By STEPHEN REGENOLD
My bike has no brakes and just one gear. But I’m pedaling with all I’ve got, tucked and spinning, breathing hard. Hands clenched on drop bars. Wheels humming. Thighs screaming. Knuckles literally white.
“Hit it!” a spectator yells.
The track ahead banks left — a hard, swooping curve, 20 feet high and perilously pitched. Stopping now is not an option. G-forces tug at my gut. My mouth is dry. I’m gripped. Grunting. Pedaling. Praying a little bit as gravity tries to pull me down.
View from a handlebar-mounted camera. Photo credit: Jeff Wheeler. Click here for a video on the Velodrome experience.
I’m riding on a racetrack made of wood, an oval of planks from African afzelia trees, planed smooth as a bowling lane. Lines painted black, red and blue arch and swing high on the curves, where the horizon line tips and the ground drops away far below from the corner of my eye.
This is the National Sports Center Velodrome, a 250-meter competitive track at its namesake sports facility in Blaine, Minn. It is one of fewer than 10 in the country and among the speediest spots on the planet to ride a bike: Pro riders can pedal laps past 40 miles per hour in the ‘drome, which banks to match the natural lean of a bicycle moving through a curve, eliminating skidding and allowing cyclists to pedal perpendicular to the track surface in defiance of gravity’s tug.
The velodrome’s banks are pitched at 43 degrees, as steep as a black-diamond ski slope, which creates long, sweeping curves impossible to complete without speed. A careless cyclist can crash hard, skidding and plummeting from the heights of the track. But velodrome competitors, called track-bike racers, employ inertia, speed and centrifugal force to stick to the off-kilter curves like little cars on a Hot Wheels track.
“It becomes natural after a few laps,” said Bob Williams, cycling coordinator at the National Sports Center. “You forget you’re up high.”
For me, those steep wooden banks were front-of-mind when I signed up to try the sport. It was a Thursday afternoon, and Williams had opened the velodrome for training before a race series that night.
I brought bike shoes, my jersey and a helmet, but borrowed a bike from the facility’s stable of 30 fixed-gear track bicycles. Two riders swooped in circles on the track as I tromped through a tunnel and onto the grassy infield, where the velodrome spreads 360 degrees around in a ribbon of weathered wood.
Interest in track-bike racing has accelerated in recent years, as stars such as Lance Armstrong draw more attention to competitive cycling. In addition, urban bike couriers and commuters have popularized single-speed, fixed-gear bikes — the same basic setup as used on a velodrome track.
A typical race night at the National Sports Center sees about 60 riders competing in multiple events, some up to 80 laps long. Up to 200 spectators watch from bleachers above the track, eyes following the NASCAR-like action of a dozen or more riders in a pack, pedaling, swooping, passing, drafting wheel-to-wheel for a rest, then jockeying for position as the finish line nears.
Crashes, which are rare, can be horrendous, a cacophony of booms and drumbeats on wood, bike frames flying, skin pierced by afzelia splinters and bodies tumbling from high curves to the grass below.
“It’s painful just to watch,” said Williams.
With all that in mind, I clipped into my pedals after 15 minutes of verbal instruction. With its fixed gears, my bike did not allow for coasting or rests: With no freewheel spin, if the wheels are turning, then your pedals and legs are turning, too. There are also no brakes. Abrupt stops are impossible. Instead, you slow by exerting back pressure on the spinning cranks, pushing against inertia to decelerate.
I stayed low on the track for the first few loops, watching Melissa Dahlmann, an experienced rider, pass overhead.
“Go, Melissa!” yelled her father, Mark, who stood trackside timing her with a stopwatch.
Dahlmann, a 24-year-old college student in Coon Rapids, Minn., started track-bike racing as a cross-training regimen for speed skating, her main competitive sport. “You use similar muscles,” she said.
Raw speed — in the guise of repetitive looping sprints on the wooden track — is another draw. “You put your head down and go,” Dahlmann said. “You get in a zone.”
Not yet finding my own zone, I pedaled a couple meager loops around the track, bumping up onto the lowest part of the incline, then diving down. I passed the start area twice before Williams began shouting instruction.
“Speed, you need more speed!” he yelled.
And more guts. The track was intimidating for the initial few laps. When Dahlmann passed me, she was flying literally 10 to 15 feet above, her body leaning an alarmingly long way off-axis overhead.
But Williams was right. As I gained speed, pedaling hard on the straightaways, then swooping into the curves, the tires tracked as if gravity was no issue. In 20 minutes I was cruising, cranking as hard as I could consistently go around, wheels humming on wood. The faster I went, the easier the velodrome rode, its big banked curves slowly becoming natural segues from the straightaway sprints.
I passed another rider, skimming sideways on a curve, looking straight down with a bird’s-eye perspective. So this is why they call it flying, I thought. After 10 minutes, huffing and puffing, I slowed down for a break, bumping off the track to stop beside Williams and a small group assembling for the night’s race series.
“You got it,” Williams said. “Just needed that speed.”
Overhead, Dahlmann flew by in a blur. Another rider followed, whirring past, a stock car in pursuit.
I clipped in and rolled back onto the wood. The race was on, and I was close behind.
Click here for a video on the Velodrome experience.
—Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.