Speeding across a hill of wooden planks as steep as a black-diamond ski run, I pedal a bike with no brakes.
I'm getting a quick lesson in track cycling, and the incline feels, threateningly, as if it were about to topple me sideways. My instructor's advice: Pedal faster.
Super-kinetic pedaling won't necessarily burn off fear-fueled adrenaline, but the speed will generate enough centrifugal force to keep me from sliding down the heavily banked wooden track.
My instructor, Roger Young, is the track director here at the ADT Event Center Velodrome in Carson, the largest indoor cycling track in North America. The brightly lighted facility hosts world championship races -- and local amateurs who come simply to build fitness and skills -- but is a bit of a secret for most cyclists.
The 250-meter, or 820-foot, oval has turns banked at 46 degrees, more than the steepest NASCAR track, and at first sight it's intimidating for even an avid cyclist like me who has never pedaled on a track before. Recreational riders typically turn a lap at 25 to 35 mph, and pros can hit 50 mph.
"It doesn't seem possible that you can ride an angle like that," says Matt Thompson, a member of the South Bay Wheelmen cycling club. "But you keep pedaling and keep up your speed and you start to get used to it."
The building is also a multiuse facility -- in the center infield, separated from the track by tall net curtains, youth teams play volleyball while parents watch from the bleachers that surround the track.
I'm here to sample riding on a track and find out why people pay to bicycle indoors when they could ride for free in warm Southern California sunshine. Young says that, although the velodrome can be daunting and looks like a high-powered racing track, most riders don't compete here. For the majority of track cyclists, the velodrome is simply an exciting place to ride -- and learn to ride better.
A niche sport, track cycling has a long history in the U.S., starting in the 1800s. The original Madison Square Garden in New York was built as a bicycle racing venue. Before World War II, the country had hundreds of velodromes. Track racing was a popular spectator sport, and the cyclists were highly paid pros pedaling in races that lasted six days.
Today, track cycling appears to be making a comeback in the U.S., where there are now about 20 cycling tracks, including a new indoor facility in Boulder, Colo. In Southern California, in addition to the ADT Center velodrome, there's a concrete outdoor track in Encino and another outdoor facility in San Diego. All have introductory classes and cater to recreational riders as well as racers.
The First Ride introductory class I'm taking at the ADT Center is designed to provide a taste of track cycling with basic instruction and the opportunity to pedal some laps, though it won't qualify me to ride on the track. First Riders who get hooked, or other newbies who simply sign up, can take a series of four introductory classes that will certify them to ride in races and practice sessions at the ADT velodrome.
It's said that you don't forget how to ride a bicycle, but getting on the track takes some instruction because of the special fixed-gear bikes used here. Fortunately, there's a padded rail to hold onto while getting started. Before my adventure on the banked turns, I had to learn how to simply get moving on the bike. This was an awkward process at first. My cycling shoes were clipped into the pedals, and the fixed drive train didn't allow the pedals to coast. After a wobbly start, I rode around the flat apron section of the track for a few laps to get used to the rental bike. I'm used to clipping in, but I'm not used to a bike that doesn't coast.
Then it was time to learn how to stop without brakes. When I asked Young why the bike had no brakes, he said, "Everything on the track is meant to go fast, and brakes tend to slow you down." To stop, the brakeless riders can slow up and grab the padded rail or apply back pressure on the pedals and then, they hope, get a foot down before they tip over. Regular, multi-gear bikes aren't allowed on the track because the fixed-gear bikes have more traction; brakes aren't needed because there are few obstacles. Besides, stopping suddenly with brakes would be dangerous for riders following behind you.
After I've demonstrated that I can start and stop, I follow Young's assistant John Walsh around the lower section of the track for five laps and then take a short rest. Riding on a fixed-gear bike requires constant pedaling that turns the ride into one long, intense interval session. Riders feel every little hitch in their pedaling stroke.
"It's like the ultimate spinning class," says Young, a former Olympic bike racer. It's also a class in how to properly ride a bike. "The track accelerates the learning process because it's so consistent," he adds. Riders become sensitive to little changes in their movements when there are no brakes, no shifting and no coasting.
Young tells me that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong might be at the velodrome this day, in which case we'll have to clear the track for him. Armstrong works on his aerodynamic racing position in a wind tunnel in San Diego, and then tests it with timed laps at the indoor track here. As it turns out, Armstrong's a no-show -- he's on his way to Australia to race in the Tour Down Under.
Bike clubs such as the South Bay Wheelmen use the track as a learning place and for a workout. Matt Thompson joined the Wheelmen in part because of the club's six-week track cycling program. Thompson likes the polish that track cycling gives his bike riding. "When you're around other riders on the track, you can't rely on your brakes -- you really have to rely on your bike-handling skills to maneuver," he says. Thompson has been riding the track on Friday nights and finds it nearly deserted. "For $30, you can have an Olympic velodrome almost to yourself for a couple of hours."
On this morning, few people are on the track as I huff and puff behind Walsh for a few more laps higher up on the banked turns. To avoid getting disoriented by the incline's tilted horizon, I'm supposed to look past the turn to the flat straightaway part of the track. That seems to work and I'm more comfortable than I expected on the heavily banked turns, though I'm soon breathing hard because of the speed and the lack of stops and coasting. I'm going fast enough to feel the rush of air whipping by and hear the wooden planks rumble under the bike's tires. The track is built with Siberian pine planks because the wood is very hard, with few knots or irregularities (and because there are no indigenous insects in Southern California that like to eat Siberian pine).
Hunched over on the bike like a jockey in the last furlong, I follow Walsh higher on the turns and pedal furiously down the inclined surface. I'm starting to have fun and thinking about signing up for more classes when I hear yelling from the stands. But they're cheering for the volleyball players, not me.