Track Cycling: The Omnium

Another week, another apology for my increasingly erratic posts. I’m not being lazy, honest – just busy, then ill. Last weekend was consumed by the hen party of one of my bezzies, Katherine, whose forthcoming nuptials were celebrated by learning the dance routine from Thriller. This might not be an Olympic sport, but I personally think it’s going to be useful on a variety of occasions throughout my life.

Before this, I was in Bury, at the launch of a pilot led by Bury Council and funded by Sport England, aimed at getting women active. The pilot will run over the course of a year, engaging with the local community to find out what barriers there are to women’s participation in sport, with the hope that the lessons learned during the pilot can be implemented in other communities.

Despite the British weather’s best efforts to dampen the launch, over a hundred local girls and women turned up to try out different sports and I even had a go at a few non-Olympic sports. Having attached myself to a group from Derby High School (who initially eyed me with some suspicion, “Miss, are you a teacher, Miss?”, they asked, to my enduring sadness), I set about grilling the girls on their feelings toward sport, but apparently there was no three line whip here – they had actually volunteered to participate. So, whilst they couldn’t tell me why so many teenage girls hate sport, they did draw an interesting comparison between Secretary of State, Maria Miller and former X-Factor contestant, Chico, in terms of cultural importance.

The Telegraph wrote a particularly unkind piece on the pilot. To summarise, the general thrust was, somewhat sneeringly, that the investment is a waste of money because middle aged women shaking their asses in a zumba class won’t keep the Olympic legacy alive. In fact, we should be addressing the issue of why teenage girls stop playing sport in the first place. It goes on to state that one reason for this is because “sport alone does not seem to be synonymous with femininity”, bemoaning the fact that Jess Ennis is known for her beauty as well as sporting achievements. Embedded in this paragraph, seemingly with no irony, is a sultry shot of Ms Ennis, captioned “Jessica Ennis in a Dolce & Gabbana leopard-print silk playsuit”.

Whilst I agree the perception that sport is unfeminine seems to be a pretty common one, I can’t help but feel that the Telegraph’s argument (and use of evidence) is at best misguided and at worst actually gives credence to this. It seems to me it’s exactly this kind of ludicrous perpetuation of the myth that sport is “unfeminine” that is the very reason why the world feels the need to wang on ad infinitum about how attractive sports women may or may not be. The only way to deal with this issue is to treat it with the disdain it deserves.

The Media has a huge role to play here, by firstly not wanging on about femininity and appearance in the context of women’s sport – as the Telegraph rightly notes, it simply is not relevant. Speaking after the announcement of his retirement, last week, David Beckham expressed regret that to many he would be better known for his life off the pitch than on. It’s a shame that so many female athletes, many of whom have courted the media to a far lesser extent than Beckham, must also endure assessment on the basis of these criteria. Secondly, women’s sport needs to become a familiar concept in our society and to do this, it needs more coverage.

Given just how uneven the playing field is, £1.8m of investment in women’s sports should not be sniffed at. Yes, let’s absolutely understand why so many teenage girls hate sport and let’s find solutions. But let’s also recognise that whilst shaking your ass in a Zumba class won’t win you an Olympic gold medal, it might keep you off beta-blockers, ward off depression, or give you a new-found sense of self-confidence, among a whole range of other benefits. Sport is for everyone, and this obsession with winning medals is one of the very things that turns droves of people, male and female, off sports. Not forgetting, of course, the underpinning values of the 2012 Olympics: Equality, as well as Excellence.

On the subject of excellence, I turn, finally, to this week’s sport – track cycling, and one of the Great British success stories of the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, at which we won a staggering seven (of a possible ten) gold medals. Though you don’t have to go back too far to a time when we weren’t excelling to the same degree in this particular discipline – in 2004 we won gold medals in two of the twelve events. So what has turned our fortunes around? Fortune, according to Dave Brailsford, performance director of British Cycling, who credits Lottery funding with our new-found domination of the Velodrome. Though I think there may be some modesty at play here.

