“This is the black run of cycling,” says Rob Mortlock, eyeing the challenge he has set. As lead coach at the Lee Valley VeloPark, Mortlock might be standing atop the lofty start ramp of the 29-jump BMX track, or the five miles of lurching mountain-bike trails – all former Olympic facilities that will open to the public on March 31 as part of London 2012’s much-vaunted “legacy”. Instead, he is gazing around a 250m oval of Siberian pine, bookended by steepling, sinuous hairpins.
Pedalling slowly around the flat, inner “safety zone” of the world’s fastest velodrome is tricky enough if, like me, you’ve never ridden a fixed-wheel, brakeless bicycle – the obligatory, feather-light track machine. Starting off with both feet strapped fast to the pedals, required a wobbly self-propelled shove off the safety zone handrail. Coming to a stop via the alien application of “back pressure” seems unlikely to prove easier. In between, I’m expected to scale those 42-degree walls of death – an outrage against the survival instinct and several laws of physics. “Push on!” shouts Mortlock from the trackside. “Time to move into the côte d’azur.”
This nickname for a velodrome’s gently pitched, sky-blue inside lane recalls track cycling’s continental heyday, though racing indoors on wooden circuits actually began in England. A graceful, curvaceous presence in the otherwise geometric Olympic Park skyline in east London, the £100m velodrome, nicknamed the Pringle, is the ultra-modern embodiment of a sport whose breakneck thrills and spills have been drawing Londoners since 1878, when William Cann won £150 after riding his penny farthing for 1,000 miles in six days around a boarded track in Islington’s Agricultural Hall.
Push on, in Mortlock’s book, means go faster, right now. I do so and nose into the côte d’azur, sensing the boards creak and shift beneath my finger-thin tyres. “A velodrome track is a living, breathing thing,” Mortlock had advised me, “but it’s not a dangerous place unless you’re riding in a group.” Learning to do so safely is at the heart of the four-stage process one must negotiate to gain full velodrome accreditation. Even in this solo “taster” session I am ordered to look over my shoulder before making any movements, and am schooled in the vital importance of controlling speed at close quarters. Velodromes are ridden anti-clockwise in tribute to the direction of chariot races: the pell-mell contact events of the madison and the points race pay closest homage to the chaotic, gladiatorial origins of track cycling. “Thirty pros could safely ride round here at once, full tilt,” says Mortlock. “But 16 novices would be too many.” Grateful that I’m alone but still wishing my preparation hadn’t included YouTube compilations of skin-shredding velodrome pile-ups, I edge into the properly steep stuff.
The first curve, taken between the black and red lines that girdle the track’s lower reaches, is peculiar and petrifying. Failing to comply with Mortlock’s laws of banked cornering – don’t lean over or even think about slowing down – I circle it like a roulette ball in its death throes. “Push on!” I’m urged again. A panicked sprint down the straight takes me to the opposite bend. Here, and in the laps ahead, I learn to embrace and nurture speed, to think of it as my only friend in the struggle against gravity. The rushing air whips at my sleeves and water from my eyes streams towards my temples. In the corners I push ever harder circles with my left leg, fighting back against the gradient, hurtling higher and higher. When I cross the outermost blue line and cosy up to the top railing, it’s hard to suppress a whoop: how crazily, lethally remote this had looked when I’d stood at the bottom.
By now I am only distantly aware of Mortlock’s loud coaching tips, reminding me to bend my elbows more, and that however much fun I’m having up there, a lap round the top is almost 10 per cent longer than one at the bottom. I’m suddenly at one with Sir Chris Hoy, barrelling down these boards at 70kph to bag another gold, and even with Alfred Letourneur, who in 1938 went around twice as fast while circling a velodrome behind a motorbike, setting a speed record that still stands. And then, just as suddenly, I realise I am completely shattered, and that coasting down to a halt isn’t an available option. Reducing speed by trying to push the pedals the wrong way proves doubly exhausting and hopelessly ineffective. It is three full laps before I snatch the hand rail and finally stop moving, thighs and lungs begging for mercy, heart and soul begging for more.
Tim Moore was a guest of the Lee Valley VeloPark (visitleevalley.org.uk), which opens fully on March 31. A one-hour taster session at the velodrome costs £30 including bike and helmet hire. Taster sessions on the BMX, mountain bike and road tracks cost £15