Cycling: Turning full circle: Hope on horizon for velodrome

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It once staged finals at the 1948 London Olympics but has fallen badly into disrepair. Paul Newman reports on a local community's efforts to restore Herne Hill's hidden gem

To the cycling community it is as big a tradition at this time of year as Easter eggs and hot cross buns. The Good Friday meeting at the Herne Hill outdoor velodrome has featured many of the world's leading cyclists ever since it was first staged 108 years ago, sometimes drawing crowds of 10,000 or more to the site in south-east London. Tomorrow, however, not one pedal will be turned in competitive anger at the famous old venue. The meeting will be staged instead at the indoor velodrome in Manchester.

Visit Herne Hill, which is tucked away behind residential suburban streets like a secret garden, and the reason becomes apparent. The 450-metre track, last resurfaced some 20 years ago, is crumbling away. It takes so long to dry out after rain that organisers of this week's event decided they could no longer risk staging it there. The track is not the only part of the site in disrepair. The Victorian grandstand has been declared unsafe and is boarded up, meaning that facilities like the dressing rooms and showers can no longer be used.

The state of the velodrome is all the more lamentable when you consider its rich history. Herne Hill is the only venue still in use that staged finals at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. It was the only velodrome in the capital until the building of the new facility for next year's Olympics.

Hope, however, is on the horizon. British Cycling, the sport's governing body, is about to sign a 15-year lease with the Dulwich Estate, the owners of the site, after which it will lay down a new tarmac track. Meanwhile individuals and organisations have rallied round the Herne Hill Velodrome Trust, which has brought together the local community and cycling clubs. An estimated £5m is needed to bring the site back up to scratch, but the presence of more than 700 people at the launch of the charitable trust in October was an indication of the groundswell of support.

The leader of the campaign is Hillary Peachey, a local resident whose only connection with cycling is the fact that her two young children love using the velodrome, which features a mountain bike circuit as well as the concrete track.

"All I set out to do at the start was to raise some money for the track to be resurfaced," Peachey said. "But when you look at the site and you realise how well used it is, even in its present state, you feel this is an opportunity we just can't waste. This is a chance to do something incredible and to preserve a wonderful part of our country's sporting heritage."

London used to boast velodromes at Catford, West Ham, Putney, Kensal Rise, Wood Green and Paddington, but Herne Hill is the only one left. It was the brainchild of George Lacey Hillier, a keen amateur cyclist who brought local cycling clubs together to form a company to build the track in 1891.

The first Good Friday meeting took place in 1903. It soon became hugely popular, featuring leading riders from around the world. At its peak it attracted huge crowds, with more than 10,000 people regularly attending the Easter meeting in the 1920s and 1930s.

Over the years a who's who of cycling have raced at Herne Hill, including Reg Harris, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Tommy Simpson, Beryl Burton, Graeme Obree, Tony Doyle and Chris Boardman. Bradley Wiggins, who will aim to add to his three Olympic golds across the River Thames next summer, began his track racing career there, while Peter Coe, Sebastian's late father, used to be a cycling coach at the track.

During the Second World War the velodrome was used as a barrage balloon site, but a new bitumen surface was laid, thanks to a private donation, for the 1948 Olympics. The post-war years were the venue's heyday, but a decline set in towards the end of the century. Management of the facility was passed from one body to another until the site was briefly closed down in 2005 following the expiry of the lease. British Cycling, however, negotiated a short-term interim lease, while the Velo Club Londres took over the management of the track.

Despite its run-down state, the velodrome is still well used by the local community. The VCL runs it with volunteers, providing lessons and hiring out track bikes. On Saturdays and during the school holidays the velodrome attracts hundreds of local children: a day-long session, with bikes and helmets provided, costs just £10. The VCL also offers a two-hour induction session to anyone who wants to ride for just £8, which buys you a coaching lesson and use of a bike.

Peachey, nevertheless, believes the velodrome could be put to even wider use. "We want to get away from any idea that the facility is there for the use of elite cyclists," she said. "This is for the benefit of the whole community. For example, we want to bring in more children from local schools. Fifteen schools use it already and we want to expand that. We'd also like to see it opened up to disability groups."

The next stage for the velodrome trust is to agree a business plan. It has brought together a wide range of supporters, including the local MPs Tessa Jowell and Kate Hoey, British Cycling, Sport England and Southwark Council, but Peachey recognises that all parties need to work out how the facility will operate in the future. "We have a lot of people who want to make this work and we need to bring them round the table to find a way forward," she said. Resurfacing the track would be only the start of a reconstruction programme. The trust is seeking a £350,000 grant from Southwark Council's Olympic capital legacy fund – which was set up to improve participation in sport in the borough – to provide facilities for the inner track, while it is hoping to negotiate a 25-year lease, rather than the current one-year rolling agreement, for the rest of the nine-acre site.

Although the Good Friday meeting has been lost for this year, supporters of the velodrome are hoping that tomorrow's open day at the site, featuring demonstration races and offering free rides on the track, will make more local people aware of the historic sporting facility on their doorstep.

The Herne Hill velodrome ( www.hernehillvelodrome.com) is situated in Burbage Road, London SE24. The Good Friday open day is from 10am until 3pm. Details of the campaign to save the site can be found on the Herne Hill Velodrome Trust's website ( www.savethevelodrome.com)

How home hero Harris was denied gold in 1948

The 1948 Olympics were expected to provide a crowning glory for Reg Harris but the most famous name in British cycling had to settle for two silver medals.

Harris was the only survivor after his tank was destroyed by German fire in North Africa during the Second World War and was discharged as medically unfit after spending a year in military hospitals and convalescent homes. However, he returned to cycling and became world sprint champion.

In the three months leading up to the Games Harris fractured two vertebrae and broke his elbow in separate falls. The British selectors dropped him when he refused to train with the rest of the squad in London – he preferred to stay at home in Manchester – but he was reinstated after a public outcry.

Harris reached the sprint final at Herne Hill but was beaten by Mario Ghella, a 20-year-old student from Turin. Harris also won silver with Alan Bannister in the 2000 metres tandem event, losing the decisive third race to Italy's Ferdinando Teruzzi and Renato Perona by just six inches. The event finished in the dark.

British cyclists won two other bronzes. Tommy Godwin finished third in the one kilometre time trial and was also part of the British quartet who took bronze in the team pursuit. On the road Britain won the silver medal in the team time trial.

Paul Newman

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