The Olympic Velodrome, which opens to the public later this year, looked like a pretty terrifying environment for cycling, if you ask me. So I’m grateful that our only other London-based option was Herne Hill Velodrome, one of the only remaining 1948 Olympic Venues still in use. The track at Herne Hill is outdoor and as such the steepest part of it is a mere 30 degrees, as opposed to the 45 degree track you would find in the Olympic Velodrome. In case you didn’t pick up on the intended sarcasm in my previous sentence, please note: sarcasm was indeed intended.

Who invited this guy?

Who invited this guy?

Track cycling is a three-pronged terror-stimulus. For a start, a track bike has a fixed wheel, so if you stop pedalling, the bike ultimately stops moving and you fall off. But this is the only way to stop, because there are no brakes on a track bike and so must be done in a controlled fashion. Thirdly, I think I already mentioned that the steepest parts of the track are 30 degrees, so you definitely don’t want to fall off on those bits. I must now remind you that I am scared OF EVERYTHING, so you can imagine the trepidation with which I approached this event.

Spot the serious cyclists

Spot the serious cyclists

I’ve brought together a motley crew of pals for this event, three of whom are, it transpires, members of cycling clubs. Of those three I would describe two of them, Simon and Grant, as cycling crazies (no offence, like), a route I see the third, Joss, hurtling dangerously toward. Grant has spent the week, essentially, scaring the shit out of me with regards to our planned activities, telling me that a velodrome may not be the most friendly introduction to the world of cycling, among other things. When I arrive at the Velodrome on Saturday, I’m scared when initially instructed to sit on a bike on which the seat is too high, more so when I realise my feet have been attached to the pedals, let alone on first sight of the track. But we won’t be cycling all the way up the top will we?

Hmmm, who could they be?

Hmmm, who could they be?

Joss, hurtling towards geekery

Joss, hurtling towards geekery

Instructor, Tony, talks us through the basics as we prop ourselves up against a bar, strapped onto our pedals. First of all we’ll do a lap or two of the velodrome on the white line around the bottom of the track. This sounds easy enough, but embarrassingly, I have to be “launched” by Tony from the bar as I wobble dangerously towards the camera crew who are filming our efforts. Once I’m moving, I’m fine, despite having spent an aggregate of about five hours on a bike in the last 15 years. Turns out, it’s just like, er, riding a bike.

The Blue line

The Blue line

A strange thing happens on the way round, and I find myself itching to get a bit higher up on the track, but not wanting to get shouted at, I stay where I’m supposed to be. As with starting, stopping is challenging, and has to be done by resisting the movement of the pedals. To the amusement of Pete and Grant, who are either side of me, I pretty much crash back into the bar in my attempts to stop which is, at least, effective.

Now that we’ve had a go at this, we’ll try more laps, but edging our way up to the red line, the blue line then ultimately, the elusively named “ghost line” – it doesn’t have a colour, it’s too cool. Obviously, I’m now terrified, but with each lap, I’m just wanting to get a bit higher up. By the time we reach the dizzy heights of the ghost line, I’m loving it and actually don’t even notice just how steep it is. Though despite this, I still crash into the fence again when we finish.

The Ghost line, ooooooh

The Ghost line, ooooooh

Someone didn't get the Lycra memo

Someone didn’t get the Lycra memo

Having familiarised ourselves with the track, we’ll now take it in turns to ride up the bank and drop down into the back of the line. We struggle a bit here, because our different abilities mean some riders are faster than others (i.e. most people are faster than me). It’s a little unnerving when someone else is riding beside you, higher up the bank, and I imagine some nasty accidents could’ve happened here in the past. Regardless, when it’s my turn to fall out of the line and up the bank, I’m in my element – it’s such good fun.

