At the weekend, we visited Manchester to see our first ever Track Cycling in person. We used to live in Manchester, leaving a year or two after the IRA put a bomb in the centre of town, this had been used as an impetus to regnenerate more than just the area affected - so when we came back, it was hard to recognise the place at first. Manchester Piccadilly was totally different, for instance. We got to our hotel, and the next morning set off to the track, which didn't exist when we lived in Manchester. The velodrome is a fantastic facility. It got a bit hot in there, though - something which has been accounted for in the London 2012 design. Apart from that issue, there isn't really a bad seat in the house - it's so well thought through.
We arrived a little after the start of the proceedings, and Chris Hoy had just taken to the track in an early heat of the Keirin. The Keirin is an event where a derny (a motorised bike) leads the riders around the track. Riders take up position behind the derny, forbidden from passing it. The derny picks up speed until at 50km/h (for men, 45km/h for women) it pulls off the track and the riders race for the line over the last one and a half laps. There's all sorts of strategies, the main one being to allow a gap to open so that you can begin accelerating before the derny pulls away, and thus start the sprint at full speed. The thing is that if everyone does that, you create too much of a gap.
It was a real joy to watch the events, the track is just so varied in its tactics between events. I particularly like the sprint. The sprint is a short race for the line with riders starting together. The trouble is that going all out from the start is (usually) not a good tactic, as your opponent can slipstream behind you, and then accelerate past at the end. Similarly, if you can get the jump on your opponent, you may create enough of a gap that they can't reach you to slipstream (or there may not be enough of the race left for the slipstreaming rider to have much left in the tank).
For this reason, the riders often start slowly, watching each other like hawks. Neither wants to be the one to lead the other to victory. Sometimes they will come to a total stop - at other times the pace quickens. It's a tactical battle. The riders sometimes go high on the track, hoping to swoop down and accelerate away of their opponent loses focus, sometimes the speed just gradually increases. It's lovely to watch.
The points race is something which is much better in person than on TV - in this race, riders race on the track, and every 10 laps a bell rings. This signifies a sprint, and points are awarded for the first riders past the finish in the sprint (5 points for first, 3 for second, 2 for third, 1 for fourth).
If at any point a rider gains a lap on the field, they get 20 points (they don't perpetually get an advantage in the sprint). To keep track, spectator simply needs to follow who is at the front of the field - it's then pretty straightforward to see who is in danger of gaining a lap etc (as the pelaton is pretty obvious). This is harder on TV, as the viewer can't decide for themselves where to look.
The Omnium is a collection of events, sort of 'the decathlon of cycling'. An event in the Omnium which I really loved was the 'Elimination' or 'The Devil'. In this race, every other lap a bell rings - and then the last one over the line has to withdraw from the race. The tactics of this are quite fun - do you stay at the front, possibly allowing others to slipstream and then pass you at the last? Do you slipstream at the back, nipping forward at the last moment to avoid elimination? This was a tactic adopted by an Italian rider with some success.
Obviously, at the start of the race, you can stay in the middle of the pack, but that won't always be an option as the field reduces.
In pursuit, riders try to post the quickest time, with two riders (or teams) on the track at once. The time trial is similar, though only one rider (or team) is on the track at once. The team sprint is like the team pursuit, but each lap a rider peels off, until the last guy sprints for the line. As a rule, I'm not a fan of these disciplines, I can see the purity of them, but I much prefer individual sprints or general races (though an excellent pursuit is a joy to behold). I can't help thinking that they missed a trick with pursuit - the name implies 'chase' and so the race should have been 'pass your opponent'. The strategies would have been 'sprint and pass early' or 'hold on and pass late'. I can see why this is not done, though - scheduling would be a nightmare.
There was no madison at this meet - the madison is a race which has fallen out of favour since Beijing, which I do think is a shame. Though I can understand why they made that decision, as it can be confusing, I disagree with the decision.
The final of the Men's keirin saw drama (not for the squeamish). There was an almighty crash on the last corner, which only Chris Hoy escaped, to win gold. The others slide down the banking. Some riders remounted and crossed the line - fourth and fifth were taken by riders who ran across the line (not easy on cleats and on a shiny surface). The third place rider, Awang, had 'got a splinter', and had to be taken to hospital - he had remounted and rode in for third place before coming off his bike and being stretchered off. The splinter in question was the size and shape of an old-style wooden tent peg, and it pierced his leg, emerging several inches on both sides. Ouch. He was operated upon, and is expected to be able to ride again in two weeks - so we may see him at Appeldoorn in the world championships.
I can highly recommend track cycling, the 'in velodrome' commentators (at least at this event) were aware than many spectators would be uninitiated, and explained things - usually doing it in a way that didn't patronise those who knew what was happening. It was a great event, and I look forward to being able to go again.