One of the benefits of living where I do is proximity to that great cathedral of cycling, Manchester Velodrome. I've ridden here before and loved it, so when the chance turns up to grab a place on one of the one-day accreditation courses I don't have to think twice about it. I'm in. And then promptly forget all about it until the week beforehand. No track practise has occurred at all and a rushed reminder session only serves to remind me just how scared I was last time and how steep that banking is. Eek.
Sunday rolls around and a domino rally of disasters leads to the car and the borrowed track bike being left behind and the road bike and I cruising into Manchester at what is really quite an uncivilised hour for a Sunday morning. The mist is lifting and the roads are empty - swooping in and out of the white lines on the A62 is a treat to be savoured but it's bloody cold and bloody dark at 6am and by the time I get to the track and swap Times for Looks my toes are numb and blue and I already have that chill hunger gnawing away. The hire bikes here are not half bad these days and after a few cursory words of introduction we're clipped in, pedalling raggedly and utterly failing to maintain the most basic of warm-up lines.
The shambles fails to sort itself out and we're beckoned down from the boards for stern words and further instruction. Back up, and we manage a few more laps this time before the neat changes disintegrate into a chaos of slowing riders, elastic gaps and wobbling wheels. Down again for more words. Nobody is laughing. There are frowns. And, after being forced off the track for the second time I'm starting to wonder if this will not work for me. Being openly critiqued for efforts to mitigate someone else's mistakes is unpleasant but required learning. These are "old legs" and we would do well to listen. Even though it seems some still can't and our really-quite-handy chain gang disintegrates at the eleventh hour.
Still, we're getting there and the mood has lifted. Encouragement and criticism distributed even-handedly. Bad jokes, better riding. Soon we are reeling off laps of the black, the red, the blue and the fence, we're sweeping (gingerly) up and down the banking and riding in pairs right around the top of the track, nervous chatting interspersed with polite calls of "pace!" and "move up please". It's entrancing how slowly you can actually go around the banking before the heart-stopping squeak and slide of one or other wheels kicks in.
Thankfully I don't have to deal with that because my own personal bugbear turns out to be learning not to put the power down as soon as I have an open track in front of me. It's not 'red mist', as the coach sagely assumes; just the release of riding unimpeded, relief at not having to watch the riders in front, the change in the feel of the air we're flying through that feels thinner, cooler, faster (faster, faster). Well, pink mist, perhaps, but it means I pull an unnecessary and unhelpful gap when I'm at the head of the line and take far, far too long to rejoin the back of it once I've swung off.
I resort to counting pedal strokes; the required pace is 20mph, 20mph on this gear is 90rpm, the maths is easy and soon enough I think I've got the hang of it. Then the rider three places in front slows right up or pulls a gap and I have to start all over again. It has been a while since I've had to apply my brain to learning. I had forgotten it can sometimes be a two-way street. Progress is not always forward, fast or easy and maybe I have been coasting too often. Perhaps I should stop thinking about this and just concentrate on counting the pedal strokes...
After lunch comes exam time. We warm up, getting it halfway to correct and nobody panics when a shout and a clatter behind indicates a minor crash. The same exercises are reeled off and before I've even clipped in I've forgotten them and the order they will come in. Instead, I concentrate on remembering the first and hope the rest will follow by association. It works. We are up there for a while, long enough to become dizzy, long enough to swing through each and every line, make reasonably tidy sine curves up and down the banking, change on every lap and half lap, pair up and take the chain gang's square dance beyond the point of its previous untimely demise to fruition.
Then come flying half laps, not enough, there could never be enough of cruising round with a wary eye on the pace of the group on the other side of the track waiting for the whistle that marks your turn to swing down - no, look and then swing down to the black line leaving the line behind on the blue, momentum increasing as the shorter distance pulls you hard into the curves, breathing, working, concentrating on the sprinter's lane until you come up on the rear of the group you were until moments ago only matching, looking again and then swinging up above them, waiting for the gradient of the banking to draw away the excess speed, dropping onto the back of the line to begin the whole hypnotising sequence again...
At the end of the session we have all passed. Smiles of relief all round and I confess I'm paying only cursory attention to the brief descriptions of derny etiquette, because I'm too busy looking with glee at the form which says I am now accredited to train here and at every other track in Britain and trying to work out where I can slot a weekly SQT session into the calendar in my head. Best buy that overwintering Pista some new tyres, then.