Stadium recaptures glory days

London's only surviving velodrome, a celebrated relic of the 1948 Olympics, is regaining some of its former glory and preparing for a dynamic future.

The crowds which used to flock to Herne Hill Stadium from all over the country had all but dwindled during the last two decades, but with the growing popularity of cycling, they are now returning.

Southwark Council, which manages the oval track, plans to accommodate them by enlarging the meagre grandstand and installing floodlights to lengthen opening hours.

Hanging proudly in the bar alongside black and white photographs of cycling greats is a wooden plaque noting that the British Speed Record was set there two years ago by Graeme Obree who cycled 49km, 383.4m in an hour.

The track looks grey and unwelcoming in a light drizzle, but the vehicles ridden along this 450-metre stretch of concrete have come a long way since the first racing bike sped over it in 1892, and ground staff placed paraffin lamps to mark the route for the annual 24-hour endurance race.

Before geared bicycles, machines with bigger wheels could travel faster, so penny-farthing races were regular events. Cycling was expensive, and the sport of middle-class gentlemen. Their cycles were uncomfortable and extremely heavy, but were ridden at the stadium until the 1950s.

A pounds 1.5m operation to rescue Herne Hill, including the fitting of a new drainage system, was launched in 1988.

In 1991 and 1992 the track was relaid with the latest racing surfaces and is regarded by the British Cycling Federation as one of the country's most prestigious venues. Herne Hill once again plays host on a regular basis to the world's best speed cyclists and trainers, as it did in its heyday.

Gerald Wallace, the stadium manager, and the resident professional cyclist, Russell Williams, presented their dreams to residents this month, including models of the proposed floodlights and plans for the new grandstand.

Mr Wallace believes the track can grow as a centre for excellence and benefit the community. 'We cater for everyone here. No one gets turned away. One guy who comes down is 70-odd. Recently we've had a group of disabled people down here and they loved every minute of it.'

Blind people use the track, sitting on tandems with a sighted rider in front. This summer's training programme played host to children with behavioural difficulties.

'These are kids in trouble with the police or their schools,' said Mr Williams. 'The teachers say 'Oh, they won't listen to you' but when they got here they were as quiet as anything. They sat there quietly and called us Sir. Amazing.'

These attractions combined with cycling's fast-growing popularity (an estimated 2.25m bikes were sold in Britain last year), will strengthen the case for a track where people can ride day or night without the danger of traffic or pollution.

Between 35,000 and 50,000 people come to Herne Hill each year to watch or to take a turn in the saddle.

They travel from all over London and the Home Counties, and one farmer even makes the trip from Somerset.

Mr Wallace realises people with homes backing on to the track may be worried about the intrusion of floodlights. Many believe increased usage will lead to late-night noise and traffic clogging the roads .

'If because of what the residents say, the council throw it out, then they throw it out and we'll have to rethink things,' said Mr Wallace. 'But we know the value of this place and we would like it to be made into a better stadium with facilities which are more suitable for the class of world athlete who are using it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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