I had never ridden a track bike. Track bikes have a single speed and the gear is fixed. This means there is no coasting, you are constantly turning the pedals. In fact, if you inadvertently decide you’re going to coast and stop pedaling, the bike kicks up underneath you and usually throws you to the ground. Oh, and there’s no brake. You stop the bike by using the strength of your legs to work against the momentum of the gear to slow down the turning.
This is part of the reason that I had never ridden a track bike. Frankly, it’s intimidating. Over the past decade or so many messengers have taken to riding “fixies” in big cities, through traffic and, even though technically you can throw a front brake on a fixie, the purists see this as blasphemy and insist on riding without.
I won’t spend a lot of time ranting about the track-bike-in-traffic phenomenon but I will say this. It’s dumb. Why? Because unless you are a really, really skilled cyclist you are going to have trouble stopping when you need to. Fixed gear purists will be really pissed off to read that but it’s just where I stand on the issue. Fixies in traffic should have a hand brake for emergencies. Period.
The reason you don’t have a hand brake on the velodrome is because when you have large groups of cyclists going 30+ miles an hour in very small, 267 meter circles on a bank that is set at 47 degrees, you do not want anyone to stop quickly.
The velodrome, like a basketball court, is full of lines and “zones” with corresponding rules. Only on the ‘drome if you happen to violate a rule you’re potentially bringing down a whole gaggle of fast moving riders and you can bet your ass that you’ll probably go down with them.
This is the intimidating part. Oh, and also the banking. With both corners banked at anywhere between 30 and 47 degrees (different velodromes vary) it’s almost like you are riding on a wall, parallel to the ground below you. The Alpenrose Velodrome in Portland just so happens to have a very steep bank, and a very tall wall. (That shit is scary!)
I’ve been working up my courage to go to the track classes that are offered by OBRA (Oregon Bike Racing Association) and yesterday I took the plunge. It was the first clinic of the year and the skies were threatening rain, which cancels any activity on the velodrome.
I sat in the car, praying for a downpour.
No such luck.
I wanted to bail. I mean I realllllly wanted to bail.
Instead I got out of the car, rented a fixed gear bike from OBRA, attached my pedals to it, pumped the tires up to 110 and made my way down to the “skirt”. (The skirt is the flat, concrete section on the inside of the velodrome – it’s used as a kind of landing strip for getting on and off the bank.)
Four members of Sam’s racing team were there and surprised to see me out in tights, instead of looking at them from behind a camera.
They took a few laps with me on the skirt and gave me their best advice…
“Don’t stop pedaling.”
“Ride as fast as you can.”
“Just go do it!”
My instructor had a bit more to say after we’d been broken into groups based on experience but the gist was the same: “Don’t stop pedaling, hold your line, go fast.”
Then he took us up on the wall and I soon discovered that the best advice I’d been given all day was “Go fast.” It’s a simple exercise in physics. The more velocity, the stronger your G-forces and more likely you are to stay upright instead of sliding down the wall like a schmuck.
Thing is, as you’re approaching the 47 degree bank of the corner your brain has forgotten everything you learned in physics and it’s screaming, “DUDE! A walllll!! We’re approaching a wall at extremely high velocity. You gotta slow downnnnnn!” So you have to go into override mode and demand that your legs defy this gut reaction and keep pedaling. In fact, you have to make them pedal even faster.
I’ll admit it. Shit was scary.
We came off the bank and our instructor wound his way through our line, giving us handshakes. “How was it?” he asked me.
“It was scary as shit.” I replied, laughing. (I was mentally making a VERY big check mark in my “Do one thing every day that scares you” column.)
I glanced over at the girl I’d become friends with earlier (we’d bonded over our mutual desire to vomit because we were so nervous). “What’d you think?”
“That was awesome!!! I want to go again but FASTER!”
And that pretty much sums it up.
So now I’m shopping for used track bikes and trying to figure out exactly where in the basement they are going to go. Track bikes for Sam and I will be bikes #9 and #10 respectively.
And so the family grows.