Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Fear !

"I'm sorry, Nick, I just can't go on with this! I'm terrified I fall and injure someone ! I'm going to have to pull out !"

I was shaking when I said that. I was so bitterly disappointed in myself. I'd spent over a year preparing for this and I just couldn't bloody well do it !! I was scared, really scared ! If I made a mistake on the straight, or worse, on the banking, I was not only going to fall and hurt myself but I was very likely to cause other people to fall and injure themselves. The least would be big patches of skin torn off my hips and knees but the thought of me causing other riders to suffer horrendous injuries like Jason Queally was really getting to me. He had crashed while riding Meadowbank velodrome and very nearly died because of a huge splinter of wood penetrating his lung. I couldn't get this image out of my head !

Alistair Rickett at Manchester Velodrome.
Over a year before this, Alistair Rickett and I were at a cycle jumble sale in Manchester Velodrome and I'd been persuaded by silver tongued Alistair that it would be a great idea to rent a couple of track bikes and try a Taster Session on the track. It was well supervised, the track was cleared and only a dozen or so novices were actually riding. The coach got us lined up then one by one we pushed off and slowly, with a bit of wobbling, rode round the flat concrete part of the track. It felt really weird riding a fixed transmission again, it was about thirty five years since I'd last ridden fixed. And this time there were no brakes at all, if you wanted to slow down, you reversed your pedalling forces, i.e. you resisted the pedals , you can't freewheel and apply a brake ! Eventually we were all managing to ride round the flat and more or less come to a halt when we wanted to. Now, onto the actual banked wooden track !
"Stay low on the track, keep on the Cote D'Azure, the blue painted band, and when you go into the bend don't lean the bike, just let the banking take you round, but keep pedalling !" Well, we weren't going to be able to stop pedalling were we ?  If we did we'd be in trouble.
" OK you seem to have the hang of that. Now start going further up the track towards the red line,but when you get to the banking you'll have to pedal just a bit harder to keep on your line, On you go !" I soon saw what the coach meant. As you go up the banking it gets steeper and steeper and you've got to get your speed up, think Wall of Death scenario ! OK, it soon felt quite natural to me to be riding at an angle of forty five degrees from the vertical. "Just look where you want to go, not where you don't and you'll be fine !" Sure enough, if you looked down at your front wheel while you're going round the banking a sort of spacial displacement sets in. Unnatural signals being processed by the brain, and the brain doesn't  like it !
I couldn't believe that the hour was up and that I'd actually ridden round one of the fastest velodrome tracks in the world....and not fallen off !

It was the first time for big Steve Mundie too. Alistair had ridden the dreadful Meadowbank open air stadium when he was younger. Unlike me, Alistair is one of those people who are just natural on a bike, a real talent ! Steve was very much into rowing when he was a bit younger, but he too was one of nature's athletes and although he'd taken up cycling a bit later he was wasting no time. He actually went on to ride the Worlds Masters Championship in Manchester a few years later. And did very well !!

"So did you like that ? Fancy doing it again ? "
Yes and yes !

 That was the start.

That was in January; In  March, we got a wee group together, Alistair, Ian McGivern,big Drew and myself and we all travelled together from Glasgow to Manchester in my VW van. Poor Drew, first time on a track, fell off  at the first bend. Didn't look too bad, and he's got the right attitude, so he got up, changed his bike and tried again....and fell off ! We put it down to a bit of contamination on the track, but really I don't know why he fell. His whole hip was badly skinned, his shorts were for the bin, and it was obvious that he was going to be sitting queerly for a week or so. Ouch !
 I was having a ball, I didn't fall off !
Once the nerves calmed down I was really enjoying this !
We made the trip once a month after that and got in with a bunch of people who like us, were just getting a great kick out of riding the track. The coaches were great, they got us doing some fairly informal group riding. Then forming a pace line, where you take a turn at the front and then peel off up the track,let the rest of the line pass below you then drop back into the end of the line. The technique is to ride very close to the rider in front's back wheel and get the benefit of the slipstream so that you can get your heart-rate back down until it's your turn at the front again. Then you've got to ride almost flat out to keep driving the line along, slow the line down and you get riders all over the track as the line disintegrates....no brakes remember !
This is when you realise how much trust you have to put in other riders. Track discipline is rigid and you can understand why, when you're riding in a line at 45 kph  a quarter of a metre away from somebody's rear tyre.
Craig MacLean in civvies at Manchester Velodrome
What really got to me was, when we all looked as if we knew what we were doing on the track, great riders like Craig MacLean, Chris Hoy,Chris Boardman and Vicky Pendleton would share the track with us while they were warming up for their training sessions. These people, even then, were major cycling stars, Chris Boardman was an Olympic champion, yet they rode with you, joined in the banter and showed no signs whatsoever of being superstars. It's not many people who can say they've been coached by  Olympic and  World champions is there ? But that's cycling, apart from the very fringes, it's the most sociable sport there is !

