Surrounded by trees at the far end of Bloomer Park in the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, you might hear the track before seeing it. Follow that roller-coaster sound along the asphalt walkway that meanders toward The Hill, a manmade earthen pyramid, terraced for lawn-chair spectators, that towers over the homestretch. Standing at the rail above the labyrinth of tubular steel, the steep straightaways and steeper turns make 200 meters look small--especially small if you’re accustomed to a 333. Now, enter the infield through the tunnel beneath turns three and four. From this vantage, the resin-impregnated-fabric surface layer of marine plywood offers no texture gradient for depth perception. Your visual cortex does not see a 44-degree banking. It sees a wall. To assure yourself that this is only a phenomena, walk over to the apron, stand on it at the track’s edge, and extend your fingers toward the surface. You can’t reach it.
But there is a Bianchi Pista rental waiting for you back on the infield. “The first ride is free.” Part no-risk guarantee; part knowing you just may get hooked. As you install your pedals and adjust the saddle height, you are told how anyone can ride around this track fast; the trick is learning how to ride slow. It is generally accepted that a rider who holds his or her bike perpendicular to the track and leans into the banking may ride at 15 mph. Here, speedometers are used to know how slow one is going. The track’s design is such that your bicycle will be naturally perpendicular to the surface of the track at 25 mph, and twenty-something, you are told, would be a nice speed for your first few laps. But first you practice accelerating and decelerating an 81-inch fixed gear on the blue band of the apron, le côté d’azur (which is also banked), and entering and exiting the infield. More time to convince yourself that those “walls” are only an optical illusion.
This is the lap. In the homestretch you transition from the apron onto the track and move up to the sprinters’ line as pleas emanate from the infield, “Pick it up, pick it up! Ped-al, ped-al, ped-al!” You continue to accelerate through turns one and two and are doing about 22 mph in the backstretch, still accelerating until the adrenaline wears off and you convince yourself that you really are riding around this thing. It is, after all, a bicycle track.
“Move up to the blue line!” Between the blue line and The Seam, the continuous horizontal joint between the two rows of marine plywood that make up the track’s width, is where pace-lines run during open track sessions. The area below the blue line is designated for slower traffic getting on and off the track.
Yes! At the blue line you notice the transition from the 18-degree banking in the straightaways to the 44-degree turns, climbing and descending, climbing and descending, in turns one and two, three and four. The closer you get to that rarified air above the green line, which marks the last meter of track, the transitions get more noticeably steep.
Now you’re starting to feel comfortable, which is where some with experience at other tracks have discovered their personal minimum speed. The hard way. If it happens when the track below is clear, a little wood burn is no big deal. NAS-TRACK racer Ray Dybowski has coined the adage: “The track is self cleaning.” Dybowski has seen one rider fall and all of the following riders turn down the track and into a pileup. Turning down the track is an easy, instinctive move that always “feels” safe. Steering up the track--actually steering the headset, swiveling your hips into the track, and holding the bike upright while climbing up the banking--is more difficult, instinctively counterintuitive, and at first, a bit scary. But it’s sometimes the only way to avoid trouble and stay upright. Riders practice this on a slalom course laid out on the homestretch with toilet plungers sans handles, riding the apron around three-quarters of the track and steering up and turning down around the plungers in the straightaway.
You learn that steering and other track skills are taught on Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings in structured classes for new riders. But you can glean a lot track know-how just hanging out on the infield, which is much more intimate than the infield of a 333, the racers, more open. The infield is especially fruitful on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, when weekly training sessions and races are held. Alternating A and AA groups ride tempo-to-full-speed pace-line roll-ups, various training races, skill drills, and practice Madisons.
The roll-up begins with a 25 mile-per-hour pace-line riding between the blue line and The Seam with 30 laps to go. Half-lap pulls at the front: the lead rider pulls off by steering up the track in turns one or three, drifting up to the green line, and turning back down to fall in at the end of the line. The roll-up requires a gradual acceleration with each lap, which the director, Dale Hughes, calls for from the infield. With five laps to go, the pace-line approaches maximum speed and moves down to the black line, the bottom of the track. In the last two laps, the lead rider holds the black line and does not pull off; following riders try to go over the top, accelerating from an already high speed. There is no prize for winning the roll-up. The object is to permit each member of the line to reach his or her absolute maximum speed--and then some. After one or two roll-ups, each group runs three or four short training races from a menu that includes miss-and-out, win-and-out, Bavarian win-and-out, tempo, points, and scratch races. While one group occupies the track, the other group recovers beneath the canvas infield canopy.
