12 May 2008

Steep learning curve

The Sun visits Burnaby Velodrome ahead of its Maydays Track Challenge
Ian Walker, Vancouver Sun
Published: Saturday, May 10, 2008
Before there was NASCAR, there was velodrome track cycling.

Stop laughing.

Track racing was one of the most popular spectator sports at the turn of the 20th century. Crowds regularly packed indoor and outdoor stadiums to watch a blur of competitors zoom around in circles on banked tracks.

In its heyday, from 1890 to 1920, the best bike racers made more money than baseball stars of the same era.

Now cut out the snickering.

Auto racing overshadowed velodrome racing by the mid-1930s, as cycling fans flocked to stock-car racing.

By the time William France Sr. founded NASCAR in 1948, many of the hundreds of bicycle racing tracks in North America were torn down or left in disrepair.

Not too much has changed since. There are now fewer than 30 velodromes on this side of the ocean, with Vancouver home to just one of three indoor track racing facilities on the continent.

And just barely. It was only five years ago that the City of Burnaby saved the historic track from being sold for firewood.

"For a while there it was pretty much year to year whether we'd still be here," says Jeff Ain, an instructor with the Burnaby Velodrome Club's Learn to Ride program.

"At least now, our existence is a bit more stable. Our numbers are growing; it's just a matter of awareness."

For the uninitiated, the Burnaby Velodrome is a giant wood salad bowl housed in a mini BC Place -- complete with concrete foundation, bubble dome and echo -- just off Barnett Highway.

Once through the airlock entrance, the steady hum of rubber tires on wood is the only evidence anyone is in the building.

It's probably for the best that walls block the view of the 200-metre track. The oval's 47-degree banked corners have been known to buckle the knees of even the most steely-nerved street racers upon first glimpse.

"It can be pretty intimidating, especially in the corners," says Glenn Barr, a BVC board member and organizer of this weekend's Maydays Track Challenge.

"We see a lot of jaws drop as people walk under the track into the infield and see it for the first time."

The equipment isn't any less comforting -- or comfortable, for that matter. Track bikes consist of a frame, two wheels, pedals, a crank, handlebars, a rather small seat and nothing else.

That's it. No mirror, no brakes, no little bell to warn others ... oh yeah, and no coasting.

The rear gear is fixed to the rear wheel, so when the wheels are moving the crank is moving. Riders slow down by easing up on their pedalling and applying back-pressure to the pedals like in spinning classes at the gym.

The key to staying upright is to pedal at a steady clip and let the laws of physics take care of the rest.

Something called superelevation allows riders to keep their bikes relatively perpendicular to the surface while riding at speed.

When travelling through the turns at racing speed, the banking attempts to match the natural lean of a bicycle moving through that curve.

Therefore, the centripetal acceleration of the combined inertia of bicycle and rider moving in the curved path balances the tangential acceleration pulling them outwards.

In other words: "As long as you're going 30 km/h you'll be all right and won't slide off the track," promises Ain, who has beginners follow closely behind him in order to build up their confidence as they make their way up the banks.

"This weekend, guys will reach in excess of 70 km/h in some events."

The Maydays Track Challenge runs through Sunday and serves to kick off the summer season. The annual event will showcase some of the best racing talent from across the country and will serve as a prelude to the 2008 Canadian Track Championships in August.

In Keirin races, all the riders on the track jockey for position behind an electric bike before sprinting madly to the line on the last lap. The Madison -- named after Madison Square Garden in New York -- is considered to be the ultimate event in bicycle track racing because of its incredible combined demands of speed, endurance, teamwork and tactics.

"Track cycling is the most exciting type of racing to watch as a spectator," says Barr. "Everything unfolds right in front of you."

Not to mention, you don't leave smelling like gasoline.



- The Burnaby Velodrome opened in 1997 as part of the Harry Jerome sports complex and replaced the China Creek Velodrome, built for the 1954 British Empire Games and demolished in 1980.

- The track is 200 metres long, six metres wide and 47 degrees in the steepest corners.

- The BVC has more than 25 rental bikes of various sizes that are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

- 2008 Olympic track cyclists Zach Bell and Gina Grain train at the Burnaby Velodrome.

Ian Walker, Vancouver Sun

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