Cycling: Barcelona winners to scale the new Hill: The south London track where Olympic races were held in 1948 is back in business. Robin Nicholl reports
Friday 09 April 1993
The crumbling monument to Reg Harris and his medal-winning team-mates in 1948 is no more. It has been demolished and replaced by a banked track which is shorter and faster, and, to the relief of the weather-conscious track fans, has an epoxy resin coat on its cement surface, which means that not so much racing time will be lost to rain.
It has cost pounds 480,000 - but not without a fight. In 1991, the brakes were applied to the project. Southwark Council, intent on a multi-purpose stadium, missed out on a Sports Council grant. American football, Australian Rules and soccer, whose pitches occupied the green inside the track, were keen to boot out racing cyclists.
Now an enlightened Council have installed a project manager at Herne Hill, and plans for the future include floodlighting and a mountain-bike course.
'Now cycling will take precedence. After all, there is no shortage of football pitches,' Graham Bristow, the promoter of tomorrow's international meeting, said. 'What the Council have done in the last four months has been marvellous. Yet before there was a lot of doom and gloom, rumours and speculation. No one knew what was happening.'
More than a century ago Herne Hill had a wooden track, but the only remnants of that past are the decorative ironwork pillars of the Victorian grandstand, already listed as of architectural interest.
The Hill has survived longer than the capital's other cycle tracks. There have been seven, but through the years they have vanished and tomorrow's meeting comes a week before the 102nd anniversary of the first race meeting on what is now London's only track.
They raced in the dark in a 24- hour race 67 years ago, with the track illuminated by acetylene lamps which offered a flickering guide to weary competitors.
In the 1948 Olympics several races were run in what reports described as 'very poor light'. The need for floodlights is still there, but the track, now shortened to 450 metres, offers a better transition coming out of a bend at speed.
'That means that we can now have tandem racing and motor- paced events. In the past tandems got into all sorts of problems,' Bristow said. 'The track is incredibly fast, and safe in the rain. Riders have trained on it when it was raining and they did not slip.
'We have brought in riders such as Michael Hubner, Jens Fiedler and Jose Moreno because they should show us its true potential.'
Hubner, a German professional, has won five world titles in the last three years and, like the Olympic sprint champion, Fiedler, and the 1km gold medallist, Moreno, he has the speed and skill to exploit the track.
Its resin-coated surface is the same as the one on which Italy's Francesco Moser set a world one- hour record in Mexico nine years ago. 'He rode on a one-metre wide strip of the coating. We have a whole trackful of it,' Bristow said.
In the 1950s, Daisy Franks, Kay Hawkins and Josy Bell all showed that the Olympic surface was capable of world records. More than 40 years later, the track was subsiding and cracks appeared, but not before the illustrious wheels of the legendary Italian, Fausto Coppi, and Tom Simpson, the only Briton to lead the Tour de France, had raced there.
The raw talent of Tony Doyle arrived there in 1975, and five years later he became the world professional 5,000 metres pursuit champion. The Wingrave family, from Fred through to Spencer, span nearly 70 years with their triumphs.
Spencer, now a professional, will be busy on Friday at the track where his grandfather Eddie was a competitor and organiser. And 67 years ago, great-uncle Fred finished second in that infamous 24- hour race after several stunning crashes.
Doyle too will be back. 'This new track will re-establish track racing in London. There has been an upsurge of interest since Chris Boardman won the Olympic gold,' he said.
The only regret is that Boardman who in Barcelona became the first British cycling gold medallist for 72 years, is unable to join his fellow Olympians in opening a new chapter for track racing.
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