There was a young woman at the derny session at the track, trying out behind the peculiar mopeds for the first time. One of the amply-proportioned pilots was busy giving hints and tips to our debutante, explaining how to get closer to the bike and gain maximum benefit from the windcheater before her.
I chipped in, saying there was nothing to fear from the derny. You could even bump the rear mudguard – as the missing paint confirmed – without coming to grief, and continue smoothly behind the bike. It is all perfectly safe, I said.
Smoothness is the key here. The skilled pilots maintain a consistent pace by turning a huge gear that supplements the tiny engine of the derny, knees and toes splayed out to avoid the hot motor. A keen headwind in the back straight requires a little more effort, with a gentle easing off on the home straight to keep an even tempo. The twist-grip accelerator of a normal moped is not sensitive enough to deal with these fractional changes in speed. Hence the freakish appearance of our beloved buzzing two-stroke dernys.
Any sudden acceleration is keenly felt by those behind, especially towards the end of a string of eight riders. The whiplash effect can be enough to blow the last man clean away, especially as the final laps of a 20-minute session approach. I find it hard to work out if the pilots are imperceptibly notching up the pace during that 20 minutes or if the accumulated pain of riding at such a speed has taken its toll, but the closing laps are always agony as we all fight to hold the wheel in front.
And, once you hear that bell, it is every man and woman for themselves in a race to the line, the rider closest to the derny (and preferably a portly pilot) getting an armchair ride to the finish. It is quite the most brutal and enjoyable training I do: the highlight of my cycling week. Three 20-minute blasts round the track give a high-speed workout and bring a smile to your face that lasts several days.
Unless, of course, the derny engine cuts out and catapults the bike backwards, wiping out the three riders closest to it. It is not something I have seen before, and hope never to see again, but the effect is dramatic.
Skidding along the track surface on my right side, I was immediately conscious of the six riders behind, so curled up like a fallen jockey at Becher’s Brook, awaiting the thud that never came. They flew past either side, apart from poor Eric who was already on the deck and would soon be in an ambulance. Get well soon, Eric.
My immediate reaction in these situations – probably the wrong one – is to get up and walk off, cursing away the pain under my breath. I came face to face with our young woman, aghast at the carnage on the track before her. It was a totally freak accident, I explained. Never seen anything like it. What are the chances of that, I joked. See you next week?…