Wow – Watching track cycling at the London Olympic Velodrome

Track Cycling in London
I am not easily impressed. I shrug my shoulders at solar eclipses and sigh at the sight of rainbows. Cute, fluffy animals? Meh. Thus my experiences of watching live road cycling have been underwhelming at best. Hours of standing around until finally, here they come and whoosh, oh, they’re gone!

Yet watching track cycling live has to be one of the best sports to watch. If road cycling is the equivalent of a teenage quickie in the bus stop then track cycling is a night of tantric passion in a five star hotel. Stood in the pit in the middle of the velodrome, I had a 360 degree, neck twisting view. Bikes whizzed all around me, rubber tyres humming on the wooden boards, faster and faster, I’m dizzy, spinning on my heels, my eyes following the riders as they whirl around me.

I’m intoxicated. The excitement of the chase, the sound of the crowd, the smell of hard bloody work. Oh and there’s beer too. Heaven. The action barely pauses for breath, my heartbeat still racing, no chance to rest before the riders are off again, cranks spinning, legs pumping, wheels line lunging.

A night watching the Revolution series in London

Feel the tension

Feel the tension

Watching track cycling has been on my to do list for quite some time. Tickets for the Olympics were as hard to come by as water on a century ride into the middle of nowhere. Fear not, for the Revolution Series offers up just as much excitement and a good number of star riders too.

Laura Trott, Marianne Vos, Ben Swift and Alex Dowsett were THIS close. Dowsett was warming up at my table. Like, literally (well almost). And with so many races and so much variety, even my non-cycling girlfriend enjoyed the night. All it needs is a little gambling, chicken and chips in a basket and voila, you’ve got this generation’s version of a night at the dog track.

The Olympic velodrome

Look mum, I'm on TV!

Look mum, I’m on TV!

Majestic. The pringle is awe-inspiring on the first approach, sunk into the ground with its iconic curved roof and polished wooden veneer. You can even see the track from the outside. We walked past one of the glass panelled rooms where we saw Joanna Roswell sat patiently waiting for a make-up artist to finish preparing her for a night of TV commentary.

Inside, we were led through a labyrinth of corridors with an odour reminiscent of the end of school day fug in the PE changing room. This of course doesn’t deter you but instead adds to the feeling you are the athlete preparing for the battle. Or laundry day.

We eventually emerged from the bowels of the velodrome and popped out into the middle of the stadium with riders buzzing past on the track directly above our heads. My jaw dropped. Stunning. A childlike smile hit my face and if somebody had given me a bike I’d have been on the track before you can say “no brakes”.

Be the coach

Quick, I can't hold this pose much longer

Quick, I can’t hold this pose much longer

With so much happening you will never get bored of the boards (see what I did there?). Get a unique inside view into the track cycling world with tickets for the middle of the stadium. Here you’ll come face-to-face with riders resting or warming up on rollers. Just resist the urge to whisper race ‘tips’ into Alex Dowsett’s ear or hand him your own special blend of protein shake. Next time I’ll be sure to wear one of those t-shirts with “Coach” ironed on the back.

The pit really is a great place to be if you don’t mind spinning your neck around or dancing on your heels to follow the action. You can walk about, allowing you to take an unobstructed view of most of the track. The finish line was a great place to be but I preferred the steep curves which tower high above you, the scale and steepness of the velodrome banks much grander than you’d think. Watching riders fly through these corners was thrilling and made me yearn for my cleats and track bike.

This was bike porn heaven too, with sleek track bikes spinning around all a blur, disc wheels whirring past, thick thighs and carved calves hammering away like indefatigable pistons. Men, women, boys and girls attacked the track at speeds I can only describe as lightning quick. Seventy percent of my photographs were of an empty track, so quick were the riders, my puny reactions and shutter speed no match for their movement.

The action

Did I mention, the event was in full colour?

Did I mention, the event was in full colour?

We enjoyed a staggering 18 races in just over three hours of non-stop pedalling. Sprints, madisons, lap dashes, pursuits, devil races, an omnium, scratch races, points races. Phew. Barely time to sip the ale let alone get bored. The second a race was won, the starter’s gun was firing to send the next bunch on their way.

The star of the show was undoubtedly Laura Trott, the diminutive Olympic champion clearly a class apart from her rivals, winning each of the four events she raced. The track meet was pitched as Marianne Vos versus Laura Trott but few doubted Vos, the queen of road cycling and perhaps the greatest all round cyclist of all time, would be a match for track specialist Trott.

It was a privilege to see the stars of the track world duel it out and also heartening to see the up and coming youngsters racing the same boards as their heroes. It’s great for the future of the sport to see young girls and boys mixing it up with the professionals in the pits where many a conversation was had. I can’t quite imagine the same happening in football.

Tips for watching track cycling

Board rash

Board rash

  • Wear layers. It get’s pretty darned warm in the velodrome, even on a cool autumn evening. Temperatures can reach up to 30 degrees. Layer up and you can strip back to your t-shirt.
  • Wear deodorant. As above, you will get warm, which is no excuse for smelling worse than the competitors.
  • Take you camera. It’s a lot of fun trying to capture the riders as they speed out of frame. Just remember to enjoy the action too.
  • Eat before you go. The food at the London velodrome is pretty awful. Choose between a puny hotdog or a pulled pork bap that’s so dry I imagine it was pulled from last week’s bin bag.
  • Sit in the pit. You can walk around, change your view and enjoy the awesomeness of spinning around to watch the action. You’re so close to the competitors you’ll think you’re a part of the team.
  • Take a pen. For star hunting signatures, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Buy a programme or read about the different types of events as per my guide below. As with most things in life, the more you know, the more you’ll enjoy it.
  • Be prepared for some semi-nakedness. The lean and mean bodies of men and women are everywhere. You being a cyclist and into your Lycra and all, I expect you’ll be mentally calculating their BMI rather than covering your eyes.
  • That smell? Ah yes, the gym locker room. Don’t worry, you soon adjust. Besides, it’ll prepare for you for the tube ride home.
  • Ride the boards yourself. It’s been on my cycling bucket list for a long time so I’ve booked a taster session. The one slight drawback? Sessions are hard to come by and are booked up months in advance. Still, Christmas isn’t that far away, right? Riding a track bike on my commute is one thing but this? Can’t wait.

