Track cycling is the perfect sport for an adrenalin junkie. Racing round a steeply banked track on a bike without brakes? I had to try it.
I drove to the Forest City Velodrome (FCV), a 138-metre wooden bike oval housed in an old hockey arena in London, Ont. I was a little jittery, but program director Rob Good assured me that tracking racing isn't just for elite athletes. "Track cycling is good for everyone to stay fit. We have programs for non-cyclists; 90 per cent of our members are non-racers. One of the cool parts of riding track bikes is that they can go very fast with little expense and very little maintenance.
The oval's steep walls rise from 13 degrees on the straights to a seemingly insane 50 degrees on the banking corners. I didn't have much time to dwell on my growing trepidation as Rob quickly got me onto a fixed-gear bicycle. As if the track wasn't intimidating enough, I was about to be clipped into a bike with no brakes that did not coast. If the back wheel moves so do the pedals. To stop this speed machine you have to push back against the spinning pedals despite the momentum of the bike (without tipping over).
As we lapped slowly around the flat interior of the track, we learned to manoeuvre around pylons and to lean down and pick up pop bottles without losing control of the bike. So far so good. I was wobbly, but I didn't fall over.
Then – the moment of truth. It was time to move up onto the track.
I had been warned by friends that if I didn't have the proper amount of speed on the inclined track, I would simply tip over while still locked into my pedals. So my instinct was to pedal fast – the bike just seemed to want to go – but Rob warned me to slow down and stay in control. Along the straightaway, we moved one by one up onto the wooden racing surface. I instinctively started pedalling harder and faster in anticipation of the approaching banked corner and felt the bike accelerate. And – just like that – I successfully made it around the bend.
Now I was moving at a good clip and was gaining on the bike ahead of me at an alarming rate. Rob slowed me down by placing pylons at higher and higher points on the slope and having me ride up and around them and back down the embankment. Up was no problem. But coming down, gravity made me feel like I'd fall right over the handlebars. After a few laps, I then found the pylon at the steepest part of the track. As I was about to head up and over it, Rob told me to let go with one hand and touch the railing at the top of the track. Was he crazy? I was holding onto the handlebars for dear life.
Overcoming my fear (read: not wanting to look like a wimp), I took a deep breath and somehow managed to pull it off.
I was sweating, my hands were shaking and my heart was racing – but I felt exhilarated. Spin class is a walk in the park compared to this! Having noticed my white-knuckled grip on the handlebars, volunteer technical instructor and seasoned racer Rhys Bateman gave me a few pointers. "We do not steer with the handlebars, we steer with our whole body by leaning into the G-force," he said. "It's all about confidence and being relaxed as your become part of the bike by virtue of the fixed-wheel drive, and then just spin 'em."
I attempted this on my "flying lap," a time trial in which you pedal at full speed and are timed on your third time round the track. I got rolling, steered back up onto the track and started sprinting. Once I heard the bell, I pedalled even harder, gritting my teeth (my typical sports grimace) and trying to trust the bike. In a flash, my timed lap was over. My time: just over 12 seconds.
While my body was physically in tune with strenuous cycling workouts, my brain wasn't prepared for this. Two hours focusing on technique, while in perpetual fear of falling was exhausting. As Rhys said, "Like being on a roller coaster, only here, you have control of the coaster and that is where the fun comes from." Not only did the wooden track boards clatter like a coaster's as you rolled over them, it felt like the biggest ride in the amusement park.