HD television is made for sport. Cameras can pick up every puff of a chalk line at Wimbledon, every spin of a ball at Lord’s. But there’s one thing TV still struggles to capture properly: just how steep the banks are on a cycling track.
This week is a prime example. The BBC is returning to London 2012’s Olympic velodrome for the Track Cycling World Championships. The last time most of us watched track cycling was four years ago, so seeing lycra-clad daredev- ils riding round and round at more than 40mph is exhilarating all over again.
And then there are those banked corners.
“The track at its steepest is 42 degrees and about four-and-a-half metres high. That’s a real climb if you’re trying to walk to the top,” explains former Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman. “If you ride round the outside it’s about 25m a lap further than if you’re on the inside.”
So much for the numbers – what about the experience? Double Olympic gold medallist Laura Trott – who is in action in the omnium event this weekend – likens this fairground Wall of Death to “spinning around in a washing machine”. Boardman agrees, saying that hitting the bend for the first time at full speed is one of the most daunting things you can do on two wheels. “It’s an exhilarating thing to ride a track, but it’s counterintuitive: you’re safer the faster you go, because the shape is designed for you to be perpendicular to the track at 30mph.”
Let’s break that down: this is a sport where the optimum position is to have your head level with your legs, halfway up a four-metre bank, moving faster than a car on a suburban road. If you try to slow down, skid, or chicken out for just a second you’ll be counting bruises for the rest of the day.
Oh, and just to add to the fun, track bikes have no brakes. Bear that in mind the next time you watch over 20 riders pedalling at full tilt, wheel- to-wheel on the same thin strip of Siberian pine. Although, as Boardman explains, the lack of brakes actually helps make track cycling safer than racing on the road.
“Nobody can brake, but taking away the brakes actually makes it flow more. There are no corners, no hills – so even when they’re abso- lutely pushing it to the limit, crashes are rela- tively few. And when there are crashes they tend to be not too serious; they tend to just take the skin of,” he adds matter-of-factly.
Trott, who will be 24 in April, will be hoping to keep her skin intact when she competes in the omnium, cycling’s equivalent of the heptathlon. The event is made up of six different events, from flat-out sprints to longer endurance races involv- ing all of the competitors riding at the same time.
“Laura is one of the best bike handlers I’ve ever seen on the track, male or female,” says Boardman. “Watching her ride the elimination race [where every other lap the last rider to cross the line is eliminated] is really something to behold. It looks like chaos, but somehow she finds a formula that works.”
Boardman thinks that it’s “highly feasible” she’ll defend both her omnium and team pursuit Olympic gold medals in Rio 2016. This being track cycling, he wouldn’t dare give more of a guarantee than that.
“These races are fast and furious. Medals will be won on decisions that take a tenth of a second. Four years of work. Bang! You’ve either made it or you haven’t.”
When and where are the Track Cycling World Championships on? Saturday 5th March: 7pm Eurosport; Sunday 6th March: 2pm BBC2/Eurosport 1