Velodrome Lesson #2

My second trip to the velodrome was better than the first. Although there were more bike racers present at this session, I tried much harder this time to be competitive. The coach this time was John Simmons. He seemed to be a bit more laid back than Terry Shaw, but had a slightly more competitive coaching style.

During our thirty lap warmup, he seemed to get a good feel for each of our levels. This was quite a difficult task because that morning there were over 40 riders present, and they actually ran out of rental bikes. The track was very crowded, and we had to split up into two pacelines just for warmup. I only got the front position once or twice because of the long paceline.

One of the reasons for the unusual number of riders was a group of women bike racers from the Velo Bella team showed up, and so there were at least 8 of them, but they had alot of energy to contribute to the workout and were some very strong riders, so it was cool.

It took us a long time to get started because there were alot of mechanical problems. Most probably from the fact that literally all of the rental bikes were being used, even the bad ones, so they needed many adjustments and John had to do all of that himself before we got started.

After the warmup, John put us in groups of five, and we were to go all out for five laps. Taking turns on the front for half a lap, then peel to the back. My group started out ok, but on the third lap, our line broke up. I was in the back and the guy in front of me started slowing. I gave him a chance to catch up, but the two of us had dropped several bike lengths. I figured he was tiring, so I passed him on the outside and told him to stay behind me (so that I’d pull him up) but he said his gearing was too low, and just kept slowing. I waited a few more seconds for him to try to get behind me, but he was still slowing, like he was dropping out. So I switched my efforts to trying to catch the other three in my group. They were half a lap ahead by now, and in a very smooth rotation. I stood up for awhile, trying to really push to catch them, but my efforts were in vain as we finished our last lap I was several bike lengths behind.

The next exercise was groups of three. This time we had to pick our own teams. I wasn’t being picky and ended up with leftover guys. One of them said he had raced 10-15 years ago, and the other seemed “enthusiast” like myself. So that sounded even. In this exercise we were to do only half a lap, but start from a standstill off the top banking and drop down into a full sprint to the finish. The order which we started would be important, so I let the ex-racer take the first position. I was second, and enthusiast guy was third. John rang the bell and the first thing ex-racer does is take off hard down the banking. I tried my hardest to stay behind him and into the turn. I was gaining on him, so I swung around the outside of him, and stayed in the saddle as I went high around the turn to pass him. But he knew I was there and he kicked it into turbo or something. I could hear him breathing funny and all I could do was stay alongside him a half a bike length behind as we raced down the final straight through the finish. Even though i didn’t pass him, I felt good knowing he didn’t totally destroy me. The other enthusiast guy was nowhere behind us.

The next race was a 10 lap scratch race. A group of 15 riders started out and the first one across the finish was the winner. There were no teams, so it was like a mini-criterium. I wasn’t in the first group, so watched from the grass. The pace started out slow, and then by the second lap a two man breakaway had formed. A third guy managed to bridge the gap after three laps of effort, and then eventually the entire pack caught back up to all of them. I don’t even remember the finish, but it was fast.

So then it was my turn to race. Our group started out fast. Faster than I would have liked. One guy was pushing the pace hard at the front, and for some stupid reason I was second behind him, but not close enough to draft. I just didn’t want him to get too far ahaed, but I also didn’t want to waste energy to catch up to him. But in reality, I was wasting energy by not being right behind him. I kept this up for a couple laps but then decided not to waste any more energy. So I drifted high up the banking to let some people through. two by two people passed under me, and I actually had nowhere to drop in, so I formed my own line alongside, so at one point we were three wide. Another stupid move. I knew I had to draft behind someone or I might as well drop out. So I drifted back a few more places until I found an opening. I must have been mid-pack at that point.

On the second to last lap the pace picked up and there was an attack. Two people passed me and I just let them go. So I must have been tenth at that point. The bell rang for the last lap, and I decided to give it everything and at least make up some ground. I passed about three people, and then through the last turn, I came around the outside of my last victim, and it felt just like my sprint against the ex-racer. But this time I dug deeper and passed the guy at the finish. So I must have finished sixth. Although sixth place is nothing special, I felt really good about my pass at the end. As I flew by the coach he yelled out “nice move!” so I felt I had made some progress in this workout.