I’m genuinely shocked by my ambivalence to the steepness of the track. Many of the guys are finding it odd and Nancy finds it unnerving to say the least, but you wouldn’t know it from watching her ride. At one point, I’m told afterwards, Grant and Olly’s sons, who are watching with their wives, are actually weeping as they witness their dads cycling round the track. Conversely, Pete’s daughter, Ada, is demonstrating some early Sasha Fierce and regards the scene with some nonchalance. She even lets us bribe her with crisps to pose on one of the bikes, later.

And by "adoring fans", I mean weeping children

And by “adoring fans”, I mean weeping children

Ada likes crisps

Ada – she likes crisps

I think I may actually have an advantage by not being a regular cyclist in that the angle of the track doesn’t feel strange because I’m not comparing it to my morning commute. Tony is impressed by us all and comments that I’ve taken to it like “a natural”, to my delight. I’m starting to think this might be my sport, which is infinitely cooler than table tennis.

Eventually, we progress to a race – the scratch race which is part of the Omnium Olympic event. It gets confusing here because Nancy and I form a subgroup on account of the handicap of being female (or rather, not regular cyclists, thank you very much), with a head start. What I think we’re doing is swapping places by taking it in turn to ride up and back down the bank again, at halfway points for a few laps, followed by a sprint to the finish line. One of the issues here is, having not understood the instructions fully, I don’t realise the final lap is a sprint. Despite our handicap, Simon and Grant finish in first and second place, respectively, followed by Pete, with Nancy and I finishing in fourth and fifth.

Cool Riders

Cool Riders

However, as regular readers will know, my medal table is all about the moral victory, and a handy reminder of how many sports I’ve completed. For this reason, I’ve decided that serious cyclists, Simon (who shall be known on the medal table as Simon L) and Grant, can share a gold medal with less serious cyclist, Pete. Nancy therefore takes home a silver medal and I award myself a bronze, which I will happily share with John D, Joss and Olly.

Cooler Riders

Cooler Riders

The 2012 Olympic velodrome cuts quite a glamorous figure in comparison to Herne Hill, which has clearly seen better days. Though Tony reminds me that Sir Bradley Wiggins is a son of Herne Hill, and the venue undeniably benefits from a similar charm as it’s famous protege. Perhaps it’s some of the success of the now household name (who I must confess I hadn’t even heard of until last year’s Tour de France) among others, that inspired British Cycling to fork out for a new all-weather track in 2011. Though work on restoring the velodrome is not complete and the Herne Hill Velodrome Trust continues fundraising to keep the facility open to cyclists of all ages and abilities.

I’m struck by how lucky we are to have an accessible and affordable facility like Herne Hill Velodrome in London. I had a fantastic time trying track cyling, a sport that never in a million years would I have thought I would enjoy let alone actually be alright at, but where else would I have had the opportunity to try it? Tracks like this are few and far between. Grant comments that he would love to bring his son Finn, who like his dad is mad keen on cycling already, here when he’s older, but it’s an hour and a half from his home – and he lives in London! Here’s hoping that the success of British Cycling might open up more opportunities for people in other parts of the country to try this rather excellent sport.

Gold

Silver

Bronze

Total

Jen

9

13

2

24

Gemma

3

3

Jade

2

1

3

Nick

2

2

Uncle Becky

1

2

3

Pete

1

1

2

Harriet

1

1

2

John D

1

1

2

Chloe Rogers

1

1

Colin

1

1

Dalston Dunkers

1

1

Daniel

1

1

GB Handball

1

1

Grant

1

1

John T

1

1

Naomi

1

1

Otter Water Polo

1

1

Romford HC

1

1

Ruislip Eagles

1

1

Simon L

1

1

Steve

1

1

Su

1

1

Vera

1

1

Simon M

2

2

Nic

 1

 1

 2

Ali

1

1

James

1

1

My Mum

1

1

Nancy

1

1

Joss

1

1

Olly

1

1

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