Seven things you didn’t know about velodromes

Velodrome by Kevan© Kevan

With the continued success of the British track cycling squad, spare a thought for the poor tracks themselves – they do, after all, suffer a lot of punishment.

So, while we all love a bit of track cycling, we thought we’d turn our attention to the velodrome itself – its history, the materials that go into its construction and examples from around the world.

So, here you have it – our seven things you didn’t know about velodromes.

Old and gnarly in Brighton

The oldest velodrome in the UK, in Preston Park, Brighton, was dug out by hand by members of the British Army in 1877. Back then – in the good old days – the track circuit was made with cinders and riders who crashed were “taken to the club house to have the cinders removed with hot water and a scrubbing brush,” according to this website.

While the cinders were replaced with tarmac in 1936, the track maintained its gnarly reputation, with first-aiders required at every corner and fallen cyclists regularly being dragged off the circuit to avoid any race delays.

Not surprising, then, that in the 1950s the bank holiday races would attract as many as 10,000 spectators (London’s 2012 velodrome has a capacity of 6,000).

France wins, Australia second, Japan third

I’m not sure which the better piece of information is: that France has the most velodromes of any country, with Australia second and Japan third; or that someone has produced a database of where they all are. No, scrap that, it’s definitely the latter.

Check it out on the Fixed Gear Fever site. While they probably can’t pretend to have every velodrome in the world listed, having 125 of them mapped in France, 97 in Australia and 77 in Japan is a damn good effort.

The database has 940 velodromes in 89 countries.

Next stop, Mexico

While Manchester has been the slightly damp destination for leg one of the World Cup, next our granite-thighed heroes and heroines head for sunnier climbs to Aguascalientes, Mexico, and the Bicentenary Velodrome.

Built in 2009, and constructed from Canadian pine, the track was designed by another Canadian, Peter Junek.

Junek is a bit of a velodrome legend, and has designed and built more than a dozen tracks all over the world, including Korea and Portugal.

It’s only temporary 

There is a booming industry in the construction of temporary tracks, with another legendary track builder, Ron Webb, having built around 50 in his time. These constructions, known as six-day tracks, because they are often built to support six-day racing events can be put together in less than 24 hours and many are designed to be built in a variety of lengths.

Six-day events

It’s sometimes difficult to write a piece on cycling without referring to Sir Brad, such has been his influence on the British cycling scene over the past few years. In this case, however, his inclusion is justified and hasn’t been done to try and boost Google search results. Honest.

Six-day events are one of those cycling phenomenons that make little to no sense; like racing on cobblestones or chasing a motorbike around a velodrome. Originally, the races were 24-hours a day for, unsurprisingly, six days, with the contestants competing on the number of laps completed; as well as a variety of sprints and points.

So, why Sir Brad? Well, if there was any ever doubt as to the authenticity of his cycling success, one need to look no further than Ghent in 2003. That year marked his Grand Tour debut, when he was eliminated after stage 18. But, more importantly, it was the year in which he became only the second Brit in history to win the infamous Six Days of Ghent, or Ghent Six (which we’ll get to later).

But back to six-day racing. The events were made popular in nineteenth century New York, where Madison Square Garden played host to racing the like of which we’re unlikely to see again. So brutal were they, that the New York Times had this to say:

An athletic contest in which participants ‘go queer’ in their heads, and strain their powers until their faces become hideous with the tortures that rack them, is not sport. It is brutality. Days and weeks of recuperation will be needed to put the Garden racers in condition, and it is likely that some of them will never recover from the strain.

The modern-day equivalent is a little less barbaric, but no less nutty – and if you want to experience it in its purest form, the best place to head now is certainly the Belgian town of Ghent.

Ghent Six – a spectacle of sport

That Sir Brad won the Ghent Six says two things about the man; 1) that he is a true cycling aficionado (it’s considered the most authentic, the most traditional of all six-day events); and 2) that he was born in Ghent. Really.

But that’s as an aside. More important is to look at the arena and velodrome themselves. With a track length of just 166 metres, the arena is one of the tightest around, and for those six days, we’ll let Cycling Weekly paint the picture:

The Kuipke velodrome has an aura no other velodrome in Europe possesses. For a start the short 166-metre track makes it a tight, intimate venue, and its tumbledown, slightly worn-around-the-edges feel only adds to the charm. Then there’s the aroma – broiling hot dogs, beer, cigarette smoke, cheap perfume… And that’s just the riders! The Ghent Six may not be the slickest but it’s the most authentic and the fans turn out year after year to pack out the arena. It’s noisy, boozy and exhilarating.

This year, the race takes place from November 19 – 24.

Back to the boards

The boards of a velodrome are most commonly made from pine – at least the indoor ones. Outdoor tracks can be made from concrete, but German architects Schürmann pioneered the use of the wood of the Afzelia tree, found in the rain forests of South East Asia and Africa.

The 1996 Atlanta Games saw the introduction of synthetic surfaces on steel frames. Thankfully, most tracks remain constructed from timber.

So there you have it. Next time you see a bit of track cycling, pause a moment and remember the hard work and history of the boards being raced on.

If you liked this article, please subscribe to the &Bike newsletter – a weekly sporadic look at the world of cycling, delivered direct to your inbox. Also, please share using the widgets below. Finally, we’d love to hear your views, either through the comments section or via email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *