I first tried the track in August 2016, coming out to a beginner session at the Argyll Velodrome and loving it so much that I stayed all evening, through the skills development drills as well. I came back a few more times before the track closed for the season, and have been able to make a few visits so far in May and June.
Why do I go, and encourage other people to try it? It’s exhilarating! Scary at first - you’re clipped in on a bike with no brakes and one gear, and you want to survive cycling fast around an angled, paved surface. The physiological relationship you’ve developed with your road bike over the years doesn’t apply here: no freewheel to take up the slack if your legs can’t keep up with the speed you’re moving at; no coasting after a hard effort; no ability to gear up and grind to pick up speed. And may I mention again, no brakes! However, there are new skills to learn: how to modulate cadence to slightly increase and decrease speed; how to monitor the other riders in their lanes and safely change position; how to use gravity and the slope of the track to slow you down and store energy for a sprint. This last skill is especially rewarding the first time you’ve made a descent from the rail (the upper edge of the bowl) down to the sprint line (the shortest route around the track). Zoom!
I had been going to the skills development sessions intermittently this spring and decided to take the plunge and try a Thursday night track league race. These are cheap ($5), casual, non-ABA races to get a taste of racing and test yourself in a competitive environment. This was a very scary idea for me; I made a list in my head of reasons why I should do ERTC hills night instead, but eventually decided to get out of my comfort zone and give it a try. I was fortunate enough to be previously introduced to Lindsay, a fantastic racer from Juventus’ track team, who gave me some advice and answered my questions. I showed up early, warmed up in the neighborhood on my road bike, and spent a good amount of time adjusting my rental track bike to feel right. I had checked the online schedule in advance and thought I knew how to do each of the events that were planned for the night. I seeded myself in the C group (beginner ability level) and tried to calm my nerves.
And then I immediately bombed my first event. It was an elimination style race where the winner of each sprint lap gets pulled off, but more points go to later winners, so the race gets progressively faster. I hadn’t grasped this strategy and was near the front of the pack early on, and paced myself to hit second place for most laps the first half of the race (and therefore earning no points yet). Once I realized what was going on, I had to bust a lung to catch up and never obtained anything that event except a wicked cough. I was so winded that I needed to drop out of the next race, and texted with an ERTC teammate to get the courage to get back on the track for the last race. I felt embarrassed by my weak athletic performance, especially since I was wearing our club kit and wanted to proudly represent our club - or at least hold my own! However, I did finish my third event, in last place, and I gained a healthy appreciation for the skills and tactical knowledge necessary to do well at track.
This was also a reminder of why I need to get back to practice nights. On Monday evenings, we do drills using sprinting and gradual acceleration, and practice holding a line along the track. Sometimes we motorpace: draft behind a motorcycle at increasing speeds to get used to moving fast. They’re hosted by a coach from Velocity, but anyone with $5 and the willingness to learn can show up. The $5 includes the track bike rental, so if it’s your first time, be prepared to show up 20 minutes early to pick out a bike and set it up with your own pedals. Beginner sessions introduce cyclists to safety rules, terminology, and help riders feel comfortable moving around the track at various speeds. Most people should attend the beginner session a few times if they’re new to the track. It’s a low-stakes environment where you can get used to everything, and it also has enough breaks to get to know the other riders, who are likely going to be from the other cycling clubs in the city.
That Thursday race night finished up with a long-distance challenge, with people from all categories spread out over the track at once. Since it was 90% Juventus members that night, I had the strange sensation of being a foreign gold-and-black fish in a sea of blue. However, like a school of fish, everyone’s going along in the stream, and will safely “swim” around you if you keep moving predictably and hold your lines. Just like any other cycling sport, you get from track just as much as you put into it. Once you learn to read the other riders, cycle smart, and get comfortable moving fast, you’ll be ready to swim with the crowd.