WORK EXPERIENCE: It’s a Tour de Farce for our wannabe Wiggins
YOU may think you have what it takes to be a professional cyclist like Bradley Wiggins, Laura Trott and Geraint Thomas. But WILL BAIN found out that behind a few minutes of glory are countless hours of hard work.
AFTER an amazing summer of cycling, when it rained gold medals at both the Olympic and Paralympic games, and when Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour de France, there has never been more people wanting emulate those heroes and make it as a pro cyclist.
Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott and of course Tredegar’s own Mark Colbourne have blasted cycling into a new position of prominence in the British sporting psyche.
Newport was at the heart of that success, with both Olympic and Paralympic track squads using the velodrome at the International Sports Village in Spytty as their base and hailing the part the facilities and their stay in South Wales played in their triumph.
Just last week Wales launched its own track World Cup squad, SWI Wales, who are again using Newport as their base and will head to events across the globe to compete against the best in the world.
So with so much going on in the city I wanted to go down and get a feel for the lycra-clad lifestyle.
I can ride a bike, I have quite a nice road bike which I enjoy, but it’s safe to say I’m not some neo-pro who will be turning the big gears with Mark Cavendish anytime soon.
Perhaps more importantly I have never ridden on a track before.
Before the London 2012 Olympics there were only two indoor velodromes in the UK, British Cycling’s HQ in Manchester (built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games) and our very own velodrome here in Newport.
I have also never ridden one of the ‘fixie” track bikes you have to use in the velodrome.
The incredibly lightweight machines have just one fixed gear, which the riders can change between events, plunging drop handle-bars and, most disarmingly, no brakes.
Given the top track cyclists are comfortable cracking out 40mph it seems a somewhat reckless decision to remove the brakes.
Mike Heaven, 32, a former British junior cyclist from Pontypool and now the fulltime junior coach at Welsh Cycling, plucks me out a rocket red Pinarello machine, and we’re off to the track.
Two of his squad, recent addition Jack Webb, from Caldicot, and Rachel James, from Abergavenny, who along with her sister Becky, won the national title in the team sprint in Manchester a couple of weeks ago, are already out in the velodrome waiting for him.
They are both sprinters, and Mike puts them through a lung bursting set of explosive drills known as “efforts” sessions.
This involves them making four starts in a monstrous gear as quickly as they can.
The action is all over by the end of the first bend and they free wheel round to repeat the process.
It’s an impressive show of the explosiveness these athletes have.
It’s my turn to try and emulate that. But the first challenge – and one which will prove my undoing on the day – is actually getting on (and in a later case off) the bike.
Once up on the saddle I have to use the track side rail to balance while Mike helps me tighten up the toe straps on the pedals.
“The worst way you can ride the track is white knuckled, because you’re just so jerky, so rigid, that people make mistakes, you have to try and relax,” Mike tells me as I set off.
“And remember, whatever you do don’t stop pedalling.”
The last comment is sage advice, once you get the bike moving the gear really pounds and if you stop pedalling even for a stroke you can feel it clunk and drag the pedal on, which I would imagine (I don’t wait to find out) would destabilise the bike to the point where you end up on the floor.
It is however quite an unnatural sensation as you drive into the tight steep bends and later plunging down the nigh-on vertical banking to keep on pedalling.
Your natural reaction, like you would when driving a car say, is back off the gas coming into the corner and accelerate out of it.
But here they key is to keep pedalling to stop the back wheel from sliding.
“You don’t have to pedal as hard as you think, it’s just a psychological thing people do when they get to the corners,” encourages Mike.
It takes a while but he seems to be right, still, something makes you want to pedal hard in the corner. It’s the feeling of the speed you can pick up because of the sloped banking, it sort of fires you out propelling you into the straight.
I’m doing drills where Mike throws down a foam pad progressively further up the track to force me to go up and then down the banking, which helps you pick up speed.
In the straight the extra propulsion you get is limited, but as I become more confident, Mike moves the pad nearer to the bend, where the track is at its steepest.
I reckon if you lay on your back there and someone took a picture of you from the middle of the track it would look like you were upright.
The feeling as you plunge from the top of the banking down to a position between the black and red lines on the track is awesome, and the speed even a novice like me can generate quite satisfying.
A sensation which is less of both of those things is what happens next.
As the riders tell me, diet is vitally important to success, and it appears a reporter’s lifestyle of umpteen vending machine coffees and sausage rolls isn’t the answer.
As the lactic acid builds up I’m forced to seek the refuge of conveniently grabbable bin liner.
It’s been reported that double Olympic champion Laura Trott has an equally conveniently placed bucket at the side of the track for just such calls of nature and this encourages me that I must be doing things right.
Outside the physical exertion the rider’s job involves myriad skills. Rachel and Jack appear to be as handy with a spanner as they are on the boards, changing wheels, chains, and gears as they try to catch their breath.
They are hugely focused, rigorous in their diet and unbelievably determined.
Mike said: “I have seen plenty of people with loads of natural talent, and they rely on that to get the through to a point, but in the end if they aren’t prepared to put the work in, if they don’t want it as much as other riders they just fade away. I have seen plenty of talented juniors not make it because they haven’t wanted to put that effort in, that’s the difference at the top.
“Look at the team pursuit boys from the Olympics (Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh, Steven Burke and Ed Clancy) they’ll come in here and do 50-60 kilometres of pursuiting, flat out, full concentration, a centimetre away from the guy in front’s wheel. The dedication that takes to get that right, the monotony of doing something over and over again to get it as close to perfect is amazing. That’s the difference.”
It sounds like the monotony is the big downside to the job.
Hours spent on the rollers, in the gym, on the road and round and round and round the track. It’s relentless.
“It can be hard when it’s cold and wet to go to training, or to force yourself to do another hour on the rollers (a sort of treadmill for bikes which I promptly fall off when I have a crack) and I don’t really go out drinking with friends or things like that,” admits Rachel.
“But I’m lucky my friends are very understanding and it’s all worth it when your racing, that buzz of trying to beat everyone else, the nerves, nothing beats it.”
Jack agrees: “I was inspired to take up the sport after the Beijing Olympics and although the training can be a slog it’s that thought of making it to the top, being the best, that keeps you going.”
I’ve loved my session but I end it without covering myself in glory again.
Because you have no breaks and your feet are strapped into the pedals, it can be quite hard to stop.
You have to slow down for a lap then pull of the track and try and grab the rail in the middle then unclip.
I have done this well up to now, but as they often say in sport, indecision can cost you at the top level.
Umming and ahhing about whether to continue through a gate or whether I’m going slow enough to grasp the barrier I wobble to a halt and fall flat on my side.
I lie stricken and entangled on the ground, like a rather forlorn daddy long legs whose had a couple of legs pinged off by some snotty-nosed child and has the added misfortune of bumbling into a spider’s web.
In short, I look a pillock, and Rachel and Jack, I like to think wound up by Mike’s slave-driving, are chuckling at me with the type of glee which I’m sure one can only feel if you’ve just been beasted round a 250-metre track a million times in a day and then see something which cheers you up.
I leave the professionals to it, they’re off for another session on the rollers then maybe a trip to the gym. I’m off to reward myself with another sausage roll, and perhaps a vending machine coffee.