Manchester velodrome

One of the reasons I so love cycling is because of the particular set of relationships which exists between the legendary and the plebeian, the heroic and the everyday, the spectacular and the mundane, the extraordinary and the ordinary. As many others have noted, this set of relationships is one of the reasons why the Tour de France, indeed all cycle sport, is so very special – in an extraordinary spectacle the heroes and legends come to you; they ride past your house, through your town, through your ‘neck-of-the-woods’, on your roads …

But also, anyone can, and you yourself do, engage in essentially the same practice, in essentially the same spaces, as those giants – or Gods – of the road.

Last year I rode to the Velo-city cycling conference in Brussels and along the way, with my academic colleague and cycling companion Pete Cox I rode sections of the Tour of Flanders, including the cobbled climb of the Koppenberg. Such a ride is a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage in which you not only revere but also emulate – in however modest and humble a way – the legends of your sport, some of whom are your heroes. On the Koppenberg I was on the wheel of Eddy Merckx.

Yesterday Bobby and I travelled to the home of British Cycling, Manchester velodrome. Not much more than an hour away, yet a journey into the extraordinary and spectacular world of heroes and legends, the trip of a lifetime. It was one of many such trips organised by Salt Ayre Cog Set, our brilliant local cycling club for children. But although we’d taken Bobby and Flo to watch racing there, it was the first time we’d been to the velodrome with Cog Set, and the first time either of us had ridden the track.

It happens so often in cycling, this transgression of the distinctions between heroes and mortals. For me, what happened last year on the Koppenberg happened yesterday on Manchester’s velodrome. I was challenging my spectatorship, and becoming a participant, and I don’t at all mind admitting – now that it’s over and finished well – that I was more than a bit scared …

Ten years before, I’d spent one of the most intense and thrilling hours of my life witnessing – or I like to think participating in – Chris Boardman setting a new hour record. In the last competitive ride of an outstanding career, Boardman beat Merckx’s mark by ‘a mere’ ten metres. I screamed myself hoarse as I watched one hero struggle so intensely to eclipse another … and as I watched Boardman, who is about the same age as me, circle that track with such resolve, focus, pain and ultimately desperation never had the human search for meaning seemed so tangible.

And suddenly, here we were, about to ride those boards ourselves. A place so close to home, and so central to my sport, yet belonging to heroes and legends, not really to my son and I. But in the next two hours we would make it ours too. So anxious had I been at the prospect, I had barely been able to imagine actually doing it. In my head there was such an enormous gulf between the abilities of Merckx, Moser, Boardman, Hoy and Pendleton to ride those boards and my own diametrically opposed inability, that I couldn’t begin to imagine actually making them my own, coming to feel at home on them …

But as with the Koppenberg and the road in general, so with the track – both I and my nine-year old son could indeed ride in the wheeltracks of legends …

And so – for me at least – a dream came true …

Our coaches John and Colin were superb. Our beginner’s group started by getting a feel for riding fixed wheel by circling the flat dark blue concrete at the bottom of the track. It’d been 25 years since I’d last ridden fixed, but my body seemed almost immediately to remember the direct feel which it gives you for the bike. And like the other youngsters trying it for the first time, Bobby took to it just fine. I think kids are more used to facing and dealing with fear, of taking it in their stride …

From the dark blue we moved onto the sky blue of the Cote d’Azur and then onto the track itself – first to the black line, then onto the red line, the blue line, and beyond … And where I’d anticipated fear I found mainly exhilaration. The first time into the bend – directly experiencing sensations I’d only seen and barely imagined – was so thrilling it brought a lump to my throat.

I had plenty of power and a lifetime of dreams to see me up that banking, riding high, almost disbelieving that it so quickly felt if not exactly ‘natural’, then at least entirely plausible. But how did Bobby get up there so quickly? I’m not sure what he had – perhaps that wonderful childish faith that everything is possible? If I hadn’t been so wrapped up in the intensities of my own experiences, I’d have been absolutely astonished to see him, like me, riding high …


Our two-hour session was over all too soon. Marks out of 10 from Bobby? 10. Marks out of 10 from me? 10. I think we’ll be going back, not only to watch, but also once more to ride.

What a day! Thanks to Salt Ayre Cog Set, and especially Carmen Jackson and Paul Andrews, for making it happen. And thanks to Manchester Velodrome, and especially John and Colin for such expert coaching.

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One Response to “Manchester velodrome”

  1. Mike Holden Says:

    Dave, this is a great blog, You are a brilliant spokesperson and advocate for cycling and I hope that you have loads of readers. All that talk about heroes really stirs my emotions. I’m tempted to make the pilgrimage to Manchester myself but I’d need to borrow the red bike behind Bob in the second photo if I was going to ride the wooden wall.
    Keep em coming..

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