Cycling: Atmosphere is king of Herne Hill

Crumbling shower cubicles and peeling stadium seats notwithstanding, Britain's biggest cycling event this year, the Herne Hill Centenary track meeting, showed that at least one speciality in the sport is going strong.

Tucked away behind allotments and rows of semi-detached houses in deepest south London, the 450-metre all-weather concrete velodrome has retained its intimate feel, and 4,000 fans – the largest numbers in years – made their pilgrimage to this day-long event featuring 21 different races.

British cycling's biggest annual get-together was blessed by warm weather and a number of international riders, including the former Tour de France leader Stuart O'Grady and his fellow Australian professional Bradley McGee, a stage winner in the Tour.

One of the biggest names, the Scot David Millar, was unable to take part because of injuries suffered three weeks ago when he was knocked over by a motorbike during a two-day stage race in France.

The 26-year-old is no track expert but had planned to train this week at the Manchester velodrome. Yesterday he stood on the podium and expressed his sadness at being unable to take part in "an event which is part of my history and which is a key part of British cycling culture".

Herne Hill does indeed reek of atmosphere, with photos of former world champions like Graham Obree in the ramshackle bar upstairs side-by-side with memorials for the 24-Hour Cycle Path Race, held to raise funds for the original track back in 1892 and in which the winner notched up a total of 413 miles in one day.

The only track complete with a stadium in London, and used for the Olympics in 1908 and 1948, Herne Hill will soon become part of a Community Leisure trust. A gym and BMX track are to be built as part of British Cycling's drive to attract youngsters, and while the modernised building may not have so much of the old-world charm as its ancestor, it should guarantee continuity in the sport.

In the racing itself, the highlights were the four-man centenary pursuit in which Britain's Bradley Wiggins, a world Junior Pursuit Champion, pipped O'Grady on the line to secure an event he has already taken twice in the past.

Then in the crowning Golden Wheel – featuring some 50 riders belting around at 60kph – after heading an early break of five, the Australian national champion O'Grady brought the bunch back to the lone attacker Chris Newton to snatch the £2,500 top prize.

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