Going for gold - Manchester Olympic Cycling
PUBLISHED: 01:01 23 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:28 20 February 2013
Andrew Hobbs follows in the tyre tracks of our Olympic heroes at the Manchester velodrome<br/>PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN COCKS
It's made out of wood and it helped Britain to win Olympic gold in Beijing.
It's the Manchester Velodrome, a steeply banked indoor cycling track across the road from the Manchester City ground that was at the heart of Britain's astonishing cycling success, and anyone can have a go on it for less than a tenner.
The velodrome opened in 1994, built as part of Manchester's unsuccessful bid for the 2000 Olympics, and is the UK's leading indoor Olympic-standard track. Its quality lured the British Cycling Federation from Northamptonshire, and when a National Cycle Centre was planned, Manchester was the obvious place.
Members of the British track cycling team such as three-times gold medallist Chris Hoy and gold medallist Victoria Pendleton have moved to Manchester to join the rigorous full-time high-tech training programme which is the envy of international cycling.
And the presence of the velodrome has turned Lancashire into a hotbed of cycling excellence, as youngsters are drawn to this exciting, highly specialised sport.
'Without this facility there wouldn't have been any medals,' says the velodrome's cycling manager Bob Barton. 'The velodrome is very heavily used by the British cycling team, they are our number one customer, and we set aside all the track time they want.' That still leaves plenty of time for the public and members of cycling clubs to use the track too. 'We are not just about elite cyclists,' says Bob.
'Ordinary members of the public can turn up and ride in the wheel tracks of Chris Hoy, which is fairly unusual - you can't go across the road to the City of Manchester stadium and put the ball on the penalty spot and kick it into the goal like your heroes, but here you can do exactly what the gold medal winners do, on bikes that are very similar.
'The public are also welcome to come and watch the Great Britain team training, unless there are technical trials of new equipment or clothing,' says Bob.
Public demand, especially for hour-long taster sessions, is 'stratospheric' since the Beijing Olympics, he adds, and tickets for the Track World Cup from October 31 to November 2 have sold out, and those for the Revolutions events, featuring cycling champions from Britain and the continent, are also selling fast.
The snowball effect is likely to continue, as youngsters from nine upwards become hooked on the excitement of track cycling. 'With a facility like this, you are going to get a localised hotbed of talent, and that's certainly true for the North West, because within a year or 18 months of starting, anyone can follow a progression, and some of these youngsters will go right to the top.'
Chorley's Jason Queally, who won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, took up track cycling after a taster session at the velodrome, and Bolton-born Jason Kenny, who took gold and silver in Beijing, began cycling there at the age of 12, inspired by Queally's success in Sydney. Burnley-born Steven Burke, who now lives in Colne, took a bronze medal in Beijing at the age of 20, six years after he first rode at the velodrome.
With two or three exceptions, the entire British track cycling team lives in or around Manchester: Chris Hoy on Salford Quays, Rebecca Romero and Victoria Pendleton in the city itself, Jamie Staff and Paul Manning in Stockport, Bradley Wiggins in Chorley, Ed Clancy in Newton-le-Willows and Chris Newton in Oldham.
And even when London's new velodrome is built for the 2012 Olympics, the team has no intention of leaving Manchester. For road training, as for many other things, London can't compete with the Lancashire countryside.
The view from the saddle
I once saw a wall-of-death motorcyclist at a fairground, so it was actually a relief to find that the banking at Manchester Velodrome is only 42 degrees on the corners rather than vertical. Still, it was scary. And also hugely exhilarating.
At the one-hour public taster sessions, for 9.30 (7.20 concessions) you get the hire of a lightweight track bike and helmet, plus expert coaching, and for another 3.50, special shoes that slot into the pedals.
Peter Deary, one of 24 velodrome coaches, put us beginners at our ease with his no-nonsense approach. Once on the bike, which seemed to weigh less than the shoes, I was about to complain that I'd been given one without brakes when Peter explained that these are fixed-wheel machines, with no freewheel - you simply push back on the pedals to slow down.
We began on the flat green concrete below the track, and after a couple of laps of the 250-metre circuit, ventured onto the shallow slope of the 'Cote d'Azure', the narrow blue strip at the bottom of the wooden track. As our speed and confidence increased, Peter signalled to us one by one that we were ready to venture onto the race track itself, where the banking varies from 12 degrees on the straights to 42 degrees on the bends.
Once I began to believe that the narrow rubber tyres really could grip the wood while cutting across a one-in-one gradient, I ventured higher, where riders go during races to overtake or to watch, hawk-like, from on high before swooping down for an attack. On the far bend, the riders looked like flies gliding across a wall.
There were occasional moments of terror when the handlebars twitched and my legs almost locked, but I managed to keep going. Following Peter's advice, I relaxed my upper body and began to feel the balance more, as excitement replaced fear and a grin spread across my face.
Then my middle-aged body began to protest. First my legs went, then my lungs, and finally my throat. It's surprisingly tiring, especially if your competitiveness outweighs your fitness. But I'll be back - it's hugely enjoyable and very exciting.
To book a taster session, contact Manchester Velodrome on 0161 223 2244, www.manchestervelodrome.com