We were sharing a shower with  Craig MacLean ( now there's definitely not a lot of people can say that ! ) when he suggested that we should go for Track Accreditation which meant that if we passed the test we could turn up at Manchester Velodrome ,pay the session fee and then join in any training group we wanted to. Track Accreditation meant that you were deemed to be safe and competent on the track and unlikely to be a danger to others
This was really raising the bar for me, could I do it ? Did I want to do it ?
Well, I had endurance fitness, so I reckoned a bit of speed training wouldn't go amiss and it would give me something to focus my training on.

That November Alistair, Steve and I signed up for a Track Accreditation Test next May.

January 2001 started with a Forth Flattie Audax 100km event. It was very cold, below 0C all day but I put in a good time and was pretty content. Plenty of Hamster Wheel ( Turbo Trainer ! ) and generally riding to and from the Garage. We kept up our monthly sessions in Manchester and the coaches started to focus our training on the Accreditation Test.
February was a poor month, snow and ice ruled out any road work.

Steve, John Bell and Alistair on a Black Sheep Run
By March the weather started picking up and at the end Alistair, Steve and I did John Bell's Black Sheep Run from Harrogate. It consisted of cycling to a brewery, having some beer and cycling back. Wow! really serious training then ? Actually, on more than one level it was/is. John Bell is probably one of the most gifted cyclists I've ever met. You would never know it unless you paid close attention to just exactly how he rode. He could always keep up a good brisk pace, and this was in Yorkshire ! and somehow managed to keep the bunch together and all the time keeping the crack going. Somebody once said one of the hardest things about John Bell's runs was being able to cycle while doubled up with laughter ! Especially if Alistair Rickett was in the bunch !! When he was younger, John Bell won the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross Race, surely the hardest cycle race ever. Just Google it, you'll see what I mean ! Of course he would never tell anyone, it was only when we were in Ron Kitchen's library in the Otley Cycling Club and I was looking at an article about the Three Peaks Race with a list of previous winners that one of the older guys pointed at his name and said "That's him, you know !" pointing at John. " Oh aye, that were long time ago !" he said with a shrug.
Jings, if I'd won that I'd have had it tattooed onto my forehead ! and I'd still be waving flags and drinking out of the cup. The whole world would have know if it had been me !! But that's John. A great guy !
Just riding with these people helps you get what the handlebar code is all about.
April and Easter found us on Arran for a good fast run round the island, and the next day some seriously hard climbing over the String Road followed by the 1 in 4 slopes of the Ross Road. Felt like kill or cure treatment.

Nick O' Balloch Road with no rain !
 Next weekend was a run over the Nick o' Balloch road in poor weather, rain and a freezing cold wind on the descent. The pub at the foot of the descent had a blazing open fire going. Despite being well wrapped up I was so cold going into the pub I couldn't speak, I had to point to things on the menu. A nice couple ran the place then, they gave us dry towels to use and took our cycling clothes to put them through their tumble dryer. It was a sair wrench leaving that pub, I'll tell you !
End of April saw me doing a fast 100km tour of Glendaruel despite the cold and rain. Hard, but I was pleased that I was managing to keep up a higher average speed than I was used to.
May 13th, perfect weather, I managed to deliver John and Irene Dunn's lovely old Mercedes SL to them first thing en route with the usual suspects to Glen Lyon for a final leg strength test before the Accreditation.The ride through Glen Lyon and along the south side of Loch Tay can be challenging....this certainly was! We deliberately pushed the pace up past our usual pace and we were all pretty well strung out at the end.
But I was quite happy with my form, surely I would cope with the test next week ?

