I’ve recently developed a painful condition that mostly affects people aged between 40 and 60, known as frozen shoulder. Or, in my case, frozen shoulders as I’ve managed to have both freeze up at the same time. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life – both the literally breathtaking sharp stabbing pains when I move my shoulder suddenly and the constant ache in the neck, shoulder and arms that make sleeping difficult, and sometimes nigh on impossible, which makes me even more grumpy. I nearly typed ‘Still, at least I have my health’ but I don’t. I will though, thanks to the NHS. Every day I appreciate more and more the point a teacher was trying to make to my class of ignorant 15-year-olds that our health was something we’d come to appreciate more than wealth as we aged.
Another symptom of my middle age is I’ve recently got into cycling. I’m all self-deprecating and self-aware about having a midlife crisis – joking about it means I’m not really having one, right? – but I’m fast approaching fully fledged MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) status. In recognition of this, my lovely wife bought me a track taster session at the Olympic velodrome in London for my birthday in February. “These one hour sessions are an exciting introduction to track cycling where you’ll be coached in the use of a fixed wheel bike and the basic skills required to safely ride the velodrome track.”
Thankfully, one of the few things I can still do without too much difficulty is ride a bike – at least not on a road – as the frozen shoulder doesn’t hamper the cycling arm positioning, so I was able to take part in a session on Easter Monday.
For me, the session was characterised by awe. Firstly, the awe on approaching the velodrome. I think it’s a fantastic building from the outside. Then there was the awe when I made the walk from the changing room and along the corridor into the middle of the velodrome, to be faced by the track surrounding me. The very same track that the British cycling team dominated in London 2012. The very same track that, like most velodromes, has banked turns of angles of up to 42 degrees. (Side note: there was a game on the Commodore 64 – Summer Games, I think – where the angle to aim for in the long jump, or it might have been the javelin, was 42 degrees, instead of the 45 degrees I assumed was the obvious optimal angle.)
So awe and fear, I guess, to start with.
After getting your feet strapped or clipped in and a brief explanation of how a track bike works, the coach gets you to do a lap to get used to the idea of riding a track bike with a fixed gear and no brakes, so that you’re comfortable with working out how to control your speed purely through pedalling. Then you start to build up speed and after a few laps in the safety zone, each punctuated with a briefing session, you finally move on to the track itself. My group was apparently full of quick learners, so shown our competence at going around the track and 1. not falling off, 2. not crashing into each other and 3. overtaking safely, we had a good 20-25 minutes of free riding around the track.
Doesn’t sound a lot on paper but when you’re riding a track bike, there’s no freewheeling. You have to keep pedalling and if you’re on the higher part of the track, you have to keep pedalling fast to maintain the speed needed to stay up there.
After one particularly fast (in my mind, at least) sprint around the top of the track, I went into road bike mode and thought I’d stop pedalling and freewheel for a bit to let my legs recover. The bike did not like that one bit and wobbled and hopped rather viciously. Bear in mind I’m at the top part of the track and it’s long slide down to the inside. Luckily I maintained my balance and got my legs moving again before any damage was done but it was flipping scary. It’s not a mistake I made again. I remember thinking while I was on the steeper parts of the track, ‘How on earth is the bike staying upright and stuck to the track?’ before deciding not to think about it too much and to trust in physics.
That aside, it was amazing to be able to hammer it on the bike in a relatively safe environment and feel the air rushing through my hair and hear it whistling past my ears. I started to understand why aerodynamics is hugely important in track cycling. My stinging eyes also made me appreciate why goggles are a must.
By the end of the session, I was wobbly legged but so happy. I had an absolute blast. If you’re at all interested in cycling, I highly recommend it. I wouldn’t say it’s ideal for people new to cycling – but there was a range of abilities in my group from people who were fully decked out in the proper gear to people who were just casual cyclists wearing normal sports shorts. As I write, it costs £40 for the track taster session, which includes bike and helmet hire. I think that’s an absolute steal for such a great experience at a great venue.