There is one absolutely crucial thing to remember,” says Sarah Storey as she adjusts the saddle for my first attempt at track cycling. “Do not under any circumstances stop pedalling.”
Unlike conventional bicycles, track bikes have no brakes and are “fixed-gear”: if the pedals slow their rotation, so does the rear wheel. If the pedals stop suddenly, so does the wheel, with potentially disastrous consequences: “Oh, you could get chucked over the handlebars, dislocate your hips, damage your knees…”
It’s simple enough advice, but I am struggling to think about anything other than the banked corners that loom above us like a fairground Wall of Death. Watching the sport on television gives no hint of how steep they are. The track here at the Manchester Velodrome has a maximum gradient of 42.5 degrees: steeper than the steepest section of the Hannenkahm, the most feared downhill ski race. Cyclists must keep travelling fast enough to avoid losing traction and sliding down the wall to the concrete floor.
As sympathetic as she is, having one of the world’s best cyclists as my instructor can only ramp up the pressure. Storey, 34, is the most highly decorated Paralympian in history, with 18 medals, including seven golds, won over five Paralympic games, in both swimming and cycling. Born without a left hand, she started out as a swimmer but in 2005 an ear infection forced her to take a break from the pool. She began cycling to maintain fitness, found a natural talent and within three years was winning on the track at the Beijing Paralympics. Her times were so good that she went on to compete for Britain in able-bodied events, most recently taking gold in the team pursuit at the World Cup in Colombia in December. “When it’s going well on the track, it’s like poetry in motion,” she says, describing the precision required for the team to fly around the track as one aerodynamic unit, their wheels just centimetres apart at speeds up to 60kph.
That victory, and the fact that earlier in the year she had set the second-fastest time ever recorded for the event, raised a tantalising prospect – that in London this summer, Storey might be not only the first Briton to compete in both the Paralympics and Olympics, but the first athlete of any nationality to win a gold in both.
It wasn’t to be. As she collected her bags after flying back from Colombia, a team manager took her aside and told her she hadn’t been picked. “It’s a shame, but it’s not something I dwelled on for long,” she says. “I think of it as one door closing and another opening wider – the events I’ve got in the Paralympics are by no means easy.”
As she talks about the year ahead, she seems relaxed about the crescendo of attention, but her answers come with the same determination that has made her a champion. “Some events just have lots of extra paraphernalia attached to them, but experience teaches you to be able to block all that out and concentrate on the start, the black line on the track, on doing your job. When it’s all over, on September 9, that’s when you can start thinking about all the extra stuff.”
She helps me fasten my feet to the pedals, and it’s time to face the track. For the first few laps of the 250m circuit I take it slowly, sticking to the inside, the very bottom of the slope. Then one of the trainers indicates I should go a bit faster, presumably to avoid the dreaded slide down the wall. I pick up the pace, but then start catching up the other riders, some of whom are in the middle, or even on the right-hand side of the track, the highest part. There is a strict “no undertaking” rule that leaves me caught in a terrifying quandary – either I must stay slow and tempt the pull of gravity, or speed up and go all the way to the top of the track to get around the other riders.
The first overtake is so scary I cannot quite believe it is happening. From the top of the track I look left, staring down at two cyclists below me. But soon I’m spinning round at the top of the track, relishing the G-forces and the smoothness of the Siberian pine surface. I can see Storey looking at me – is she wondering if she has discovered a hidden talent? Less than 10 minutes in, I am overtaking even the most athletic looking riders and feeling increasingly proud of myself. Now, what is it pride comes before?
As I come soaring down from the banked corner on to the flatter finishing straight, I decide I should probably slow down. The adrenaline is surging, the wind rushing at my ears, my vision is blurred, but I’m still vaguely aware there is something important I need to remember.
I stop pedalling. The bike lurches left then right, my feet are wrenched from the pedals and I am flying through the air. My life doesn’t flash before my eyes, I give no primal scream, but there is just time for the apologetic English equivalent, a final thought along the lines of: “Oh dear, this is going to be embarrass …”
I come thudding down on the track, and slide across the wood until I come to rest in a crumpled heap. I can hear people shouting, then calls for first aiders, as I gingerly get to my feet. At first I think I have escaped unscathed, until I reach down to find my shorts have been half-ripped, half-melted by the friction, leaving one exposed, and bloody, buttock.
Storey rushes round to check I’m OK. “Hmmm, that’s going to hurt,” she says, bending over to look at the wound. “You’ve got a load of splinters in there.”
It’s hard to convey the ignominy of having a celebrated athlete peering at your bare bottom, as spectators and school children look on. The FT’s photographer decides to document the moment too, but is laughing so hard I’m not sure the shots will come out. “I think you were trying to run before you can walk there,” says Storey gently. “Do you want to give it another try?”
After medical attention is given and a new pair of shorts found, she explains the technique for slowing down in more detail: “Don’t try to push back on the pedals, just release your hips so your legs are still spinning but you’re not putting in any effort.” I gradually regain some confidence, but I am hugely relieved when the session comes to an end and we retire to the café to chat about the future. Whatever happens in London, it is unlikely to be the end of Storey’s Paralympic or even Olympic ambitions. Elite cyclists tend to develop later than other athletes – she points out that the reigning French time trial champion, Jeannie Longo, is 53. “Rio 2016 is certainly on.”
And what of my future on the track? “Well, you’ve got a good grasp of the basics – the important thing is to keep enjoying it and to stay upright,” she says with the slightest suggestion of a smirk at the corners of her mouth. “I always tell people they mustn’t stop pedalling, but you’re the first one who’s actually put it to the test.”
Sarah Storey is a Scottish Widows ambassador for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games