Friday May 18th. Left Glasgow with Alistair and Keith, a new recruit. Picked up Nick Tithecott in Maulds Meaburn and Booked into the Campanile hotel in Manchester. Once Steve arrived off to a decent Italian Restaurant for what felt like a last supper. I still don't know where this came from, but we all admitted later that we were nervous. Why ?

I told you it was steep !
Saturday, 19th May. Arrived at the Velodrome in plenty of time to sort out our hire bikes.
10am. Our two coaches introduced themselves and in one of the small lecture rooms went over what we were about to do. They emphasised the need to observe at all times strict track discipline. Then Pete described the routines we were going to follow for the next couple of hours.
11am. Onto the track in two groups of twelve. Nick then showed us the Webley .38 revolver. "I'll use it firstly as a starting pistol, but the next five chambers are filled with live rounds and if I see anyone riding dangerously I'll shoot them dead !"
OK, the humour was maybe a bit heavy handed. And I can assure you that now you could feel the tension in the air. but now we were about to go through some manoeuvres that had most of us squirming in our seats in the lecture room. First we did about twenty laps to warm up, then we formed a line and took turns at the front, peeling off at the start of a turn and running up the banking to drop back into the end of the line, like we'd all done before.
 But now we had to steadily increase the pace until we were all riding just about flat out ! Every time Pete blew his whistle we had to dig harder and harder. Just when most of us couldn't go any faster we got the signal to slow down and move off the track to recover.
All too soon we were back on the track cruising in a line when Nick gave the instruction to follow him closely. He then led us right up to the barriers at the top of the track and we did a few laps like this then right in the middle of a bend he swooped down to the bottom blue line, turned and rode back up to the barriers and continued the lap.
This was heart in the mouth stuff !
Especially when someone crashed at the bottom and brought another couple of riders down. The first guy suffered a broken collar bone, the other two got nasty track burn and torn tights. Another reason for not wearing £120.00 worth of Castelli bib tights on the track ! One of the riders eventually came back on and success fully completed the test. Mr Castelli threw in the towel...a nice expensive Castelli one !
By now my nerves were at snapping point and I don't know how I got through the next exercise as I had the handlebars in a death grip. So much for riding alert but relaxed !
What we did next was to ride two abreast and peel off on the corners, one up the track, one down the track then rejoin the line. Very difficult for the rider peeling off down the track because you have to ride hard to get back into position at the end of the line and because the line was now only six riders long there was not much time left to recover before you were back at the front, having to put in a big effort to keep the pace line speed up.
Then the dreaded swoops down and back up the banking. I managed to do it, but through a red haze, all the time thinking "it's going to be me next ! it's going to be me next !"
The relief, when the whistle blew to slow down and get off the track, was indescribable ! I wasn't wearing a heart rate monitor but if I had been I'm sure the upper safety limit bleeper would have been going nuts .

1pm till 2pm Lunch. I've no recollection of eating anything at all, but I must have. I do remember drinking litres and litres of water.

2pm till 3pm another safety and riding technique lecture which I listened to in a state of panic.Then back on the track for a go faster session.

In the tunnel going back to the track I just snapped . I could take no more .
"I'm sorry, Nick, I just can't go on with this! I'm terrified I fall and injure someone ! I'm going to have to pull out !"

"You're kidding ?" he said, taking my elbow and leading me over to Pete the other coach.
 " Pete, Ronnie's having a bit of a confidence crisis, he thinks he's a danger on the track. I certainly don't. You've been riding with him, what do you think ?"
Pete looked at me for a minute then said " Sit down here and take another drink of water. I noticed when you came off at lunch time you were a bit dehydrated. And I agree with Nick, I don't think you ride dangerously. You're what, fifty two years old ? You're not going to have the top end speed that the younger guys have, but you've got stamina. When that guy came off the track and brought the others down you were fourth man behind him.You were still capable of reacting properly and riding out of danger. I've spoke to the three lads that crashed and in my opinion they were exhausted and didn't recognise the signs. I've been monitoring you like all the others and so has Nick and as far as I'm concerned unless you do something really stupid in the next couple of hours, you've passed. "
" Go on, saddle up and get back on the track !"

I still don't know the exact reason why, in the space of a couple of minutes, I went from panic stricken to a state of being calmly confident. But I did, and went on to actually enjoy the rest of the test.

And I passed !!

And I also learned a lot about fear.

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