Sunday, August 7, 2011
Cycle speedway - fast action in 45 seconds
ACTION AT the Dave Blinston Memorial Trophy races, May 7, 2011, at Stockport (England) Cycle Speedway Club. (All photos taken by author at this event.)
By MICHAEL ELIASOHN
“All riders ready,” the referee shouts. “Under starter's orders.”
Then the cloth tapes that form the starting gate lift, four riders push down on their pedals and they're off.
Four quick laps of a short oval track and perhaps 45 seconds later, it's over – until the next heat.
Cycle speedway contains elements of velodrome and BMX racing, with a bit of roller derby thrown in. Using one's shoulder to get past an opponent is allowable, for instance, and spills sometimes happen.
When rounding the corners, riders take their foot off the inside pedal and hold their left leg out, just above and sometimes touching the paved inner perimeter of the track.
Each heat consists of four laps, counter clockwise, of an oval tracks from 64 to 92 meters (210 to 302 feet) around the inner perimeter. Banking is slight and the surface is unpaved, usually shale.
The official website for cycle speedway in the United Kingdom, the predominate country for the sport, says, “Top riders are explosive sprinters - but they also have stamina to enable them to keep going through a long match. Skill levels are high with slick starting, cornering and passing techniques essential. Strength is also required during contact with other riders.”
The bicycles are unique. Steel or aluminum tubing, straight forks in line with the head tubes (that is, no offset), one- speed freewheels, no brakes, narrow upright handlebars and flat pedals with non-slip surface – clipless and rat-trap pedals and toe clips and straps are banned.
Cranks are 175mm for leverage, the seating position is low enough that the rider can put his feet on the ground while seated, and gearing is very low. Cycle speedway equipment supplier Archie Wilkinson lists 32 and 33-tooth chainrings and freewheels with 16, 17, 18 or 19 teeth. With the standard 26x1-3/8 inch knobby speedway tires, that works out to gearing options ranging from 45 to 54 inches.
Cycle speedway is a mostly British sport, but also takes place in Ireland, Poland, Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden, the Ukraine and Russia.
TWO POSTS (one at left out of sight) mark the starting line. The cloth tapes are held in place with pins, attached to ropes. The starter (back to camera) pulls on the ropes, releasing the pins, then elastic cords pull the starting tapes to the top of the posts.
WITH THE starting tapes at the top of the posts, riders push down on their 175mm cranks and they're off for four quick laps.
Cycle speedway in the U.S.A.
There's only one cycle speedway track in the United States, in Edenton, N.C., which in April 2011 hosted the world championships, with riders competing from the U.K. Ireland, Australia, Poland and the U.S.
There's interest in creating a track in Portland, Ore., according to Brian White, creator of the Edenton track and U.S Cycle Speedway founder and president. A track in Prescott Valley, Ariz., lasted from 2004-09.
So how did cycle speedway find a home in the remote corner of northeastern North Carolina? According to the U.S. Cycle Speedway website (www.uscyclespeedway.com), it started in 1990, when White, only 6 years old, attended a stock car race and decided if he was too young to race cars, he would race his bicycle. He started organizing Saturday morning races for the neighborhood kids, using his parents' front lawn.
After several years, the races moved to non-busy neighborhood streets, and finally in 1997 to a track built on donated land.
White and his fellow racers didn't know about cycle speedway, so their track was larger and their races longer. But word about the racing in Edenton made its way across the Atlantic, and in 2001, they were contracted by Rod Witham, then British Cycle Speedway national chairman. The following year, two top British riders visited Edenton, and changes started to make the track and races to conform with international standards. In 2003, the first competitors from Edenton participated in the junior world championships in Poland and the senior world championships in England.
In 2004, the races moved to a new track at Northeastern Regional Airport in Edenton, where there is an international track, 88 meters, and an endurance track, 101 meters.
Cycle speedway, fashioned after motorcycle speedway, traces its origins to Britain just after World War II, when cyclists started racing their bikes around craters created by Nazi bombs. There were more than 200 cycle speedway clubs in East London alone by 1950, according to a Wikipedia reference.
Unfortunately, the numbers have been declining since. When the press and publicity officer of the Cycle Speedway Council wrote a chapter about the sport for The Bicycling Book, published in 1982, there were almost 100 clubs and 75 tracks in the U.K.
The British Cycling Cycle Speedway Directory for 2011 lists 30 clubs and tracks. (Cycle speedway in the U.K. is now administered by British Cycling, which is the governing body for most forms of bicycle sport in that country. The Cycle Speedway Commission, advises on racing rules and competitions.)
Except for some sponsorships, cycle speedway is an amateur sport, according to Alan Taylor, a former racer and 30-year veteran of the sport, who was doing the announcing at the May 7, 2011, races at the track at Stockport, England. He said the only prize money may be at the national championships.
The winner of the Dave Blinston Memorial Trophy that day won a set of wheels and second and third place each won a set of tires – all donated by Archie Wilkinson (www.archie-wilkinson.co.uk), the biggest supplier of cycle speedway cycles and equipment. (Blinston, who died in 2005, devoted 50 years to the sport, as a racer, club officer, team manager and league and national committee member.)
THIS CYCLE speedway bike is a Polish-build Mielec (www.BikeMielec.com). Aluminum frame, rear facing dropouts, one-speed freewheel and no brakes.
AN UPSIDE VIEW shows the Schwalbe 26x1-3/8 tires, made specifically for cycle speedway, and pedals with non-slip surface. Clipless and rat-trap pedals are banned.
Cycle speedway is a family sport. The Dave Blinston event was organized by Julie Higham, Stockport Cycle Speedway Club secretary. Her father, Derek Garnett, is five-time British champion. Her son, Ben Higham, finished third that day.
Another competitor was Dylan Radcliffe, 16, who started racing at age 8 or 9, his father, Jeff, said. After Dylan started, Jeff raced for a while, as did Jeff's father, Maurice, that is, Dylan's grandfather. Both were spectators at the Dave Blinston event.
The event was open to all ages, with 23 riders competing, with at least one of them female.
Each raced in five four-lap heats, with the top 16 then racing in another set of five heats to determine the top three. But at the end, there was a tie between Chris Timms of the Birmingham club and Lee Aris of the Wednesfield club, so those riders raced another four laps to determine the winner. Timms won. (Scoring is 4 points for first in each heat, 3 points for second, 2 for third and 1 for fourth, but no points if lapped.)
The Dave Blinston event was a competition for individuals, but “cycle speedway is essentially a club sport, with inter-club matches within leagues the mainstay of the sport,” according to the official British website. “Each match normally consists of between 16 and 20 races. There are also individual championships, including a world championship and some inter-country series, including regular contests between England and Australia.”
Riders can start competing the year of their 8th birthday. The super veteran class is for the oldest riders, 60 and older.
As a suggestion from the writer of this article, cyclists interested in trying cycle speedway could organize races by setting up traffic cones on a parking lot or some other surface, using regular bikes. (In Britain, they race indoors in winter on gymnasium floors, so a special surface isn't essential.) Instead of a starting gate, use duct tape for a starting line and have a starter shout, “One, two, three, go!”
If enough interest develops, then a more formal track could be built and cycles modified to more closely resemble those built specifically for the sport.
Numerous cycle speedway matches are on posted on YouTube. Type in “cycle speedway.”
THIS PHOTO of the ceremony for the 16 finalists at the Dave Blinston Memorial Trophy, prior to the start of the second round of heats, shows the size of the track in Stockport, 75.5 meters. Tracks can be from 64 to 92 meters around (210 to 302 feet.