Chris Daniels

Digital business editor for nzherald.co.nz

Up the wall and defying gravity

A need for speed keeps cyclists riding to stay upright at the velodrome, writes Chris Daniels.

Chris Daniels works his way around the velodrome banking track.
Chris Daniels works his way around the velodrome banking track.

Oh how I chuckled at the YouTube clip of a community TV station news anchor squealing in terror as she made her way around the track at the newly opened $28.5 million AvantiDrome velodrome in Cambridge for the first time.

How I regretted this when attempting the same thing just a day later. Walking into the velodrome for the first time, the sheer height and gradient of the track looming skyward was intimidating. How exactly do I stay upright while riding a bike around that steep slope?

Well, it's all about speed - you need to go fast to stay up. For our Have A Go session, it was all about getting the confidence to speed up, rather than succumb to the natural instinct of slowing down when feeling uncomfortable or in danger.

While there'll no doubt be plenty of high speed gold medal performances generated over the years to come in the AvantiDrome, the facility is open and welcoming to the public.

There were 12 of us on the day I arrived for the introductory Have A Go class. Instructor Stuart took us through the basics, fitted us with a correctly sized bike (there are 100 brand new track bikes available) and a helmet.

First he wanted to know if we were OK riding a track bike - they are fixed wheel, no free-wheeling, no gears, no brakes. So they're different, but not as difficult to ride as it might sound. We rode around some cones in the central concrete area for 10 minutes until Stuart felt we were ready to head out on to the track.

And that's where it got scary. Television pictures of indoor velodromes give a grossly misleading impression of their steepness, flattening them out and making them look much less intimidating than is the case.

We rode slowly around the grey, flat part of the inside track at first before moving slightly to our right hand side, up on to the wood of the track itself.

Immediately I was gripped by the sensation that gravity was dragging me down to the centre well, that I was sliding down the wood and the tyres won't hold me up. What do you have to do? Speed up of course. It did take a while, but I clicked. Within perhaps 10 laps I was slowly working my way higher and higher up the banking track. There's etiquette to remember - only pass on the right hand side and only enter or exit the track on the proper side. When approaching a slower rider, I had to speed up and head higher and higher up on to the steep wall.

Everyone was well behaved in my class, no weaving about and no crashes.

There were varying levels of confidence on the track but one more session and I'm sure all of us could soon be flying around Sarah Ulmer-style in relative safety.

Though the "no brakes, an alarmingly steep track and a don't slow down" mantra sounds dangerous, the whole experience was well managed and controlled by the coach. He sized us up pretty quickly and I've no doubt he would let riders out on his precious track only if he was confident they were ready.

I spent the last 10 minutes of our session flying around the track at (to me anyway) high speed - wishing my stripped-down bike at least had a speedo fitted.

I was sweating, my quads were burning and I'd had some of the best fun I've ever had on two wheels.

It's likely the best thrill you'll get for 15 dollars anywhere - just please be sympathetic when you do hear a first timer squealing with fear the first time they hit the track.

Need to know: You can't just roll up on your own bike - only approved track bikes are allowed on the wood. These bikes have shorter cranks and the lack of gears or brakes means fewer components to damage the track in the event of a crash. "There is no pressure from us on making the shift from hire to owning bikes as we want to make track cycling accessible to as many people as possible," said a spokeswoman.

The age limit is currently 10. A schools racing league runs Friday on nights; check out the North Island secondary schools carnival in July. To ride unsupervised on the track, take a four-part accredition course led by a fully qualified coach ($15 per session).

See avantridrome.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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