I’ve ridden lots of different bikes, in lots of different places. But this is the first time I’ve ridden fixed gear. With no brakes. On a wooden track that slopes to over 40 degrees in the banking.
But this isn’t just any wooden track - this is the Olympic Velodrome. It’s immediately familiar. I’ve spent hours watching Hoy, Wiggins, Pendleton, Trott and many more speed round. Only a few days before my ride, the world championships were filling the place to the rafters.
It’s a different feel today. No crowd and instead of sitting in the gods cheering I’m stood in the middle of the track. Watching the big screen, waiting for my turn to record a flying lap time.
We’ve already had an hour or so of coaching. Learning how to move across the blue boards of the ‘Côte d'Azur’ and speed round the track. Taking just enough speed to hold an improbably high line near the top of the vertiginous banking. I adjust my seat again. In my mind channelling the great Eddy Merckx, though in reality it’s just nerves.
Then I’m off. Slowly at first. Building up speed so I can take the bend as high as possible and then swoop down to the start line. Legs pumping, gripping too tight to the bars.
Down over the line and into the first bend. I’m trying to hold the black line and ride the shortest distance. In my excitement and enthusiasm I’m way above the line. Up near the red, riding too far as I catapult into the back straight. Then round the final bend and I’m already facing the finish line, one last effort and I’m done. I’m breathing so hard that I’m not able to look up and see my time. I slow down and drift back into the middle of the track, as the next rider starts their charge.
My time is pretty terrible, but that’s ok. I’ve ridden the Olympic velodrome and I’ve got a few pointers about where I went wrong. I’ll be back to take some laps soon.
Early morning on Thursday 9th August heading East towards Stratford. Excited. The Olympics are in full swing and this is our chance to get involved at the Olympic Park.
We have just 30 minutes to dash across the park towards the Riverbank Arena in time for push back, we make it, and take our seats as the game begins. Argentina against New Zealand playing off for ninth place doesn’t sound like much of an attraction, but this is the Olympics and the crowd are knowledgable, engrossed and enthusiastic.
The sun beats down and by the start of the second half most of the 15,000 seats are full. The game ebbs and flows, but New Zealand seem stronger and faster and in the end run out 3-1 winners. We break for ice-cream, sun screen and leg stretch before Pakistan and South Korea play off for 7th place. This game is more defensive but still exciting. Pakistan seem more skillful but have a game plan that involves taking minimal risk. In the end they win 3-2. The applause from the crowd is enthusiastic as the players take a lap of honour. Then we file out.
The 15,000 seats and pitch will be modified for the Paralympics and then dismantled and moved to a new location, with a much reduced capacity. The arena is described as temporary. But most sports facilities are in some sense temporary, even if the stands remain they change and evolve - the new Wembley seems to only share a location with the old twin towered stadium. The timeless nature of Lord’s cricket ground is perpetuated by the continuing existence of a single stand, the members only pavilion.
When the game finishes, the crowd leaves and the event is over. Even though the photos live on and the highlights remain on iPlayer, the race, the match, that goal, they only really exist in the moment. The past tense immediately applies.
Yet these events live on in the memory. That morning at the Olympics will live with me forever, the bright pink and blue pitch seared into my fallible cortex.
There’s a folk memory of these events that will also survive, like tales of seeing Bradman bat or queuing to watch Reg Harris win at Herne Hill that are passed down through generations.
The scarcity value of a visit to the Olympics and the esteem that the games are held (in spite of the relentless commercial exploitation), means that even when the Riverbank Arena is dismantled and relocated, the exploits of the athletes will live on. The impact of these Olympics, the imprint on my life of that bright morning in August will be permanent.
I haven’t climbed a tree in years, probably not since I was about 14, but at this point there doesn’t seem to be much choice. The crowd is 10, maybe 15 deep on Constitution Hill. The police are stopping anyone getting closer to the finish to avoid overcrowding so I’m stood by the flamme rouge assessing my options. From the PA system I know the riders are leaving Richmond Park, they’ll be here in a little more than 10 minutes. There’s nothing for it, if I want to see anything I’ll need to climb the tree.
I ask the woman in the Italian cycling top if she can step out of the way so I push up off the lampost. I grab one of the low branches and then I’m scrambling up, pushing a grasping until I’m sat high up in one the trees that stands on the run in to the finish.
The PA announces that Wiggins is on the front trying to pull back the breakaway - a huge cheer goes up and the tree shakes a little, but my arms are wrapped around the trunk, and I have a perfect view onto the road waiting for the riders to swing round the bend and on to the finish.
As the riders fly round the corner, an almighty roar leaps up from the crowd - it’s not the British on the front as most of the spectators would want, but the atmosphere is electric. Even from my tree I can see the steely confidence in Vinokurov’s eyes, there’s no way he’s going to let Uran win this one.
Sunday afternoon. Under the silent gaze of the Thames Barrier and the few remaining sites that make it possible to avoid describing Greenwich Peninsula as post industrial, dinghy racers make their maneuvers. Greenwich Yacht Club is a hidden gem, tucked away near what is corporately known as the O2. It’s a friendly, welcoming place, with a cracking bar and amazing views, especially on bright autumn days.
It’s also another example of how London and especially SE London is hard to categorise. The mainstream media routinely fail to understand or connect with this part of London. In a couple of years the Olympics will be taking place just over the river from the yacht club. The rowing and sailing events will be taking place a long way from the east of London (at Windsor and the Solent). It probably wouldn’t be possible to hold all of the Olympic events on this stretch of the Thames - but I’m sure some of the events could take place within the M25.