Fast, adrenaline-fueled and addictive - three words that prove track cycling is one of the most intense cycling disciplines out there. If you live for the thrill, are just starting out and are keen to give track a try, what can you expect?
In this blog our Project Manager, Kirstie Maxfield, explains what it’s like getting off the Wattbike and onto the boards as she journeys towards getting fully accredited to ride the velodrome.
Anything involving explosive speed and power usually gets my blood pumping, and the rush from the first time we were let loose to push some watts out was like nothing I've experienced in any other discipline.
Getting started was relatively easy after a little research. I took my accreditation at Derby Velodrome, booking my level one session through their website and levels two to four at the velodrome. Each session included bike, helmet and glove hire - the only additional cost was shoe hire.
Level 1 and 2 were £14.60 each for an hour. Levels 3 and 4 were £21.60 but were two hours long. All in all, you’re looking at £72.40 if you pass each level first time round, but the price is well worth it!
Once you pass you can sign up for public sessions and even try the local track league if you fancy giving racing a go. I met some great people and had fun.
Level 1 - Safety First
My first session was all about understanding the track and getting a feel for it. Having never ridden a fixed gear bike, this was a big learning curve. Trust me, you only stop pedalling once before you learn that bunny hopping isn't a good move on the track!
In a big group of 14 novice track cyclists, the coach reiterated that it's important to not get ahead of yourself, and learn the basics, before putting any power down.
The coach gradually worked us up the track, starting with a few laps on the lower blue band - the côte d'Azur. We spent the first half of the session riding in single file moving up and down the track, getting accustomed to both the track and the bike. Because you can’t freewheel, getting used to the bike is key, so both you and the coach are confident in your handling ability before riding with others.
In the latter half of the session we went through the same drills, but this time riding in pairs with some position changes. In the last few laps, we were allowed to put some speed down, which is when you realise how fast the track can really be.
Top Tip #1: Don’t fear getting started, just go for it
Even after a little administrative form filling to check that it’s safe for you to ride, it’s easy to get started. The instructors are there to make it easy. They’ll help you choose the right bike size, get set up and show you how to sit on tops and drops safely. Everything is explained in detail before you try anything and simple safety procedures are covered first.
Level 2 - Getting up close and personal
Level 2 saw us riding in small groups whilst staying on the wheel in front, with a focus on managing speed and pacing around others.
Even as a confident rider on the road, I found the main difficulty was controlling my pace based on others around me, which in the middle of a novice group of riders made me sweat a few times!
You have to anticipate every rider’s next move and be ready to modulate your speed, whilst looking over your right shoulder for those who might not be as prepared behind you. It’s developing the multifaceted skill sets; from the bike handling skills to judging the pack.
To finish the session, we progressed to some side-by-side riding, reinforcing safety when overtaking, and all the fundamental track etiquette that we would take through to the progressive levels 3 and 4.
Learning to be aware of other riders and being prepared for the unexpected wheel wobbles is the biggest thing I took from this session.
Top tip #2: Be aware of everything around you
Track riding is fast, thrilling and fun but like any cycling discipline, you ride in close proximity to others so it’s important to remember that every movement you make can have implications for everyone else. Being aware of everything around you, staying alert and able to react is a key skill. With guidance from the tutors, you’ll quickly learn how to make small adjustments to keep yourself clear of other riders’ wheels, look around you and keep in safe position.
Level 3 - Position, pacing and lots of practice
Level 3 was a two-hour session rolling through all the different skills such as riding in a stack, and changing positions safely and efficiently, whilst riding at speed.
We had to learn to apply the fundamental skills while focusing on power and racing. At the end of each mini race, we had a debrief with the coach where they flagged up any unsafe manoeuvres or times where we’d failed to look properly.
There’s a lot to learn on the track and certain elements that only come with practice. A lot of the track is more about learning to judge others around you rather than your own personal handling skills. Being safe on the track really does take a lot of practice.
Top tip #3: Don’t expect it to be exactly like the road, but expect it to be just as fun
With a fixed gear bike, you have to continually pedal, so there’s no freewheeling to catch your breath and it can take a few laps to gradually slow down enough to stop. Braking is controlled by your leg speed so it’s going to develop both your strength and anaerobic fitness. Starting out with some spinning classes can be a good way to build some endurance and get your legs used to constantly moving. Once you’re up on the boards pushing the power against other strong riders, it’s a great feeling.
Level 4 - The final countdown
Level 4 was the final stage before achieving the full accreditation, it covered all the skills required to ride safely around others, plus more advanced techniques that might be used in a race.
We went through all of the different types of races; first at a slow pace to understand the safety elements and familiarise ourselves with the track etiquette, then into race pace.
Walking off at the end of that session, you could tell your legs had left some serious watts on that track. A few people didn’t pass this session. It was a bit like taking a driving test; too many points and you’ve got to retake the whole level. It’s great because it instils you and other riders in the confidence that every accredited rider has a certain level of competence on the track.
Top tip#4: Be prepared to put in extra sessions to perfect your practice
Track accreditation is structured in a great way to help you learn the skills and etiquette of riding the track step-by-step and safely, but tutors will pass or fail you at the end of each session as they need to ensure you can ride safely in order to progress. If you don’t pass a session, or feel you need more time to get used to the bike or the boards, practice manoeuvres or riding with others around you, there is always the option to discuss booking extra time on the track with tutors who are friendly and helpful. Once you’ve nailed your full accreditation, you can sign up for public sessions and even try the local track league.
Even If you’ve never thought of racing on the track you definitely need to give it a go; the adrenaline rush of coming out of a corner in that final sprint to the line is incomparable to anything you've experienced on the road.