As I approach the end of the access tunnel I hear it. A low, constant hum like the noise a bowling ball makes as it rumbles toward the pins. I step out under the high roof of the Manchester Velodrome, and the sound sharpens instantly. Great Britain's team pursuit cycling squad are in training for this month's World Track Championships, and are cranking it up down the back straight. Like a space-age locomotive, each barely an inch behind the other, the four riders lean as one into the steeply banked turn before centrifugal force slingshots them out again. Propelling their state-of-the-art bikes at speeds of up to 47mph, they are a breathtaking sight.
"Wait until they really get going," says Andrea Ingram, the UK national track development officer, as the riders rocket past their coach, who is frowning at his stopwatch. I've come to the velodrome to learn the art of track cycling, a sport which, you may recall, is very much on the up in Britain; Team GB won nine medals at the Sydney Olympics, and on his return from Australia Jason Queally, the gold-medal winner in the men's 1km sprint discipline, became one of cycling's few mainstream sports celebrities.
Standing in the middle of the track, Andrea talks me through track cycling's different disciplines. While there are a vast number of race categories, events are classed as either "sprint" or "endurance". Sprints are those races of 1km or less, including the pursuit, and sprinters are compact and powerfully built. In contrast, endurance riders have wiry frames and race over distances of 3km or more. Andrea refers to them as "Duracell bunnies" as they can, she says, "pedal forever". Both disciplines feature head-to-head and time-trial events in team and individual classes.
Chris Hoy, a silver medallist in Sydney in the team sprint discipline, has taken over on the track and is coming to the end of a series of "rushes", concentrated speed drills designed to increase acceleration. With track time at a premium, I'm up next.
I pull on my complimentary Great Britain team jersey and Andrea heads off to find me a ride. She returns with a squad bike; aerodynamic carbon-fibre frame, hand-stitched tyres, Kevlar disc wheels, the business. I climb on, preparing to fly down the straight, legs pumping, advertising hoardings a blur. But at £6,000 a pop, these are made-to-measure dream machines and my feet won't reach the pedals. Grunting and straining like the ugly sister whose foot won't fit the slipper, I have to settle instead for one of the velodrome's hire bikes.
Andrea explains that track bikes have "fixed" wheels, with no facility to change gear on the move; in order to alter pedal resistance, riders have to manually swap the bike's chain ring and rear sprocket. Locking my toes into the clip-in pedals, Andrea gives me some pointers. "Don't lean into the bend – if you do, you'll fall". While the incline of the track is only 12.5 degrees on the straight, on the two bends it rises to a frightening 42.5 degrees.
"And whatever you do, keep pedalling," she warns. "If you stop at speed, you'll end up using your face as a brake." I start with a few warm-up laps on "the green", the pit lane on the inside of the track, before Andrea shouts for me to move on to the track proper. And suddenly I'm up, cycling alone on the world's fastest track, 250 metres of Baltic pine and the nursery for Britain's Olympic heroes.
After a few practice circuits, I begin to get the hang of it, and Andrea decides to step the training up a notch. To give proceedings the whiff of competition, she decides to pit me against Denise Hampson, the British women's sprint champion, in a one-lap time trial from a flying start.
I head out on my warm-up lap, remembering Andrea's advice to aim for top speed high up on the home turn. From there, the trick is to use gravity to increase momentum across the start line, when the clock starts. I give it some horns into the bend, getting as much height as I dare. Descending on to my racing line, clad in my Great Britain jersey, I streak past the start, blood up. The legs are pumping, but as I hit the back straight something happens. The bike begins to move. Not just forwards, but violently left and right, like a demented supermarket trolley. The harder I work, the trickier it is to hold my course, and by 125 metres I'm almost spent. Despite this schoolboy error, expending all my energy on the warm-up lap, I cross the line confident that Denise will have to go some to beat my time of 17.4 seconds.
Denise looks good on her warm-up lap and hits the start like a rocket. She maintains a perfect line through the lap, but it's obvious that only a superhuman effort in the home straight will beat my target. Throwing her bike across the line, she sneaks home with an unverified British women's record of 11.37sec. As she comes to a halt, the relief is etched across her face. Relief that had we raced head on, her victory margin would have been a mere 83 metres.
"Riders practice a lot of 'overgear' work, using gears higher than conventional racing ones," Andrea explains as Denise gets her breath back. "Conversely, riders also perform a lot of 'high revving' drills in low gears, to ensure the neuromuscular pathways are clear and the muscles are firing as they should."
As well as track drills, riders undertake intensive weight-training programmes and, unlike road cyclists, have highly developed upper bodies. Core muscles around the midriff are particularly important, to hold the body and bike still when the legs are working vigorously, and a rider's output can be measured by a "powercrank", a small computer attached to the bike. Top sprinters such as Jason Queally can generate the equivalent of 2,000 watts of output, pedalling at up to 200 revolutions per minute. In team events, riders are able to maintain speed more easily by cycling in the slipstream of the lead bike. At 30mph, this can reduce effort by up to 25 per cent.
To finish, Andrea suggests I race the clock over 500 metres, two laps of flat- out pedalling and the women's Olympic sprint distance. "Pedal as fast as you can on the first lap," she explains, "then on the second, pedal faster. If you hold anything back, it's over."
This time it's a standing start, and my control is better. Pushing for home on the second lap, I nail a time of 40.3sec. Later, in Andrea's office, I discover I've equalled a record. "British Under-10s," she says without a trace of a smile. "Girls."
Manchester Velodrome offers one-hour 'taster' sessions for members of the public (£6.70 including bike hire). Riders can then progress to a two-hour SQT (Structure Quality Training) session (£8.70) to gain a track accreditation pass. For bookings, call the Velodrome: 0161 223 2244
Another good way into the sport is to join a track-orientated road cycling club. Find your nearest club by visiting the British Cycling Federation website at www.bcf.uk.com, which also provides a comprehensive list of other velodromes in the UK.
A top-of-the-range track bike costs about £6,000. Most club riders buy the best bike they can afford, often around £500, adding better parts over time. Essential kit includes a helmet (from £50), track mitts (£10) and cycle shoes (from £30).
The World Track Championships take place in Antwerp, Belgium, from 26 to 30 September. For details, as well as information on other upcoming events, call the British Cycling Federation on 0161 230 2301
Do and don't
Tighten those abs.
Get good and get sponsored – it'll save you a fortune.
Wear a crash helmet and track mitts.
Take instruction from a British Cycling Federation accredited coach.
Train in both high and low gears.
Use gravity to increase momentum.
Ride in the slipstream of the lead bike to reduce drag
Stop pedalling – unless you fancy the track for lunch.
Lean into bends.
Feel for the brakes – there aren't any.
Come to a stop with your feet still clipped in the pedals.
Learn the language
Seigneurs team technicians
Peloton body of riders
Beauty box tool kit
Course du prime race with a prize for each lap
Cote d'Azur blue approach lane
Shelf pronounced sprinter's bottom
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