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OLD VELODROMES NEVER DIE, THEY JUST FADE AWAY
I wrote a piece on velodromes many years ago; this is not an update as the original has been lost in space or somewhere similar. Many today of those engaged in or interested in track cycling have never seen a velodrome that doesn’t look like the ones in Manchester and the Olympic Park in London: all are indoors and have a standardised size of 250 metres in length, despite there not being an official laid down length; all now conform, partly because records can be more uniformly set on a standardized track, as in athletics.
Whilst that makes sense it is on the assumption that all velodromes are indoors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before the indoor velodrome became the ‘norm’ for Olympic and World Championships, indoor tracks were of varying lengths as explained below. There was a period when they tried to make outdoor tracks conform for the same events and they made them 333 metres long, i.e. three laps to a kilometre, but the indoor 250 metre tracks took over before many were established,
Early velodromes had no such constraints and that showed when I was riding, as many of the tracks in the UK and abroad had all sorts of strange quirks in surfaces, track length and degree of banking. There was also the matter of the actual shape: in today’s homogenised world that doesn’t make sense, but when cycling first became a big spectator sport it was track cycling that brought in the spectators and tracks were put up where they could be fitted in, no one worried about any conformity, and it was one of those items no one really gave much thought to when I was riding; if anything it added to the experience.
Those ‘odd’ tracks were just part of the circuit and were treated as such,.I never heard anyone castigating the fact that they didn’t all conform; the only complaint was that some had a surface, like Fallowfield (1892) in Manchester (the long gone home track of Reg Harris, probably still our greatest track sprinter) where if you fell off it would tear your skin away, such was the abrasive nature of it, until later it was resurfaced.
Fallowfield also had that rare distinction of hosting an FA cup final in 1893 when Wolves beat Everton 1-0 and somehow 45,000 spectators got into a venue that held a maximum of 15,000! and two Rugby League Challenge Cup finals during the same period.
Most of those old outdoor tracks were multi-sports arenas, with cycling, athletics and even football on the infield being held at the same meeting in the same arena, something that cannot be done any more with the small tracks.
A version that is used on the Continent is the multi-use ‘sportshalle’, with cycle tracks in sections that can be put away when not needed and other sports or activities take over the space; we don’t really have one in this country.
In this photo from 1985 the slow erosion of the Fallowfield track means that where the surface has eroded it reveals the abrasive shale-based earlier surface.
Brighton may not seem an obvious choice for such an iconic and important velodrome, yet within the boundaries of the same town is the oldest working velodrome in the world. Preston Park is a track I only raced on once; in many ways it has only a faint resemblance to a velodrome as we know it today, but one has to remember the times when it was built when anything went regards design and layout. It is in effect four straights with banked corners, almost a road circuit, but it survives and so it should; to have survived when nearly all the old tracks have gone is an achievement in itself – it should have a preservation order on it! This not very exciting video, the only one I could find, shows exactly what it is, 577 metres long and built in 1877.
Because of its shape and size it is often used as a road circuit for short events, no self respecting trackie would ride on a track with a geared road bike and it would not normally be allowed; but Preston Park is not a normal velodrome and anything that keeps it in use is to be applauded.
After a campaign against threats to close the track because of ‘elf and safety’ concerns, funds were made available in 2015 to upgrade the track and resume normal service, and quite right too.
The south coast is home to other oddities in the world of velodromes. Just along the coast in Portsmouth, what used to be known as Alexandra Park and is now the Mountbatten centre, only has one straight and the rest is a continual curve, unique I believe in the world’s velodromes; another long 537 metres. Somehow I never got to ride there.
There was also another that appears to have been erased from history in a park in Southampton. It too was a long, quite flat track with an athletic track inside it. My records on this one have also gone, though I had a success there.
An amazing-for-the-time cycle track was built on the roof of the Landmark Hotel London in 1899. This was not for competition use but for clients to use for exercise. This is one of those projects one would have loved to have a picture of, but despite endless Googling nothing has come up.
Many would believe that the computer-designed marvels that now are in all major cities worldwide were the first of their type. Not so: indoor wooden tracked velodromes were there almost from the start. The early six-day races that started in the USA were all on wooden tracks; many were able to be dismantled and used elsewhere as and when needed. Many were shoehorned into very small spaces: there was a wooden outdoor track in the beer garden of a Danish pub back in the Sixties.