The last couple of races were for fun, John let a few guys do match sprints. A three lap race between only two people, where the first to the line is the winner, but typically the only real sprinting is done in the last half lap. So both riders just slowly make their way around the track, watching and waiting for the element of surprise to jump ahead from just the right position. I saw ex-racer and another guy on the track, and it was quite boring at first, becase they were just slowly cruising around. Then on the last lap, ex-racer was in the second position (the ideal place to be for a sprint) and he shot down the banking to start his sprint, right past his opponent. He caught the guy in front of him by so much surprise, he held the lead all the way to the finish. Ex-racer was a pretty good rider, so I didn’t feel bad for losing my sprint against him earlier.

Velodrome Lesson #1

I have always wanted to try out the velodrome in San Jose. I’ve been there to watch a friday night race once and have always marvelled at the power and agility of the riders during the olympic events shown on TV. Here’s a nice picture of a race, but not actually at the San Jose track.

This one is actually from the track at San Jose.

They have beginner lessons on Saturday mornings (at 8:30am, oy!) and I figured I was in good enough condition to finally check it out.
About twenty people showed up at the track, just about when the coach arrived. The coach of the day was Terry Shaw of Shaws’ Lightweight Cycles, a very personable man and full of knowledge about bike racing. He quickly opened the shed/office and started us with the paperwork to use the track and rent the bikes ($5 track usage + $5 bike rental). I ended up with a decent steel bike with carbon tri-spoke wheels. Most other guys there were renting bikes, but a few brought their own. It took about a half an hour for everyone to get their pedals on and get organized.
Terry first went over the history of the track and showed us what each line on the track was called and the meaning. It was a bit confusing for me because apparently the lines were all wrong compared to regulation layout, but we were supposed to learn the real rules, and the exception to the rules, which was this particular track. For example, the blue line is “supposed to be black” and “the black line is supposed to be red, but up a bit”. And depending on what color the line is or where it is, you are supposed to not pass, or stay to the right, or pass on the right…. I just hoped I could follow what other people were doing and not crash into anyone.
He told us to take a couple of laps to get used to the track, and then we would do 45 laps warmup, in a paceline and take a pull for one lap. (about 10 miles)
So I jumped on the bike and slowly crept up onto the track. The feeling of riding a fixed gear bike, with no freewheel, was similar to getting on the spin cycle at the gym, except that it moves. Clipping in was pretty scary, because I am used to taking a pedal stroke and then coasting while I fumble with my other foot to hook it in. But once this bike starts moving, the pedals keep moving in circles, no matter how many feet you have clipped in. So the only chance you have to clip in is while the pedal is moving. If for some reason the pedal stops long enough for you to clip in, that means the whole bike has stopped, and you will fall over! Luckily, my clipping skills didn’t fail me and I didn’t make a fool of myself.
Once on the track for the first time, the slope was intimidating. It’s banked 22 degrees in the corners and 11 degrees on the straights. It felt like riding along a storm drain. At low speed, you don’t feel very stuck to the ground when it’s that sloped. Once I got moving, things seemed more natural. But only slightly.
The hardest part was coming up behind a slower rider. I instinctively eased up on the pedals to coast, but my own inertia kept my feet moving in circles, and it was almost jarring to my legs to have the bike force me to keep pedaling when I didn’t want to. Terry told us if we wanted to slow down, we should steer up the banking of the track, against gravity, and likewise to steer down if we want to accelerate. This part took me awhile to get used to, because that kind of quick side to side movement is normally dangerous on a bike riding with a group. If you don’t ride in your line people will run into you from behind. Using the banking did work, but the change in speed would vary depending on where you were in the track, because of the different degrees of banking. Stressfull.

