On Track

Words: Ian Cleverly

Track racing was not a big feature of growing up in Wiltshire. We were pretty well served by outdoor concrete bowls within an hour’s drive – Cardiff in one direction, Reading in the other – but rarely made the trip, preferring riding our bikes to travelling in cars. I maintain that stance still, opting for the nearby race whenever possible. Spending hours cooped up in a car seems to defeat the object.

The other track within an hour or so’s drive was Calshot, the 160-metre wooden oval with dramatically steep banking initially built for the annual Skol 6 events, then retired to it’s permanent base in a vast former aircraft hanger on a spit of land jutting into the mouth of the Solent. The pine planks had, over the years, sunk between the uprights to an alarming degree, so that each lap became ‘bu-dum-bu-dum-bu-dum’, followed by smooth, ‘bu-dum-bu-dum-bu-dum’, smooth, ad infinitum. It was exhilarating and jarring in equal measure.

A training weekend a couple of years back organised by Dave Le Grys seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out the 142-metre replacement, another Ron Webb designed and built beauty (Manchester and the new Olympic velodrome in London, amongst others, are also the Australian’s work.)

Something had happened in the three intervening decades since my previous Calshot excursion. It was still thrilling, but also nausea-inducing. I fought to hold my line at the bottom of the banking, making the beginner’s error of backing off the power, sending the bike careering up the track. Even with one-to-one tuition, I couldn’t get my head round it. The carefree 14-year-old had turned into a lily-livered old git, green around the gills and trembling. I made my excuses and left. There’s no going back. The shallow concrete of Herne Hill is more suited to a man of my delicate disposition.

Thankfully, I still get the same buzz out of watching track racing as the first Skol 6 I saw at the Empire Pool, Wembley, in ’77. The domestic professionals were familiar enough – Mick Bennett, Steve Heffernan, Tony Gowland – but it was the great Patrick Sercu that I had come to see, and he duly delivered. Graeme Fife interviews Sercu in the next issue of Rouleur, by the way.

The Empire Pool was a draughty old wreck of a building, on its last legs, and what passed for music in those days was one scratched and worn vinyl copy of Popcorn by Hot Butter, one of the most infuriating ditties ever composed. Every lull in the action was filled with the kind of synthesizer noises that made one wish Mr Moog had never been born. It was still a great night out, though, especially for a bumpkin up from the Wild West Country for the night.

Now that I’m a sophisticated townie from the Big Smoke [Are you quite sure about this? Ed] a night at the track is still a hoot, especially when there is a Rouleur-sponsored team involved. So thrilled were we to be leading the pack after the opening round of the Revolution series in October that the Editor, photographer Taz Darling and myself made sure we were in Manchester for round two.

This turned out to be the kiss of death. Everybody commented on how great our jerseys looked (nice work, Biff) but it’s not much use being sartorially ahead when said jerseys are scraping along the boards, poor Joe Kelly and Sam Harrison making a hash of a Madison sling and retiring hurt. Look on the bright side: crashes get plenty of TV time…

This left Iljo Keisse, European Madison champion and Six-Day star, to fly the Rouleur flag in the final event of the evening. And what a great job he did of pulling back the break and setting Mark Cavendish up for a very popular win. Now, why would he do that? “Fix!” we hear you cry. Maybe. Who cares?

These events are great shows – no more, no less. Seeing the finest of British track riders alongside a smattering of European talent in a great velodrome with a World Champion turning on the style in front of a full house… what’s not to like? Here’s a clip of our man Keisse in the Devil.

The music has improved somewhat, too. Finally, 30 years of Popcorn nightmares have been laid to rest.

Tickets for the next Revolution on January 7 are available here.

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