When the six day races returned to London in the late Sixties a demountable track of 143 metres was used and a slightly large one a couple of years later; one of them now resides in Chalshot in Southampton.
The six day races were an enormous success both in the USA and back in Europe. Here in the UK there were six day races in Aberdeen, Bristol, Dublin, Dundee, Glasgow Leeds, York and many more venues all on wooden indoor tracks long gone. Many were never intended to be used again and were simply taken apart and the wood sold.
Six day racing spread even to Australia and some of them were held on outdoor tracks. Again, the tracks were often temporary affairs and in order to save money many had the boards across the track and lengthwise; this restricted the design as there was no curvature built into the bankings or lead-ins, making them hard work to ride.
An even earlier version of that type of track is shown in this remarkable photo of a women’s race from 1897, one of the earliest photos of cycle racing taken. Although very degraded, it shows the ladies on a track with the boards laid across the track. The picture and words come from an article in Six Day Racing; Laura Trott eat your heart out, these ladies were almost certainly at that time professional, competing for money.
The problem with wooden tracks outdoors is the obvious one of weather resistance. Even the best materials need maintenance and many simply succumbed to the elements and were dismantled never to reappear. The most obvious example I used in my original piece, the beautiful velodrome built for the 1960 Rome Olympics, died because it was not maintained, was underused and had a building defect that emerged right from the start, so it went from this:
The velodrome was eventually put out of its misery and the track sold as firewood.
As with the Rome track the velodrome built for the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh also suffered from neglect and lack of use. The difference here was they threw money at it and it hosted another Commonwealth games in’86, only for the cycle to be repeated. Outdoor wooden tracks are a luxury, they need constant maintenance which is expensive and requires specialists.
These vain glorious projects look good on paper but for the long term are not good value and fail to serve the cyclists of all levels that use them or want to use them. It is noticeable that a new tarmac velodrome with softer bankings is proposed to replace it. Assuming there is the demand for it, it will serve the area in a much more practical way and last a lot longer at a much reduced cost.
If built properly concrete makes almost as fast a track as wood anyway. When I attended the ‘83 World Championships as a spectator in Zurich, the old outdoor 333 metre Oerlikon velodrome built in 1912 had such a good surface that world records were set on it, at a time when the thinking was you had to have a wooden track for the fastest times.
The track that held the ‘72 Worlds in Leicester was tarmac, they then changed to a wood surface and again being outdoors it fell into disrepair and was finally demolished; it seems they never learn.
This 50s photo shows one of the many board tracks put up in Australia that I mentioned earlier; oh for that weather! The cheap to build tracks rarely lasted for any prolonged period and were never intended to; the cross track boards can clearly be seen in this picture.
Examples of these old oddities abound in the UK. Palmer Park in Reading had until recently a shale surface that meant you slid on the bankings if you were not careful. Even more strange was Roundhay Park in Leeds that was/is a banked grass track created in 1897; grass tracks were prevalent post war as a cheap way of track racing given the cost of hard surface velodromes and they had the advantage of being part of athletic meetings on the same surface; they were also instrumental in improving bike riding skills – racing on a flat bend on grass is not easy as it goes against the laws of physics.
And here’s another Yorkshire banked grass track built in 1897 in Richmond during the cycling boom. It is very difficult to find any images or reference to these old tracks but the Richmond one features in this short video from around 1.40 and shows an important part to the golden age of cycling popularity. Incredible that something like this, just banked earth and grass, has survived for so long.
Many old tracks refuse to die. There was a little known one at Slough on what was the industrial estate, it surrounded a football pitch and was of concrete construction. I knew it well and won the season-long junior competition there in ‘58 ? I believe. Now bulldozed away it refuses to disappear as seen from this aerial photo. The curved ends of where the bankings were is still visible.
The same can be seen of the old Paddington Recreation ground track in Maida Vale;very popular, well used, it suffered from indignant residents who complained when there was a plan to upgrade the old place; from its 19th century origins, all that time, all that enjoyment to thousands who competed and watched, wiped out by NIMBYs! It was near where I worked at the time and was the first cycle track that I rode on and the one I used the most. For the big meetings illegal betting was carried on in the stand areas. The picture below is from 1940 before tiered concrete standing areas were built in the home straight. It was another of the very early tracks in this country and one that should have survived. In the photo you can see the athletics track on the inside: this was common with many of the outdoor velodromes, and meetings combining the two sports were not uncommon; one at Paddington after the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, with many of the competitors from that event, drew a huge crowd – I know, because I was there.