After a few laps, Terry yelled at us to form the paceline and start counting off laps. I was still apprehensive about getting too close to people, so I let the line form and I dropped in behind them. The pace was slow at first, which I liked, but very very unsteady. The track is only .2 miles long, so it goes from straight to turn to straight again very quickly. This seemed to be a problem for most people, because the pace would yo-yo from fast to slow depending on whether we were in a turn or straight. There was also a slight headwind at a certain angle, and perhaps the whole track is on an incline… I am not sure what the reason was, but I kept having to speed up and slow down to stay behind the wheel of the guy in front of me. Speding up was not a problem, I just applied more power to my legs. But slowing down was the scariest thing, because I had no brakes to squeeze. I would have to really concentrate and apply back pedal pressure against the spin. It was very unnatural and I almost ran into the guy in front of me several times. (unbeknownst to him)
To make matters worse, there was a seasoned rider there doing a workout during our lesson. His name was Carlos and he reminded me of Olympic medalist Nelson Vails, he would ride alongside our paceline and give us tips. But for me, he kept scolding me for leaving too big of a gap in the paceline. “That’s more than a bike length buddy, you wanna get closer!” and I would say “ok” and get closer, but just in time for the pace to slow down and I would have to back pressure and squirm to not hit the poor guy in front of me. It was very stressfull. As we counted down laps, I eventually made it to the front, and found the pace to be much more regular. By the time we got to the last lap, we were going all out. A maddening pace, and people were dropped from the line and drifting into the “slow lane” to rest. I don’t know why I kept pushing, but I eventually ran out of energy and dropped out of line on the last couple of laps. And that was just the warm up!
Terry made us do several different types of track races. He somehow watched each of us while we were riding and was able to handicap each of us and put us on equivalent teams. We did a “Scratch race”, “Team Pursuit”, “Austrailian sprint” and then as an exercise we did “whistle sprints”.
In the whistle sprints we would roll at a crawl in a group of four, until he blew a whistle. At which time we’d have to jump out of the saddle and sprint as hard as we could, racing each other, until he blew the whistle again. We did this several repeats, and some had to be in-the-saddle sprints. My biggest problem was when I jumped out of the saddle the whole bike would hop around. Either I’d lift the front wheel or the back wheel, and lose alot of energy. I lost just about every sprint because of that. But the in-the-saddle sprints I did much better. I guess I had the right muscles for that.
For the most of the races, though, I felt very underpowered compared to the other riders. Maybe it was because I was apprehensive, but maybe they were just stronger. I definitely wasn’t among the leaders that morning.
The last race was the most intense. Terry spread us out around the track to start, in order of strongest to weakest. So when he blew the whistle, we each had to start rolling, and try to catch the person in front of us. Once you got passed, you were out and had to break off. The winner was the last one riding. The whistle blew and I started slowly, trying to get a rhythm. It never came, and the guy in front of me looked to be getting farther away. So I put the hammer down and tried to catch him, accelerating at every opportunity. After 6 laps, same gap, I wasn’t getting anywhere. How long would this race last?? I would peter out soon. So I eased up and just tried to maintain position without passing out. I started wheezing for air. The track is right next to the 101 and there was alot of smog. After 3 more laps of wheezing, I realized I was gaining on the guy. So I focused on maintaining pace and just waiting to catch him. 2 more laps and I was right on his wheel. I tried to pass on the outside, but I was so tired that I had no jump on him, so I tried to edge by. He definitely didn’t allow that and kept his pace. I dropped back behind him and tried to catch my breath for another try, but I heard someone behind ME. So I tried quickly again to pass him, but he kept picking it up just enough to stay ahead of me. Then suddenly the guy behind me passed us both in one fell swoop. We were both out.
I pulled to the top of the track to catch my breath and I realized that most of the field was out too. Except for five guys chasing each other. So I didn’t feel that bad, but it could have been improper ranking at the start that eliminated everyone.
In all, it was a great experience. I enjoyed sprinting through the banked turns, and I feel that my bike handling skills are better. I plan to do two more lessons at the track and hope to improve my sprinting skills for road riding and possibly beginner track racing.