A few summers ago, my family and I went to the NSC Velodrome in Blaine, Minnesota to watch the Thursday Night Lights Races. Since then, it has become one of our favorite summer activities. I would have to say that there are few places on earth that I would rather be on a Thursday evening in the summer.
As soon as we saw the first race, my wife asked if it was something that I would ever try. My response was “sure” but it really wasn’t a serious response. This type of cycling just seemed too foreign for me to even consider. Not only that but it was also quite intimidating. Aside from the obvious dangers associated with riding without brakes in a tight crowd, there was also a huge learning curve. How do people ever get into this sport? How do you train? How do you even learn how to ride on a velodrome? Would you have to buy a bike before you even try it?
My wife did a little research and discovered that the NSC Velodrome offered an introductory class for track racing. Oh, and they would provide the bike. Holy cow, this takes care of everything that was stopping me. There were no excuses now. I just had to get the courage up to do it. “Next year I am going to try it” I said and when the next year arrived, I repeated the same phrase again. This year however, I took the plunge and signed up.
The class is called Velodrome Track 101. It provides hands-on instruction on things like bike control, track etiquette, group riding, drafting and interesting information about the track itself. It is only four classes but the instructor manages to condense the information without missing any important aspects. The classes build upon each other so if you miss a class, you cannot proceed to the next one and will have to take the class over from the beginning.
The bikes are fixed-gear with no brakes. They also have shorter geometry than typical road bikes so the turning response is quicker. The track is made of wood and it is notorious for splinters. The curves are angled 43 degrees in the middle so if you are riding too slow, you will slide down. There is a flat, narrow path around the innermost part of the track called the apron (also referred to as the côte d’azur). This is where you get up to speed before moving out on to the main track.
The class begins with an explanation of the track construction, geometry and the meaning of the lines. Then you start the hands-on instruction. This part is all about bike control and you practice things like getting familiar with the surface, riding straight, riding with one hand and enduring contact while riding. After that, the emphasis changes toward riding in a group. This is when you learn how to ride in a pace-line, changing leaders and becoming comfortable with being in a tight crowd.
After all of that, you race. This begins with a sprint time trial before you learn the various start methods for the different races. Then you participate in a “Miss And Out Race” and a “Points Race”. This is when it really gets exciting. I wish there was a way to get some photos from the bike during a race so you could see how tight the pack can get. In the first race my pedal smacked the frame of the bike next to me while in the middle of a curve. I was completely surrounded by other riders but, fortunately, nobody crashed. Surprisingly, there only was one crash in the class. It happened while we were riding in a pace-line and the rider was two bikes ahead of me and fell to the right or, as we say, “uptrack”. I still don’t know how I avoided him. He was fine but ended up with several splinters and his bike shorts were no match for the wood surface.
The Next Step
When you start the class, you are considered Category 5 (CAT 5) but, upon completion of the class you are upgraded to CAT 4. Most of the CAT 4 racers are really fast so my only focus will be to not get embarrassed too badly. For example – one of the assistant instructors in the class is CAT 4. He seemed like he could ride circles around everyone in the class and I will have to be in a race against him.
My marathon training seems to be a big advantage in long races. I can still sprint pretty well 20 laps into a race. The area that I need to work a lot on is my sprint speed. I need to build up a lot more strength in my legs. My plan is to concentrate on marathon training then start working on the bike. Unfortunately, the marathon is on September 9 and the Velodrome season will be coming to a close. For this reason my focus is on next year. I want to participate in some training sessions at the track this summer however.
Give It A Try
If you are at all interested in riding bikes on a fast Velodrome track, this class is a great way to start. It is once each week for a month but you can not miss a class. You will not find a better instructor and the experienced assistants are awesome. They will even provide you with a bike. You just bring your pedals and shoes.