Brakeless and spoiling for a race
At the New England Velodrome, cyclists compete in track racing – a niche sport within a niche sport.
For those whose notion of bicycle racing begins and ends with telecasts of the Tour de France, the scene at New England Velodrome would be a puzzling one, starting with the race course itself: a banked, 1/5-mile concrete oval, within earshot of jets taking off from nearby Manchester Boston Regional Airport.
The 30-or-so racers who showed up on a recent Wednesday night also look different from their Tour-ing counterparts. While all sport colorful spandex jerseys and bulging leg muscles, many also have muscular arms, the better for races that are measured in seconds and meters rather than hours and miles.
All of this follows, says Anthony Eberhardt, who directs the racing series that runs from May through September, from the nature of the track bike itself: A single "fixed" gear and no brakes, so that the rider has to resist the motion of the pedals with his legs in order to come to a halt. While this may sound unsafe – and maybe bordering on the insane – one veteran of both road and track bicycle racing says that track racing is far safer.
"On the road, when people do have brakes, they tend to use them when they shouldn't," says Brooke O'Connor, an elite racer who has gone up against the world's best. "Other crashes on the road will happen when somebody goes through a corner, and either their wheels slide out from underneath them, or they take a bad line... and you don't have any of that on the track."
The series, which just finished its fourth season at the Londonderry track, one of only about two dozen in the country, is the brainchild of Mr. Eberhardt, who grew up racing bikes outside Philadelphia, both on the roads and at the nearby Lehigh County Velodrome in Trexlertown, considered to be the Indianapolis Motor Speedway of track cycling. Now a physical therapist, Eberhardt first launched the series four years ago at a track in Keene, N.H. A year later, he moved it to its present site: a track that is still used by go-karts on the weekends.
Unlike other forms of bike racing, in which spectators typically see only the start and finish, everything happens up close and personal in track racing. Race formats include time trials, in which a lone rider races a set distance against the clock; scratch races, with multiple riders blasting off from the starting line and going all-out for the duration of the race; and match sprints, in which two racers typically take off slowly, shadowing each other on the high banks of the track as they angle for drafting position for a final sprint that often lasts less than a lap.
The soundtrack at New England Velodrome is provided by Dick Ring, a veteran bike-racing announcer who was lured out of retirement by Eberhardt. A one-time national-class cyclist and speed skater, Mr. Ring was the voice of New England bicycle racing from 1964 through 2004 and says that a lot of the fun for him comes when he sees road cyclists take to the track for the first time.
"There's a lot of riders that could endure a road race, and then all of a sudden they get on a track and they're lighting it up, and they've got themselves a great deal of talent that they never knew they had," Ring says. "So this is what's really enjoyable."
While many track racers hail from other bike-racing disciplines, a growing number come from the ranks of bicycle messengers. That's partly because of similarities between the bikes on the velo circuit – messengers have long favored single-speed bikes for their durability – and also because Cambridge Bicycle, a shop frequented by many messengers, offers organizational and financial support. Jeff Bramhall of Boston's Allston neighborhood is one such bike messenger.
"The first time I came up here, as soon as I got on the track, I was like, 'I'm in heaven, this is so great,' " says Mr. Bramhall. "I come straight from work, so I spend the day working in traffic. Here, I only have to worry about other people on bikes who know what they're doing and are not going to screw up."
That theme of velodrome-as-sanctuary is cited by several racers, who also say they enjoy the familial atmosphere of track racing. Unlike road races, where competitors drive to the race course, race, and then go home, track racing is far more social. That's evidenced by Mrs. O'Connor pressing spectators into service as babysitters for her 3-month-old daughter or Bramhall's experience of having a veteran rider show him the ropes on his first day.
The atmosphere is also strengthened by the fact that, for most, track racing is not just a fun experience, but a new one. While O'Connor and Eberhardt have turned many a lap at Trexlertown, and several series regulars have made the trek there to race in the national championships (and, in some cases, win), most of the approximately 300 racers got their start at, and have only raced on, the Londonderry track.
Eventually, Eberhardt hopes to expand the races series to the weekends and bring in more people and more spectators. He'd like to nudge the sport back toward its American heyday in the 1920s and '30s and away from its current status as niche sport within a niche sport.
But making money isn't the first concern for Eberhardt, anymore than popularity and trendiness is the point for the racers who drive to the track in the late afternoon, race till sunset, and drive home in the dark. While some riders joke that it's all about winning, the thrill is the same for those in first place and those at the back. Even Julie Lockhart, who holds eight national titles in cycling (four of them on the track), still feels sheer exhilaration at doing something under her own power at high speed.
"You feel like you're flying," says Ms. Lockhart, a software-quality engineer who lives in Dunstable, Mass. "Once you're over the finish line, you're like, 'Yeah!' It is a sport that almost anybody can do and it's just so much fun."