Only en velo do you get to score at Wembley, headline Glastonbury or walk on the moon. The velodrome at Herne Hill, South London is 120 years old this year and in its day was a cycling equivalent of Wembley, hosting the 1948 Olympics and cycling legends like Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi and Britain’s own Tom Simpson in the years since. Despite the facilities around the track being in a poor state of repair today due to a terrible lack of funds, it was with an enormous sense of privilege that three of our team this afternoon enjoyed the old track to ourselves for a couple of hours in the late afternoon sun.
We arranged to meet at 3pm and as we arrived a kids’ holiday training session was coming to a close. It was really inspiring seeing so many youngsters on their fixed gear bikes giving it “full beans” in a relay version of the individual pursuit. Then it was our turn- a bunch of thirty something track newbies doing some shots for a London magazine article on taking cycling to the next level – faking it to the next level more like. Despite a lack of track expertise we were at least experienced fixed riders having spent most of the winter training on our fixed steeds. Thankfully, Herne Hill is a shallow concrete construction with the steepest banking about 30 degrees.
After a few laps the fear went and before long we upped the pace and started to mimic the techniques of our recent Olympic heroes. Captain’s lanky frame made him a dead ringer for Wiggo, who incidentally started his racing career at Herne Hill when he was only 12. Nustu’s oft cited likeness to Geraint Thomas continues despite his attempts to ride in the style of Cadel Evans (post rainbow stripes!) Lowell doesn’t really look like any of the Olympic squad so we asked him who he wanted to be. “Hassellhoff?” he replied.
The two hours absolutely flew by! What was meant to be a few gentle laps for the camera turned into a decent training session which involved short sprinting burstsat random intervals led by Captain’s shouts of “Beans!” As the session progressed the intervals got longer until we were holding full on burns for a whole lap (about 450m). Nustu was particularly fond of these and confidently challenged the others to a final lap dash only to be outfoxed by Captain who launched an all out attack entering the final bend, leaving him nowhere to go but into the gutter. The real sting in the tail though, came from Disco who is commonly understood to have the slowest fast switch muscles known to man. Safe in this knowledge he timed his run up the outside of the banking to perfection and just nudged the sprint. The really weird thing was that as he did so his bike started to creak and clank in exactly the same manner as his cross-tyred fixed gear bike. Some things never change!
The afternoon ended with a few warming down laps with helmets off and cameras out. As we rode Disco was keen to photograph our shadows as we rode the legendary concrete slopes. Whilst it was our shadows that were photographed, there was no doubt in all of our minds that we were doing so in the company of past legends, and who knows from the kids we followed on to the track, maybe some future heroes, too.
Big thanks to Jonathan the photographer – hope you enjoyed your few laps at the end – and to Ian for lending us the track bikes.
Herne Hill is an inexpensive and inclusive sports facility, whatever your level of cycling, get down there and enjoy it!