Track cycling with Olympic champion Geraint Thomas

By Aly RowellBBC Wales Sport
Geraint Thomas and BBC journalist Aly Rowell. Pic: Ian Cook - IJC Sports
BBC Wales journalist and a keen road cyclist Aly Rowell ventured onto the track for the first time coached by Olympian Geraint Thomas

Images of the 25cm splinter impaled in Aziz Awang's leg come back to me as I prepare for my first attempt at track cycling.

I am with Olympic champion, Geraint Thomas at the Wales National Velodromeexternal-link. He is hosting a track day, giving amateurs like me the opportunity to ride with him and be coached.

Thomas recently confirmed he is not going to take part in 2012's Tour De France to concentrate on defending his title in the team pursuit at the Olympics.

So just how different are the two disciplines? Before I go near a bike, I walk around. Perhaps this is an error. On the TV, the track looks bowl-shaped, but nothing prepares me for how steep the banks are - about a 45 degree angle. Surely far too steep to stay upright?

Now for the bike. Thomas talks me through its features: "The main difference is, no brakes -which can scare quite a few people. There's only one gear so you can't freewheel... you just put some back pressure [on the pedals] to slow the bike down - sounds dodgy, but once you get on, it's fine."

Sounds technical, but I believe him. "Just keep pedalling and keep the speed up because the banking is very steep. You can quite easily go too slow and slip down and fall off.

"It's ok. Falling off on the track doesn't hurt as much as the road. You just tend to slide more on the track and pick up splinters, whereas I've ruptured my spleen, broken my pelvis and fractured my wrist from falls on the road. But let's not worry about that."

No. let's not, and on that note, my time has come. My feet are strapped to the pedals and I'm pushed onto the track.

I start by riding slowly around the blue strip connecting the apron to the track, getting used to the fact you can't freewheel. It's a strange sensation, but I soon become accustomed to using my legs to slow the bike.

"Right, time to hit the boards," Geraint shouts. "Just remember to keep pedalling hard."

I slowly build speed up to the black 250m line. After a circuit I'm still upright and I adopt Thomas' approach - the faster the better.

I start to edge to the red sprinters' line which is about 2m up the slope. I'm getting the hang of this, but I know what's next.

"Keep going higher. You need to hold the blue line."

I'm now 4m up the banking and hit vertigo territory. I keep pedalling hard and don't look down. It's exhilarating stuff.

As you come off the bends and sweep down lower, the momentum swings you forward. I feel more relaxed, until I hit the banking at each end and subconsciously I tense - I'm travelling at speed, with my feet tied to metal with a 4m drop below me.

Ten laps or so in, I slowly start to wind my way down the track back to the safety of the flat and back to Thomas.

I am shaking slightly, but still upright as Thomas tells me about his first experience of track riding: "I remember the first time I went to Manchester, we went straight up to the top of the banking and had a look down. It's pretty scary and I'm not very good with heights."

I'm not alone then.

I can see how the two disciplines vary. I'd only done about 4 km - nothing in road racing, but that's the individual pursuit in track racing.

"Track is more technical, you do shorter, punchier efforts. You can be out on the road for six hours or so, whereas on the track, the most we do is 5km effort-wise. It's quite a bit different, but they complement each other.

"You get the skills and speed on the track and that comes in handy on the road and the road gives you strength."

I ask him why, then, he decided not to take in the Tour De France before the Olympics.

"It takes time to adjust from one to the other. It takes a good two to three weeks on the track to get the leg speed back. On the road during the tour the average leg speed (cadence) would be 65-75 revolutions a minute (rpm) and on the track it's around 130rpm in the team pursuit, so almost double.'

So this will be Thomas' life for the next nine months or so. He has already highlighted the possibility of retirement from the track after next summer's Games, to concentrate on his road racing career.

"It's pretty much full on. It's all about the Olympics for me now. We'll be flat out all the way through to Christmas on the track. I'll still ride a bit on the road, but the track's the main aim."

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