John Davis and a group of intrepid VCJ members head to the Geraint Thomas National Velodrome of Wales on a sunny Sunday in March.
I savour the irony as I wait for Darryl’s grey Mondeo to appear. After a long, cold and dreary winter, today is easily the finest day of the year. Unblemished blue skies, warm early Spring sunshine bathing everything in soft honeyed light. No wind to speak of. I have ground out winter miles through rain, sleet and gales, routinely covered in muck and slurry. Today, on this most perfect of days, I will be riding indoors at a velodrome and driving almost two hours each way for the privilege.
No sign of the grey Mondeo. Instead a white Jaguar purrs up the street. Tinted windows, jet black alloys - Darryl’s Kidlington Mafia connections are clearly paying dividends. I’m the penultimate pick-up, and with one more stop the car is full and we’re off.
The journey to Wales is uneventful until, around 10 miles from the Severn crossing, we join a queue of stationary traffic. The M4 is closed ahead. At the same time a message arrives from Wales - everyone else is there and enjoying a pre-track coffee. We divert to the M48 and make ever-so slightly faster progress. A huge image of Geraint Thomas in yellow eventually signals our arrival, we rush in, change quickly and head for the track with just minutes to spare.
The velodrome is vast and empty. We have it to ourselves. The banking is steep. Really steep. Ridiculously, stupidly, steep. My legs feel wobbly, throat dry, my heart starts to beat a little faster. There is no way I’m going up there!
We meet our coach, Owain. Owain is not what I expected. Owain is not a grizzled, ruddy faced ex-pro gone to seed, sporting a beer belly and earning a few bob on the side shouting at track novices on a Sunday afternoon. Owain looks about twelve and seems a decent bloke.
The bikes have no brakes and are fixed gear. There is no freewheel. I know this. I have mentally prepared for this and I am ready. Right foot cleats in. Habit takes over. I stand on the right pedal and roll as I search with my left foot for the pedal. I am pitched forward by the momentum of the fixed gear and almost thrown over the bars. I reach for and hug a nearby handrail with relief. Maybe I can just spend the next couple of hours here….
Owain explains the layout of the velodrome and introduces the Cote d’Azur (the blue bit on the concrete at the bottom), the black line and the blue line to us. I listen with interest but decide that the blue line stuff is not relevant for me. I’m not planning to go that high. As a warm up we are to do a couple of laps on the Cote d’Azur before moving up to the black line for a couple more laps and then further up to the blue. Yeah, right Owain…. Helpfully, he also explains how to stop. It seems you just stop pushing down on the pedals and wait. Eventually you come to a halt.
The Cote d’Azur is so comforting and flat but I have to leave… the black line is OK… oh my God... I’m up on the blue and... it’s not too bad! We roll around the blue line for a couple of laps, halfway up the banking. It’s beginning to feel almost natural. Owain tells us to stop. The rest of the group lines up in perfect formation in front of him. My bike is not ready to stop, however. I roll around another lap doing the no pushing on the pedals thing and eventually join the back of the line. Owain waits patiently.
We go through a series of exercises designed to build our confidence on the track. While riding on the blue line, the lead rider drops down to the black and steals a lap to rejoin the back of the group. Owain points out that the black line is the shortest distance around the track. This seems like useful information and I store it up for the future... Darryl takes off like the hare at a greyhound race (later, he tells me he has done this before), Ludo is flying, Ian drops down and disappears into the distance and then it’s my turn. I set a new cadence personal best (not that difficult, actually) but make no ground on Ian. Owain introduces the next exercise. As we ride around the track in a line, the lead rider pulls away up the banking and rejoins the back of the group. “Does the lead rider have to slow down?” asks Owain. “No”, I reply, anxious to please. It’s a guess but it seems like the right answer. Owain explains why. By moving up and down the banking, the lead rider covers a greater distance and can therefore maintain speed as the group moves through below them. This is something of a Eureka moment for me. Suddenly the whole banking thing starts to make sense.
Our confidence grows as the afternoon progresses. We swoop up and down, slaloming through the line of riders. Owain seems happy with his charges. We finish with a ten lap scratch race, an opportunity to put into practice the skills and techniques we have acquired in the white heat of battle. My tactics are clear. If the black line is the shortest way round, then that is where I shall stay. Keep it safe, says Owain, and the race is on…. After a brief moment where I find myself in the bunch weighing up whether to try something from long range, I’m out the back. I plod along my black line in splendid isolation. Somewhere a long way in front of me, Clive takes the honours….
And then it’s over. The next club arrives and takes to the track. Owain patiently poses for photos with us and we head for the showers.
As an added bonus, Darryl lays on a surprise tour of a local industrial estate courtesy of his SatNav before we rejoin the M4. The sun still shines. The skies are still blue. We are still inside.