beauty of our sport.
5. Achieve something
How many people can say they’ve ridden on an Olympic velodrome? Conquering the steep banking is actually a pretty cool accomplishment.
Earlier, I mentioned how intimidating the track looked when I first saw it. Sure enough, once Tom started motor-pacing me towards the top, I felt a mild fear of heights kick in.
It was like hanging sideways in the air, seemingly unsupported, many metres off the ground. It feels a bit like a rollercoaster ride at a theme park, when you go around a sharp turn while almost perpendicular to the ground. Except on the velodrome, you’re not strapped in, and if you don’t keep pedalling, you might actually fall.
But with Tom’s helpful pointers, I was able to reach the top of the banking and come back down safely. That was a pretty satisfying achievement. It’s something you can look back on and say, “I did it!”
6. Open up new possibilities
Completing a Try the Track session opens you up to the wider world of track cycling.
If you have access to a track bike (whether bought, borrowed or hired), you can now train on a velodrome in your own time. Even if it’s wet, miserable or thunderstorming outside, you now have an option besides the indoor trainer.
You can join local club training rides, like the Bankstown Sports Cycling Club 160-lapper, getting a good, hard workout away from the rain and the traffic.
Once you’ve built up a bit more confidence, you can dive into track racing, where there’s a broad range of interesting race formats like the points race, keirin, elimination and match sprint.
Just like unlocking a new ability in a video game, learning to ride on the track gives you more options to explore and more fun experiences to be had on your bike.
So, I strongly recommend it to any road cyclists out there. Get some friends, get in touch with your nearest indoor velodrome and tee up a “Try the Track” session sometime soon.
Feature photo thanks to Geoff Stoker.