During one such recovery interval, A group racer Rob Akers asks the track’s builder, Dale Hughes, exactly how he should answer what has apparently become a frequently asked question at the bike shop Akers owns: Why is this track so steep?
“It is steep,” Hughes acknowledges. “It’s halfway to straight up.”
Visualizing forty-four degrees as halfway to vertical, Akers smiles and presses Hughes further, asking whether it is the size of the track that determines these angles.
“It’s not the size of a track that dictates steepness,” Hughes clarifies. “It’s the radius; that’s the critical dimension.” Hughes, who designed and built the ‘96 Atlanta Olympic Velodrome and whose Cycling Hall of Fame father-in-law, the late Mike Walden, bears the track’s name, goes on to explain how a larger track with long straightaways and tight corners would require the same angles if it were the same radius as the MWV. If the track were less steep, there would be a tendency to drift up in the corners at speed. MWV is a world-class facility, which means that it has adequate dimensions for a world record performance. Developing a local, world-class performer is one of Hughes’s long-term goals. He has the track.
The weekly training sessions conclude with Madison training. A portable wardrobe with matching pairs of solid-colored jerseys is rolled out, and any riders new to the Madison are teamed with experienced racers. The Madison training begins with a double pace-line in which teammates ride side-by-side, one on the black line, one on the sprinters’ line. The bottom man rides with his right hand on the hip of his teammate, controlling his bike with his left hand holding the handlebar at the stem. After one lap at the front, both teammates steer up the track and switch positions at the back of the line, the other teammate at the bottom, holding his teammate’s hip. Following this drill, teams practice hand-slings at controlled speed in a scenario tailored to the experience of the riders, which may mean just two or three teams at a time. But first, novice riders are reminded of the three most important things to remember in a Madison: 1) go over the top of the exchange, 2) go over the top of the exchange, 3) go over the top of the exchange. At tempo and speeds above, the typical throw-in decelerates the relieved rider quite dramatically, hence the need for those behind each exchange to move up the track and line up with the relief prior to the exchange.
In the Madison, whether it’s training or racing, there is always one rider designated as in the race, or on the line, while his teammate is designated as on relief. Relief riders typically ride above the blue line at 15 to 18 mph for 25 to 35 seconds while between 2 and 3 racing laps go by below. When his racing teammate gets close, the relief rider uses the banking to accelerate to about four-fifths of the on-the-line speed, drifts down to the sprinters’ line, and places his left hand on his left hip. As the two converge, the teammate on the line controls his bicycle with his left hand and grabs the offered relief hand with his right. The teammates clasp hands as their arms extend and their different speeds stabilize. Then the rider on the line throws, or hand-slings his teammate into the race. After the hand-sling, the new relief rider waits at the bottom of the track for any following traffic to pass him over the top, moves up above the blue line, and waits for the racing line to come around and to get himself thrown back in. The author may be bias, but there is no greater cycling rush than a hand-sling on a small, steep board track.
The Madison is the cornerstone in Dale Hughes’s blueprint for a track cycling renaissance in America and the foundation of his NAS-TRACK program. Citing the necessity to build a large spectator base, Hughes maintains that track has the most exciting cycling venue and that the Madison is the most exciting cycling event. On a typical Friday night, hundreds of spectators congregate on The Hill. The 2004 season will feature Madison racing in the Friday night NAS-TRACK races beginning June 25 with the League Championships on July 30; Olympic events in The Can Am Challenge, Ontario and Michigan Provincial and State Championships, June 18 through 20; and a European-style Six Day August 9 through 14. The NAS-TRACK races will be taped for broadcast by Detroit PBS Affiliate DPTV-Ch 56. The Wednesday night Mike Walden Races and the Saturday afternoon Michigan CAT Summer Point Series run through September. NAS-TRACK’s SOUPerBOWL is September 3, and the Michigan CAT Finale is September 11.
For more information on NAS-TRACK or the Mike Walden Velodrome, visit www.nas-track.com, where you can hear the roar of the boards and watch race videos, or www.velodromeatbloomerpark.com, or call 248-650-1062.