Brakes Are For Sissies

Posted: February 12, 2015 in Bike
Tags: ,

Now, I must confess that when the initial suggestion went out amongst my TryForce group to try the new Velodrome in Milton, this is immediately what popped into my head:

..and this:

Yeah, fuck no.


Then I learned that a “Velodrome” was just the fancy term for the special arena that houses track cycling.  Okay, so no one’s ever accused me of being smaht. Count me in!

So with a little maneuvering around the Mattamy National Cycling Center website which included my providing everything just short of a stool and hair follicle sample just to login successfully (all to be accomplished between the precise hours of 10:14 and 11:37pm by the light of Harvest Moon), I was all booked in to “Try the Track” for this past Saturday at 2:00pm along with about a dozen or so of my peers.

I’ve never cycled on a track before so, of course, I did a little preemptive investigating on the Interweb to see what this whole track cycling thing was all about.  My only familiarity with track cycling was watching Canada’s Curt Harnett silver medal performance at the 1986 Los Angeles Olympic Games in what was known as the 750m Match Sprint.  I liked the whole “cat and mouse” game between the two riders which inevitably would start out at a snail’s pace and gradually lead over into both cyclists sprinting for the finish at light speed. It was awesome.  Later, I discovered the Tour de France and avidly followed Steve Bauer’s days in the ‘maillot jaune’ in the local Standard newspaper in 1988 and 1990.  Both became heroes of mine and I remember imaging myself sprinting for glory to the end of my street with my buddies during any one of our daily bike rides around the neighborhood.  Likewise, I am fortunate enough to cycle now in the same area that Steve Bauer grew up in and every time I climb Saylor’s Hills in Pelham, I still image myself racing against him to the top of the mountain summit so, yeah, I guess you can say I never really did grow out of that childhood hero worship. So a chance to try the track was exciting.

Anyway, my initial research taught me that a velodrome is a steeply banked oval track, consisting of two 180° circular bends connected by two straights. The straights transition to the circular turn through a moderate easement curve.  Banking in the turns, called “superelevation”, allows riders to keep their bikes relatively perpendicular to the surface while riding at speed.  When traveling through the turns at racing speed, which may exceed 85 km/h (52.8 mph), the banking attempts to match the natural lean of a bicycle moving through that curve.  At the ideal speed, the net force of the centrifugal force (outward) and gravity (downward) is angled down through the bicycle, perpendicular to the riding surface. The $56-million velodrome at the Mattamy National Cycling Center features a 250m long, 7m wide timber track constructed of untreated Siberian Spruce (well, la-di-da) which is renowned for its hardness, stability and long, straight lines. The track has 42° banked bends and 13° banked straights.

Does that sound like fun or what?

The bikes used in velodromes are also completely different than the typical road bikes of which I am accustomed to riding. For example, they have no brakes.  Pardon?  I had a full stop at that point. Not that I ever had any chance of reaching 85km/h but, no brakes?  Fuck.  Seriously?  Furthermore, they are fixed wheel bikes that employ a single fixed rear gear, or cog, that does not freewheel. This helps maximize speed, reduces weight, and avoids sudden braking while nevertheless allowing the rider to slow by pushing back against the pedals.  I mean it makes sense I guess but, still, no brakes?  Really?  It sounds like a perfect recipe for disaster.  I can see the morning headlines now: “Ridgeway Man Dies in Horrible Velodrome Accident”  and, underneath it, a picture of a perfect Terry-shaped hole in the velodrome track floor where my body had passed through it at Mach 3.

Oh joy.

So two months later, following a reschedule with the Center requiring us to reregister on their website, add our next of kin and answering the mandatory skill testing question – don’t even get me started on the list of required equipment specifications – Kelly and I were finally in the car with the Coach heading towards Milton.

Upon arrival, we headed upstairs to get our first gander at the track itself. First impression: it was gorgeous – all shiny wood and slick running surfaces.

Seriously, how cool is this:


It was like a Valhalla for cyclists.

There were riders already on the track and they seemed like they were enjoying themselves. I followed the riders as they rode around the track on a blue band at the bottom, or what’s known as the “côte d’azur”, aaaaaaaaand then I saw it…the embankment at the end of the track.

Ho-lee shit.

The End Embankment.

The End Embankment.

I had to get a better look so Kelly and I walked around on the running track that circumnavigates the velodrome itself to get a better look at this, this, this…”wall”. I don’t know how else to refer to it. Standing at the top looking down it was certainly steep, like impossibly steep. All that was missing was maybe a Sherpa, or some dude in lederhosen blowing on an alphorn. But, seriously, from my particular vantage point at that exact moment here is how I viewed it:

Here it is in actuality but, believe me, the picture doesn’t really do it justice.

Looking straight down.

Looking straight down.

I decided that this was doing nothing for my confidence so I figured I’d go and get changed into my cycling kit, all the while wondering why they hadn’t included either crampons or an oxygen tank on their lists of required equipment.

Shortly afterwards, we were all herded into a small classroom for our “track orientation”.  After a short wait we were introduced to a guy named Christoff with tree trunks for legs and an accent so thick you could cut it with a cheese knife. “We are going to ‘av vun ya?”, he said in his East European accent.  Also in the room was an unassuming guy seated in a chair that I instantly recognized as Steve Bauer himself, Head Coach of the Milton Cycling Academy.  Sure he was a little older and not wearing his yellow jersey but, still, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

I admit: I was a little star struck.

After a short info session which, truthfully, I didn’t catch a lot either due to Christoff’s accent (or possibly my stargazing at Steve Bauer), at least nothing I hadn’t already gleaned from my own research – it’s true – there were no brakes – we were ready to pick up our bikes and make our way to the track.  Goodie.

Certain death, here I come.

Can't you just sense my excitement?

Can’t you just sense my excitement?

Upon getting on the bikes for a quick test drive it is very apparent that fixed gear fixes are very different by design.  Once you start pedaling it’s not so easy to stop, impossible actually. You have to use your quads to slow your momentum and that takes some getting used to when you’re accustomed to simply reaching for the brakes. Upon taking our first few spins around the inside of the track (the safe zone), I will admit it, I didn’t like it.  I didn’t like that loss of immediate control. We quickly learned that in order to avoid any possible, shall we say, “Oopsies” (oopsies like colliding with another cyclist at 50km/h), you had to focus your attention on the person ahead of you, but the other riders waaaay ahead of you.  That takes some getting used to, let me tell you, when you’re more accustomed to focusing your attention on the wheel of the rider directly ahead of you in the pace line.

Eventually, we were allowed to ride on the blue côte d’azur I saw the previous riders cycling on, which is typically about 10% of the tracks surface.  The blue band is not technically a part of the track; although it is not illegal to ride there, moving into it to shortcut another rider will result in disqualification.  For our purposes, it was the first tentative steps to actually riding the track. Kelly referred to us as “baby deer” in the way we cautiously weeble-wobbled our way around the track trying our best not to fall off or collide with anyone else.  She’s definitely not far off in her assessment either as that’s exactly how I felt and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

Finding our baby track legs.

Finding our baby track legs.

Shortly, with each passing lap of the track my confidence grew but, hey, we were still only riding on a relatively flat surface so, yeah, whoopee.  What I mean is that I was getting more accustomed to using my quads to control my speed and keeping my focus well ahead of the rider ahead of me.  Soon, we were allowed to ride a little up on the track itself and back down again to practice looking over our shoulders for other riders; not the crazy Grand Canyon embankments at the end, mind you, but just along the sides of the tracks.  By doing this we were gaining confidence little by little. But there was still that monster 42° monster at the end to contend with.

Getting the feel of the track.

Getting the feel of the track.

Between turns riding around the track (there were two groups of us) we were eventually given permission to ride between the black and red lines (the red being known as the “sprinters line”) which is known as the “sprinters lane”, the optimum route around the track.  This zone may only be comprised of a mere 90cm in width, but by the time you get to that huge angle at the end, suddenly that 90cm looks rather menacing – believe me.  In fact, it’s hard to image the bike sticking to the track at that angle and it wasn’t until I had completed a few circuits around the track that I actually managed to stay securing in this zone the whole time around without pussying out and dropping back to the safety of the côte d’azur.

My biggest fear was my having to hear Christoff say:  “ve vill ‘av to call you an ambulance now, ya?”

What I eventually learned is that it had nothing do with power and everything to do with cadence.  By bringing your cadence up you could power around the end embankment up on the sprinter’s line and then surge back down again into the straightaway. It was neat to be able to look over your left shoulder and see the floor whipping past you at an impossible angle.  Okay, now I was hooked.  I might have even let out a “Weeeeeeeeeee!!!” as I went flying around the track.

Riding the "Sprinter's Lane"

Riding the “Sprinter’s Lane”. “And a little bit faster now…”

Although we weren’t really allowed or encouraged to, I gradually brought my bike above the sprinter’s line at the ends up to the blue “stayer’s line”, a whole 250cm above the floor.  Now the adrenaline was really pumping.  By keeping my cadence fast (95-100rpm) the bike navigated around the bend smoothly and easily and then I could slow the bike just a little into the straight away to be not to ride headlong into the rider ahead of me.

I’m sure I was giggling like a schoolgirl.

Testing the "Stayer's Line".

Testing the “Stayer’s Line”. “…a little bit faster now…”

Feeling the leg power required to rise higher on the track gave me a whole new appreciation for the leg strength these Olympic Match sprinters must have. It’d be akin to riding a bike – slowly no less – up a vertical wall.  I shit you not!  I also remember seeing these cyclists doing what’s known as a “track stand”, or simply balancing there motionless high up on the track.  It’s little wonder their bodies are 99% comprised of leg muscle.

Unfortunately, our time on the track came to an end. But it wasn’t before we got an excited two thumbs up and a “you did great, ya?”, and maybe a “ve vill see you again soon, ya?”  from Christoff himself.  I have to say, once you grasped the concept of the fixed gear bike it was addicting and I could really enjoy track cycling if this triathlon thing doesn’t work out so well. So will I be back?


  1. Here’s an excellent (and funny) video on the center:

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