Standort: / Meldung: "Slingshot Speeding"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

11. 8. 2016 - 10:39

Slingshot Speeding

It's time for the track cycling events at the Olympics. I took a crash course introduction to the velodrome!

The fun aspect of watching the Olympics is getting passionately reacquainted with those events that you haven’t seen for four years and didn’t really understand even then.

If you are a true sports fan, or any sort of journalist, this won’t stop you passing yourself off as an expert. You can lean forward on the sofa, get a little patriotic and jingoistic and shouting advise at the television; all of this in the safe in the knowledge that you’ll never have to do it yourself.

At the Winter Games, I’d highlight the skeleton and short-track speed skating but at the Summer Games for me it has to be track cycling, since the Brits keep winning at events with exotically mysterious names like Keirin and Omnium.

Track cyclists whoosh around at great speed with tree-trunk thighs working like pistons. Sometimes they ride behind a strangely upright pace-making official on a squat e-bike, sometimes they ride so tightly as a team unit that they look like a sanitized version of the human centipede.

Glorious Moments

And then, at the end of the race, there are usually some cheers, some tears and a jolly rendition of God Save The Queen, For a few glorious minutes, I forget about Iceland and Uruguay and all over footballing humiliations. I am from a proud nation of track cyclists. Rubbish at football, good at cycling in a circle.

A Beginner's Lesson

That’s all well and good in my living room but up close a velodrome is a daunting place. Austrian cycling legend Fritz “Magic” Berein, a man with a handsome pedigree of 18 years as a professional and six national championship titles, is giving me a beginner’s lesson on the track in the Vienna Prater and I’m feeling rather nervous.

My apprehension is mostly due to the track itself. The corners of the oval track are steeply banked, at up to 45 degrees. I am expected to soon start cycling across the equivalent of a fierce black slope. But the slope is made of hard planks of pine wood and the thin tyres of the bike have barely any grip.

That’s not a problem, explains Magic, because, with the smooth surface of the boards and without any interference from wind, we will be travelling at well over 30km, the velocity I apparently need to stay upright on the boards.
This brings me to the second reason for my trepidation – my bike, borrowed for the day, has not brakes. “We don’t need them,” explains Magic, “It would be dangerous to have them because you would slide off the track.”


Chris Cummins

Instead, he says, if I misjudge my speed and fear I am going to ride into my mentor’s rear wheel, I should simple climb a little higher up to slope to check my speed.

Oh and the third thing: don’t stop pedalling. Track bikes have a fixed gear ratio, so the pedals will keep turning even if I decide to rest my legs. If I forget to keep spinning them around, the shock would knock me off balance or perhaps even throw me over my handlebars.

Apart from that – there is nothing to worry about!

Easier Than It Looks

Actually, as it turns out, there really is nothing to worry about. Track cycling looks more daunting than it feels once you are up and going. After a couple of laps gathering speed on the flat non-racing section beside the main track, a thick blue-painted line called the "Cote d’Azur", we are up and riding cross camber and it feels very natural. Magic, who oozes calm out of every pore, marks a comfortable speed for me, fast enough to stay up the track but steady enough to maintain. I stay close to his real wheel and lose my track virginity – it feels easy and fun and safely exhilarating (quite unlike the other virginity).

Respect Not Fear

“If the track has a good geometry like this one in Vienna you can feel very at home very quickly,” says Magic. “Show the track respect but not fear.”

Magic believes that track cycling is a very pure form of cycling and spending time in the velodrome is a great place to learn the essential skills of the sport I love. “You learn to ride the fine lines, you learn about steering gently and pedalling efficiently. You learn to find a good position to ride faster and, due to fixed gear, on the track you usually pedal at a higher cadence which is good for your motion skills.”


Fritz Berein

It’s rather wonderful following an ex-pro around the track in the comfort of his wind-shadow. The first 20 minute session is pure pleasure. There is something very meditative about turning smooth circles, with just the sounds of our own wheels turning and the rubber on the wooden boards. I am cycling fast, not coasting, but within myself, feeling and enjoying the experience with my whole body.

But on our second expedition up the wooden boards, Magic shows me how to switch the lead; the front rider climbing higher up the boards to let the rider behind nip through smoothly on the inside. In front just two 250m laps seem like hard work, partly because I can’t gauge my own speed and end up in the red, pedalling a full 10km per hour faster than I would need to. After a few exchanges, I am red in the face and calling for a water break.

"Power and Finesse"

Which gives me time to ask what makes a good track cyclist? “You have to have finesse. You need the tactical skills,” says Magic, “It is a combination of raw power and pure speeds and the mental ability to dig deep.”

There is a great intensity in this form of cycling and Magic says in his first major competition the sustained effort hurt so much he wanted to hand back his bike and never enter a velodrome again: “But then when I have recovered a little bit I realized I had the ability to go really fast. It’s an addiction.”

(things can go wrong)

We talk about the Olympics and my cycling heroes: track sprinter Chris Hoy, winner of seven Olympic medals of which six were gold. Hoy admits that he would have to lie immobile on the floor after his high intensity training sessions.

“That’s things that people don’t see,” says Magic: “The shorter a race or training is, the more precise it has to be, the more focussed you have to be.” He says the mental pressures of the sprint races are enormous. “Imagine you have just 4 laps on the track, just one thousand metres, to justify your existence as a cyclist. One tiny mistake and you can miss a medal by a few thousands of a second.”

a bit of cycling, you know

Fritz Berein

Chris at the track

There’s just enough time and just enough energy for one more lap – and this time I am determined to give in my all. For ten minutes were work on flow and an efficient line, tight on the corners and higher on the straights. Then it is time for some sprinting. There are over 7,000 seats in this stadium in the Prater – all empty today. But I imagine this is the Olympics and they are all full, cheering on the duo Berein and Cummins from the new EU-country of Austro-Britagne (good at skiing and cricket). Magic leads out the pace for two quick laps and then leaves space for Cummins bursting through on the inside..

Three or four of these changes are plenty – I am only an Olympian in my fantasy - we slow down and start cruising towards a halt, gently pushing back on the pedals until we come to a standstill. My first track session is over, I can now sit on the sofa in front of the Olympics, nibbling nachos with authority. I haven’t won a medal but I might be asking my bank manager whether I can afford a new bike.