Last winter, I had the good fortune to ride on the Olympic Velodrome track in Stratford. It was a peculiarly hush-hush operation. We were escorted through security and driven across the enormous building site that was the Olympic Park in post-Games mode. We were asked not to publicise our session widely, presumably for fear of sparking a rush of disgruntled social media users, wondering why they weren’t getting a chance to ride the boards.
Our role that morning was to somehow “maintain” the track, which I struggled to get my head around, until we actually hit the banking for the first time. When not in regular use, the boards lift ever so slightly away from the uprights. The first few laps were somewhat disconcerting, as a series of creaks and groans from beneath our wheels made us edgy, but once every part of the track had been covered as we swung up and down the banking, the boards settled along with our nerves. We put in a few fast laps, some faster than others – Simon Warren, author of 100 Climbs and Hellingen, brought his pursuit bike along, which is cheating in my book. We imagined the roar of the crowd in the deserted stadium. It was, I have to say, thrilling.
Returning to the velodrome for the Revolution Series meeting put the test ride nicely into context. The atmosphere with a full house is electric. The track itself is – needless to say, as half a dozen Olympic records tumbled at the 2012 Games – very quick. And the star-studded field put on a fine display over the two-day meeting.
Two days earlier, the official opening of Lee Valley VeloPark (as the multi-discipline cycling facility is now known), gave me a chance to test out the new mile-long road circuit. It is also very quick. For those who raced Eastway prior to its demolition in 2006, think of it a cross between the much-loved old track and the rather more challenging Crystal Palace. There is little in the way of elevation but plenty of twists and turns to keep the riders on their toes.
Even Clarey’s Corner – named after 1968 Tour de France lanterne rouge John Clarey, the first to crash at the old circuit’s inaugural meeting – may live on in spirit. I am told of one unscrupulous journalist who plans to deck it on the first corner of the first race in order to gain immortality. “Gladstone’s Corner” waits to be christened.
The new circuit is testament to the work done by Michael Humphreys and the Eastway Users Group, featured in Rouleur issue 32, who fought tooth and nail to regain what was in place prior to the start of redevelopment eight years ago. Had the Olympic Park Legacy Company had their way, housing would now cover the western section of the track. It took years of meetings attended and planning documents digested, rejected and re-submitted. Hats off to the EUG.
The five miles of mountain bike trails were, however, not yet open, as construction and landscaping have overrun. The trails are currently entirely singletrack, with no overtaking sections and numerous other drawbacks that make off-road racing impossible as it stands.
So the eagerly anticipated return of the Beastway Series to its spiritual home after eight years away is on hold again. It will now be held at the temporary location in Redbridge, which is fine for some, but difficult for the many who would happily ride out to Stratford after a day's work in central London. If there is a way of riding to Hog Hill without risking life and limb, I am yet to find it.
Organisers The Structureless Tyranny, ably assisted by former Privateer man Andy Waterman, had to admit defeat, for this year at least.
As John Mullineaux said on behalf of the Structureless: “I feel that London mountain bikers have been let down and this flies in the face of any talk of legacy at a site that was once famous for not only mountain biking but also cyclo-cross.”
No after-work evening racing for me and hundreds of others, then. After eight years in the wilderness, we still don't have back the facilities that Eastway provided, for all the shiny new tarmac and velodrome. The jury is still out on Olympic legacy in Stratford. That impulse buy of a mountain bike will have to find greener pastures to travel.
In my years away from MTB, wheels got bigger, then a bit smaller; gadgets and gizmos attached to the bars can drop your seatpost, lock out your suspension, or order a pizza. When did it all get so complicated?
Following Waterman’s lead, I plumped for a Genesis Fortitude – single chainring, no suspension, 29-inch wheels, nice and simple. Strangely, the buying public didn’t seem ready for the Fortitude and it has been discontinued. A real shame. But there are still a few out there if you have a dig around, now at a knockdown price.
Just don’t expect to be racing it around east London in the near future…
For details of how to book at Lee Valley VeloPark, see here.
Photographer's pick of the crop from a star-studded weekend at the London Olympic velodrome