Slough Track still haunts:
Paddington Recreation Ground track, 1940
Yet another unusual track that looked perfectly normal was the Butts Stadium in Coventry. This had a misshapen exit from the first bend that threw you out from the inside; you soon got used to it but using it for the first time gave a weird sensation.
It was built in 1881 by local business men who saw a profit in promoting pro races with prize money, attracting riders from far afield; it even boasted a world championship. Originally this was another banked grass track, the riders in those days were not so fussy about the surface they rode on if the money was good! Later it became a shale surface and when the council took it over in 1939 it was tarmacked, as I remember it; another that was demolished in the Eighties.
Another sad sight, yet I had good memories of this place as I won my first senior race while still a junior there – I was sixteen and you were a junior then until eighteen; there were none of the other age grades in those days, e.g. schoolboy classes, under 21s etc. And it took only two events to become a national champion as a junior: the track sprint and the road race, equivalent to the 100 metres and marathon in athletics.
The same meeting saw for one of the most spectacular accidents seen in cycling: during a distance race a rider swung out too close to the outside barriers that consisted of horizontal boards nailed to posts, but there was a gap between the boards and the rider actually got his pedal between them and was catapulted what looked like twenty feet straight up in the air still holding his handlebars which had been wrenched from the bike. He landed on his back with such a bang I thought he was dead, the noise could be heard across the stadium, yet after everyone rushed to his aid he got up and walked away; just sometimes, someone smiles on you.
London had many cycle tracks during that golden age, but by the post war period they were reduced to just two, and two of the oldest at that: Paddington as above, and Herne Hill in Dulwich South London – like Paddington it was well used and its Good Friday meet attracted riders from all over the world. Herne Hill was threatened with closure when its lease ran out but petitions, fund raising and a lot of work by activists saved the old girl and she is now refurbished and serving the track cycling community again.
One other track survived for decades: the White City velodrome used for the 1908 Olympics. Herne Hill was used for the 1948 games, fell into disuse but remained under the stands built for the greyhound track that followed and was still there when the place was bulldozed and built on.
The 1908 games suffered from appalling weather and whereas today events on a track in inclement weather would be halted for safety reasons, in 1908 they went ahead. The photo below shows the finish of a distance race in pouring rain, something today you just would not see.
It is often thought that cycling racing was started on the European mainland; that is not true and the first official bicycle race that was held in France was won by a Brit. There was a long drought in success until more recent times though we have always had world champions, just a bit thinner on the ground until present times.
Abroad, I did visit when it still was a velodrome the specialist track at Wuppertal in Germany when riding over there in a representative competition. It was built for motor paced racing, very popular in Germany in earlier days: this was racing behind what are known as the big motors – not the Derny/moped affairs still going today, they were normally 1000cc Jap-engined specialist motorbikes with belt drive for smoothness and a roller behind the rear wheel so the rider could close up in the slipstream.
The speed these riders got up to dictated the design of the track and Wuppertal as can just be seen in this old photo had in effect two tracks; the banking had a steeper upper level for the motor paced events. If there were any other tracks built this way I never heard of them but during the early days when motor paced racing was popular I expect somewhere there was something similar.
Part of the old Wuppertal track survived as a terrace for the local football club for many years and then even that went when they rebuilt the stadium.
In Scotland Celtic Park, home to the eponymous football club, had a cycle track round the outside of the football pitch when the new ground was built in 1892. Even in Scotland the popularity of track racing during that period could not be ignored.
Another famous or infamous velodrome was the Vel D’Hiv in Paris. Its illustrious history was stained forever when Jacques Goddet, director of the ASO, Amaury Sports Association which also ran the TDF, from 1936 to 1986, was responsible for the Paris velodrome into which 8,000 Jews were herded by French police acting on Nazi orders. Goddet handed over the keys of the velodrome, the Vel D’Hiv, to the French police, although the exact circumstances under which he did so are unknown. The French Police only revealed papers showing the extent of their collaboration in 2012! The track was demolished in 1959; the track itself could not obviously be blamed for anything to do with what happened but its association lived long after the event.
We don’t have many velodromes even today in this country. Those old reminders that still exist from that golden age should be cherished, they are a reminder of our Victorian position in the world when anything was possible and the early cycle tracks were part of that.
In an age when everything has to conform it is refreshing to see nonconformity enduring. The day when everything is exactly the same will mean we have lost something never likely to return.
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