A couple of cans of Diet Coke and a tuna sandwich probably isn’t the ideal preparation for a track session with Victoria Pendleton. But then it’s hard to know what would be.
Ever since the British team virtually swept the board at last year’s Olympic games, cycling has become an increasingly mainstream sport, with Pendleton, seven world titles and an Olympic gold medal to her name, very much its poster girl. Velodromes experienced a huge post-Olympics surge in bookings. And with Britain having just experienced its best year ever in the Tour de France – Bradley Wiggins came fourth overall and Mark Cavendish gloriously won six stages – it seems we’re on a roll.
Mass-participation events, such as the forthcoming Skyride series which will close the centres of Manchester, Glasgow, Leicester and London for cyclists, are springing up everywhere and for most people those, along with a gentle commute to work or the occasional weekend outing, are as much two-wheel action as they want.
But what if you want something more? The chance to go flat-out on a track and get seriously fit into the bargain. There are any number of outdoor tracks with relatively gentle banks on the bends, but the Manchester indoor velodrome is state of the art. The 250m track was relaid in 2007 and hosted the world championships in 2008; its 42-degree raking curves are home to 15 world records. And anyone can come in off the street and have a go. Even me, and Pendleton is here to show me how.
Or at least she’s meant to be. She ties back her hair, slips on her gloves and helmet, pulls down her shades and is off, leaving me at the side of the track, trying to work out how to get my shoes attached to the pedals. Thanks for nothing, Vicky. I suppose I ought to be flattered she feels she needs a head start.
The bike isn’t that familiar either. It’s a public-hire track bike and another Olympic gold medallist, Jamie Staff, laughs when he sees it. “That’s a crock of shit,” he says. “It’s the Ford Fiesta of bikes.” It may be to him, but it’s a Porsche to me. It weighs next to nothing, has a fixed single gear and no brakes.
I start off slowly, easing my way along the concrete inner perimeter to get up to speed. Pendleton gets on to my shoulder. “OK,” she says. “Move up on to the wood and stick to the black line nearest the bottom. Keep your eyes focused on where you’re going, ride hard through the bends, stay relaxed and, whatever you do, don’t stop pedalling. Exciting, isn’t it?”
Yes. But it’s also a bit scary. It feels unnatural to be accelerating into such a steeply angled curve. I back off and stop pedalling for a second. Big mistake. The back wheel skids; not pedalling is the same as heavy braking on a road bike. The only way to get off one of these things safely is to pedal slower and slower until the bike rolls to a halt.
I get lucky and stay on. Pendleton grins. “Let’s increase the revs and go higher on the track,” she says. I can’t really say no, so I tag on to her back tyre. Within a few laps my fear has gone. She’s right. This is seriously exciting. As my confidence in both the bike and track grows, we begin to crank up the speed and for the next 10 minutes or so it feels as if I’m flying as we race into the middle of the banking around the bends before coming back down along the straight.
“How was it?” Pendleton says after we come to a stop. Where to start? I’m not that out of breath, but my thighs are burning and I’m not sure I could have gone that much faster. She smiles. “It was a nice, gentle warm-up. We were doing about 22-25mph.” And what’s your top speed? “About 45mph.”
It doesn’t seem possible. She’s barely 5ft 5in and her bike is so small it looks like a kiddy bike. Where does she get her power? “I’m not sure,” she says “I don’t have a traditional sprinter’s build. But I do have good aerodynamics, a lot of fast-twitch fibres and dense muscle [which are best for explosive events such as sprints].”
Like most top athletes, Pendleton will start talking about herself as a high-performance machine given half a chance. But a large part of her success is undoubtedly down to her attitude. She’s resisted all efforts by coaches to get her hair cut and make herself less feminine – apparently a prerequisite for most women athletes who want to be taken seriously. “I’ve never felt limited,” she says, “and I hate people telling me what to do.”
She also gives the impression that it’s often not a lot of fun being Pendleton. You can see why. A large part of the British cycling team’s success comes from its lack of sentiment. Past performances guarantee you nothing; if your times aren’t good enough, you’re out. So the training – which includes hours in the gym each week building leg and upper-body strength – is brutal and competitive.
“There are times when I hate cycling,” she says. “Times when I don’t want to even look at a bike. But all jobs are like that, aren’t they?” She admits to having felt demotivated after the Olympics, a sense of “what do I do now?”, but she’s back on track again. In all senses. “Who wouldn’t want to compete in their home Olympics?”
And will she carry on cycling when she finally retires? “Oh, yes,” she says. “I look forward to pootling about on the road, enjoying the scenery without worrying about a training objective. And it’s a lot less boring than running.”
I, though, have some unfinished business. Jamie Staff’s world record for a single lap of the track from a standing start clocks in at 17 seconds (women don’t do single-lap races, or naturally I’d be aiming for Pendleton’s best). My coach – well, Pendleton’s coach – steadies the bike and counts me down. I’m out of the saddle, driving for the first corner keeping as low on the banking as possible. All fear has gone. It’s just me against Jamie. I come out of the corner and settle down low over the handlebars. I’m going flat out as I hit the final bend, my thighs are burning, I’m out of oxygen and desperately trying to maintain my speed along the last straight. Twenty-five seconds. Just eight seconds off the record. If only I had a decent bike.
The dos and don’ts of track cycling, by Matt Seaton
• Do keep pedalling: track bikes are “fixed-wheel”, which means you can’t freewheel. As long as the wheels are turning, the pedals must turn too, and if you try to stop suddenly, the bike will try to buck you off or you may hurt your knees.
• Don’t worry about not having any brakes. Just slow down gradually, until you come to a virtual stop, then “unclip” from the pedals and hop off.
• Do wear Lycra. Baggy shorts are the ultimate style sin for a trackie.
• Don’t try riding up the banking until you are going fast enough for the centrifugal force to hold you there: a 250m Olympic
velodrome has steeply raked curves and you will simply slide off if you don’t have enough momentum.
• Do practise your “track stands”: this is the old fashioned skill of coming to a complete halt and balancing stationary to psych out your opponent. It’s pointless, but looks cool.
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