Cycling: Manchester banking on new track to start chain reaction: Road to the future in Britain is leaning towards indoor racing as pedal power prepares to move up a gear. Robin Nicholl reports

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THE Princess Royal raises the curtain on a new future for British cycling today when she opens the country's first covered racing track in Manchester. It may serve as a memorial to a failed Olympic bid, but it also challenges cycling to be business-like on and off the new 250-metre wooden circuit.

The pounds 9m velodrome opens as officials fear for the future of road racing and look to the track, fighting through decline, to lift the sport into the 21st century.

Cycling in Britain has been boosted by the triumphs of Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree. Now the Eastlands National Cycling Centre is a facility to match their three world titles, four world records, and Boardman's Olympic gold.

The British Cycling Federation will manage it as Britain's sixth national centre dedicated to sporting excellence and move their headquarters there from Kettering. 'The Sports Council are giving us a reasonable subsidy,' Ian Emmerson, the Federation's president, said. 'It is not 100 per cent but it will go a long way towards balancing the books. We will still have to operate it as a business.

'We have been inundated with inquiries, mainly from cycling clubs wanting to use the track, and also from people wishing to hold exhibitions and conferences.' Basketball, too, has a chance to expand. Manchester Giants were playing home matches out of the city and their hall was mostly taken up by playing area, restricting the number of seats they could sell. 'At Eastlands there is seating for 3,500,' Emmerson said. 'So we have a season-long agreement with the Giants to play there.

'We think track racing has a great future whereas road events face more problems due to road conditions. Track racing is also more viable for television. There will be a big impetus with World Cup racing there next year, and the following year we have the world championships. Then there is Manchester's bid for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.'

He anticipates that the velodrome, which will now allow the national squad to train all year round, will inspire the rest of Britain's tracks. 'It is not the kiss of death for them. The velodrome is the pinnacle of achievement.' That is the rallying call to the enthusiasts who have kept the sport alive through the hard times. Tracks have fallen to developers or into disuse, but 19 are still active around the country.

Although most of Britain's world champions have won their titles on the track, it is still not as popular as road racing. An obvious deterrent has been the weather - once a banked track was damp it was too slippery to race on. In contrast, indoor tracks on the Continent flourished, especially through a winter programme of six-day racing.

The only time British racing went indoors was for six-day races at Earls Court and Wembley's Empire Pool on a wooden track that could be dismantled. But even indoors, track fans could not escape the rain - the Empire Pool roof leaked. The last of these spectacular shows was 14 years ago, but their return is part of Manchester's plan to peddle the attractions of watching spectacular racing in comfort.

A velodrome has been sought by the Federation for 30 years. Now they have it, ironically in a city reputed for its rainfall. 'The Olympic bid was the catalyst,' Emmerson said. 'The British Olympic Association said that to make the bid viable it had to be shown that something was being done in the city, and British cycling is the No 1 beneficiary.'

Manchester City Council gave the land and the Department of National Heritage, the Sports Council, and the Foundation for Sports and the Arts funded the building of a stadium incorporating conference facilities, a fitness and weight-training centre, a restaurant, and bars.

Eastlands is the first fruit of the Olympic bid and soon there will be a second, the Victoria Centre complex.

On the other side of Manchester, student accommodation occupies the site of the Fallowfield track where 40 years ago Reg Harris honed his talents to bring five world titles to Britain. During the opening international meeting on 8 October, a statue of Harris will be unveiled. His name once brought capacity crowds to British tracks. Eastlands braces itself for a return to such days.

Britain's other centres of sporting excellence are Bisham Abbey, Crystal Palace, Holme Pierrepoint, Lilleshall, and Plas-y-Brenin.

(Photograph omitted)