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Rhik Samadder tries … track cycling: ‘It’s like being overtaken by lorries on a motorway designed by Escher’

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian

This is hardly the place to admit it, but I hate cyclists. I never know if they are going to stop at traffic lights or plough through; they’re often very shouty due to always being in danger; and the worst thing is, they’re right. We should all be cyclists as it’s good for the planet. I hate being around people who are right but, to my credit, I am always willing to have my rabid road prejudices punctured, so I have agreed to give track cycling a go.

Track cycling is like cycling squared, but in an oval. You’ve seen it at the Olympics: supercharged, smooth, oddly soothing – until a collision takes out half the cyclists because they’re riding mere millimetres apart. I am surprised anyone is able to have a go at whipping around the London 2012 velodrome on a two-dimensional bike that looks like it weighs less than a toaster. The Lee Valley VeloPark, in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, east London, is huge and engulfing. On the main floor, other people trying today’s taster session sit in three-sided metal pens, spaced apart like we’re at a sheep auction. I feel as if I’m in the hive where they make cyclists. I scan around for a giant alien ovipositor. Where is the Queen?

Rhik Samadder
Two wheels bad … Rhik comes a cropper shortly after setting out. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian

I feel grimly compelled to try cleats, since I’m here. Cleats are my nightmare: to be clamped at the foot to a perineum-mashing machine that is constantly falling over. “If you crash, your feet come right out,” fellow rider Gabriel, who belongs to a triathlon club, reassures me. Oh, excellent. Our permanently upbeat instructor Rory teaches us the elements of the track. The dark blue apron is a flat “safety zone” where anything goes. The dreamlike turquoise band, called the Côte d’Azur, is for easy riders. Then the track begins to bank: gently at first, towards a black line, then higher and higher, marked by a red sprinter’s line, then a blue line, and then there is a broad sweep of terror to the high top of the track, where there are no more lines because you may as well be in space.

The others peel away. They may be beginners at track cycling, but I haven’t been near a bike in 15 years. I let go of the wall, wobbling violently. I feel like a child again – childhood being a time of massive anxiety, where one lacks motor skills and autonomy. Track bikes are twitchy, without brakes or gears. I overcorrect, wrenching the handlebars wildly. The ground rises to meet my panic. I crash, not hard but shockingly, spilling across the floor. Other cyclists steer around me. On the plus side, my feet did come out of the cleats.

I hear a reassuring voice; a cyclist has stayed behind, to help with my cleats, and check I’m OK. It’s Gabriel. I could cry. Rory is there, too. “You’re good to go!” he encourages, with no evidence whatsoever. I stay low, hugging the black line. Low-friction environments always feel like alternate worlds, with unpredictable physical laws. Instead of slowing down for corners, we’re taught to speed up. An hour on the track requires the same energy as three in an everyday environment. The higher one’s track position, the longer the circuit and steeper the bank, requiring more work to maintain. I spend a half hour in terror, being passed by higher riders, who are instructed to shout “STAY” or “HOLD YOUR LINE” as they hurtle above me at a 45-degree angle, lest I change my position and cause carnage. It’s like being overtaken by lorries on a motorway designed by MC Escher.

Steering into the corners, as I intuitively do, makes me lose height, and drop down the markers. (Bad news for riders behind.) “It’s an endless straight line!” Rory shouts. His epiphanic exhortation unlocks the magic trick at the heart of track cycling: when is a circle a straight line? Attacking the corner, I point the bike at what feels like an uphill angle, letting the track turn me. Or perhaps the world turns, and I stay in place. The paradox of speed and stasis feels like being in a video game.

Rhik Samadder
Tyred out … Rhik opts to walk the remaining few yards. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian

Wanting to feel superhuman, I climb to the top of the track. The level of power required to stay here is immense, as if the air is thinner. I can feel the laws of the old universe pushing down on me. But there’s a rider below, and I’ve committed. I pump and gasp and try not to wobble, my legs wanting to shear off my body as I take the corner. I’m cycling on an untenable angle, held up by my own power. It’s a rush; I get it. I think of mountain goats. I hold it together, before I can safely drop to a line on the straight. It takes me three laps to stop.

I am panting so hard my lungs are outside my body. The hour’s not up but I’m done. Full respect to cyclists and their legs. I have cycled a mile in their terrifying shoes, and while it literally got me nowhere, I now understand them better. Although part of me still thinks they’d all be happiest here: in this alien cocoon, cycling a futile ouroboros and shouting “STAY” at one another. We could power the National Grid.

Unicycles on escalators?

I don’t mind cyclists now that infantilising e-scooters have hit the roads. What’s next? Motorised tricycles? Adult prams with Porsche engines?

Smugness points

Steep learning curve. 2/5

Velodrome Taster Sessions at Lee Valley VeloPark cost £40 and are available to book at visitleevalley.org.uk/lee-valley-velopark.

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