This year, a curious slice of Britain's cycling past is coming back to life and gaining in popularity: roller racing. This is the sport where two or even four cyclists sprint it out, side by side, on static bicycles strapped on to a set of rollers (horizontal cylinders of industrial weight and construction within a sturdy jig). When the rider rides, typically on a simple, fixed-wheel, single-speed bike, the rollers roll.
Each bike is wired up to a giant clock showing a simulated distance, usually 500 metres. Because each rider has his or her own clock hand, the ensuing head-to-head sprint is easy to watch. You can see exactly who is ahead as the brightly coloured clock hands chase each other round the dial.
But nothing can prepare you for the real thing, the beery atmosphere of a closely packed crowd stoked up to fever pitch by rival factions, and set alight by faces contorted by the pain of a sprint duel nearing its end. Although smaller roller-racing events have been held in recent years, the first major event this year was in February, at Shoreditch Town Hall, in London, and two more roller races will take place at London venues next month and in October.
The sponsor Rapha arranged the Shoreditch venue, which evoked to perfection the faded grandeur of the music-hall tradition that once characterised roller racing in its late- 1940s heyday. The sheer diversity of participants was amazing, as was the array of heavily modified machines – track bikes, single-speeds and fixies (fixed-wheel bikes, on which you have to pedal all the time unless stationary) blocked the pavement as competitors in cleats tapped up the town-hall steps. The messenger community was there in force.
But so were loads of Lycra types, "fakengers" (courier parlance for fake messengers), racing cyclists who wanted to see what it was all about, and everyday commuters of both genders who were no doubt delighted at the prospect of a Saturday night themed around the single form of transport that fires any enthusiasm in the congested London of 2007.
Inside the darkened hall there was a brightly lit stage where the rollers were laid out, and another set at the back for an open competition, adjacent to the beer table where all sorts of brews were being handed out, alongside water of course, this being a cycling event.
Styled as the "Culture Clash Roller Race", various heats winnowed out finalists from different groups, in a team and individual contest, the former comprising couriers, journalists, "gym boys" and bankers; the latter apparently no-shows. Accompanied by the MC Buffalo Bill's particular mic style, loud music galvanised the event, changing to a more frenetic track as each sprint began.
There was a lot of noise, a lot of adrenalin, a lot of beer, and a lot of tension. You can see it building in the faces of the two riders as they adjust their foot straps, seating and grip. As the flag goes down, furious pedalling ensues, threatening to shake the entire roller jig off the stage as the bike tramlines sideways, held down only at the fork, and by an attendant jamming it down at the handlebars. Precisely because it's so short, typically 25 seconds, the race is incredibly intense. It has something of the public execution about it – Russell Crowe would be in his element.
On the night, it was the Cycling Weekly staff who pedalled off with the prizes, while the female courier contingent kept messenger pride intact. Only time will tell if the event was the start of a great revival of a virtually extinct branch of cycle sport, but the signs are healthy if one considers the earlier history of the "sport".
Roller racing was a late flowering of the Victorian music-hall tradition, adjusted to the mass impact of cycling by the mid-20th century, a time when bicycles were as glamorous as cars are today. (We forget that today's car shows began as bike shows.) Yet the stylish image and appeal of cycling is returning. Just consider the super-cool clothing sold by the London-based Rapha, which recalls the black alpaca jackets and leggings worn in the Fifties.
What we are unlikely to see again is the 30-strong Big Band and entourage of our only professional roller racer, Eddie Wingrave, who toured Britain, performing on the rollers at Mecca halls, having arrived by train. In a recent interview, Wingrave recalled: "We would have 50 or 60 riders, and a hall full of spectators, who were also invited to take part. I always made sure to just beat them. Turning up the excitement. It was a set-up, a show, you see!"
For dates and venues of forthcoming roller races, see www.rapha.ccReuse content