An idiot’s guide – Track cycling events explained

Is this slow enough for your camera?

Is this slow enough for your camera?

There’s a bewildering array of track cycling events. I’m no dedicated track-spotter myself, so here’s a handy guide to some of the more popular track cycling events.

Think of this as the tag or tig of track cycling. Two riders on the same team complete a couple of laps and have to grab one another by the hand to sling shot the other around the track for their fast lap. Think wrestlers tagging one another. Only at 40 mph. Similar to the passing of the baton in running relays, but here the tag serves a purpose as the lead rider attempts to propel the other into hyper-speed for their lap.

Unlike most other track cycling events, the name of this one really does what it says on the tin. Two cyclists (usually) start on opposite sides of the track and chase one another down. It’s really just a bit of time trialling with the added incentive of getting closer to your opponent. Think greyhound racing where you are both the rabbit and the dog.


All a blur

All a blur

You don’t need help with this one surely? Hold on, this being track cycling, maybe you do. Things are usually more complicated than they seem in velodrome world. Why for instance are the two riders at a standstill in the middle of a sprint race?

With just two riders on the track, a sprint is not as straightforward as you might think. The riders can’t simply burn off towards the finish line for fear of dragging the other rider behind them in their slipstream. So you get this wonderful game of cat and mouse with the two cyclists nervously eyeing one another up.

The tension is high when they track stand and come to a complete stop, each rider waiting for the other to make their move. Tactics can be decisive. Much depends on each rider’s strategy. Are you confident enough to lead out the sprint? Or do you come from behind having saved energy in the other’s slipstream before sneaking around the outside on the home straight?

Riders race for three laps, of which only the final lap is usually at full gas. Best of three, the tension in the third and final race is fantastic.

Team sprint
The team sprint is a little more straightforward with multiple riders on the same team following each other around the track to get the fastest time. Think Team Time Trial as the road cycling equivalent.

Scratch race
Fortunately this one’s not literal because that’d be pretty gross. Riders battle it out trying to gain one lap over the entire peloton. No mean feat. Highly tactical, if no riders are able to gain a lap (or several riders gain a lap), then it comes down to a sprint for the line.

There’s nothing like cheering the lone rider as they enter the pain cave in their bid to lap the main peloton, which Alex Dowsett managed to achieve on my visit to the velodrome. Unfortunately for him, so too did three other riders a lap later, leaving a four man sprint for the line.

The oddest of track cycling races. Quite a feat! Six riders are paced around the track by an elderly gent on an ancient looking motorbike known as a derny. Once the derny peels off, the race finishes with an all out sprint. This one originates from Japan. A land where you can buy schoolgirl knickers from street vending machines or go to a restaurant and literally go fishing for your dinner. Say no more.


Not a new track cycling event (yet)

Not a new track cycling event (yet)

The most ridiculously named track cycling event (it has quite some competition!) but also the most enjoyable to watch and I imagine, compete in. The omnium is itself a collection of races and tests a rider’s all round abilities. This is the decathlon of track cycling. Each round challenges the riders to be the best in the six different disciplines which can include sprints, time trials, pursuits, points race and most exciting of all, the devil race (see below).

Traditionally the winner was the rider with the fewest points over all of the events but this has changed recently with riders now amassing points to take the title by getting more points than their rival. I know, crazy isn’t it, somebody is trying to make track cycling easier to understand!

Points race
Of appeal to loyalty card holders, this one’s all about amassing points by winning the various sprint points over many a lap.

Devil race
Also known as the elimination race, this one is a race into hell to ensure you are never last over the finish line. Each lap, the last rider to cross the line is eliminated until there are just two riders left to battle it out for victory in an all out sprint. Highly entertaining.

Warming up

Warming down

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7 thoughts on “Wow – Watching track cycling at the London Olympic Velodrome

  1. I agree….it was my first experience of track cycling live and I absolutely loved it. The first thing I did when I got home was to book tickets for February!


  2. I went on the Friday evening and sat near the finish line – I saw both Vos and Trott metres away and got a couple of cool pictures. It was a most excellent evening and I have already booked up for February already. I am going to go to the middle of the track for one of the evenings this time which sounds great from your account.

    Did you see the Marymoor Crawl/The Longest Lap? Another mad track event…

    I definitely want to try a track day now – when have you signed up? I must remember to keep my legs spinning….


    • Never saw the Marymoor Crawl although I heard they were trialling it at some point over the weekend. Looks hilarious!

      I’ll be off to the track a couple of days before Christmas – there’s very few dates left and they don’t seem to be booking for 2015 yet. Quite a mission. May go to Herne Hill if this whets my appetite but it’s a bit of a trek from north London.

      And yes, spin them legs otherwise it’s buckaroo time! I ride fixed on my commute so used to it although removing the brakes and holding wheels on the track is another thing.


  3. Looks and sounds fantastic. With the Manchester Velodrome a mere hour down the road from me i’m slightly embarrassed that I’ve never yet made it there to watch. Thanks for the little nudge for me to sort this out!


  4. Tnx to you article I went to see the 6-daagse in Gent. It was great!

    I’ve been on the track before (the first time I rode something that looked like a road-bike) and there are only two rules: Keep your legs spinning and keep up the speed. That was great too!


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