A question I often asked my husband. I would see his Strava activity showing a stint in the Velopark and I just didn’t get it. Why would you cycle around and around on some pretend road? Why not just cycle on the, er, actual roads? Surely it’s more fun to cycle on something that feels more real, and that has a purpose?
Well it turns out that there is genuinely something pretty amazing about the Velopark, which is situated in East London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The problem with the real roads is that they have annoying things that can get in the way of some serious cycling, or even for just normal cycling they can take the fun out of it. Like, for example, traffic lights. And people. And cars. And lorries. And uneven road surfaces, or worse massive potholes. And lots of gutters. Did I mention glass? Or nails?
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to let these things put me off cycling on the road, and there are many solutions to avoiding these ‘problems’ of road cycling. But if you want to try out some serious cycling alongside your normal ‘purposeful’ cycling, or your fun leisurely cycling, then go to the Velopark.
My husband kept saying to me, try it out, I think you’ll love it. So I went one Friday morning with him to do just that.
As you go into the Velopark you have to hang your bike up on a rail by the seat while you get your ticket. I was torn between mild amusement that my bike was just suspended in mid air like that, and a sense of amateur discomfort as to whether my bike would pass this initiation test and be allowed in. As it happened they handed me a ticket so I guess I (or my bike) passed.
As I entered the Velopark road circuit itself there was a sign saying which direction to cycle in. If the whole point is speed and not worrying so much about navigating around other road users, then it’s quite crucial I guess that everyone cycles in the same direction. My husband said that this direction changes regularly. Many of the Velopark users have no idea why. Perhaps it’s because of wind direction. Or perhaps they like to just keep everyone on their toes.
We got on our bikes and I had my first go on the road circuit. We had the place to ourselves so I didn’t feel intimidated by loads of other pro- cyclists whizzing past me. Weekdays day time are a good time to go if you can as it is generally quieter.
I’ve cycled on the bridge in Olympic park that goes above the Velopark road circuit many a time, and sometimes seen hoards of lycra clad male cyclists speeding down the hills on their super fast road bikes. Fortunately they were not there today.
I started cycling and realised I wasn’t having to worry about whether a car was going to overtake me, or whether I would hit a traffic light just when I had got into a high gear and a decent speed. I reached the first hill after just a few dozen metres, as there are quite a few hills in the road circuit. They’re all small hills as the circuit itself is only a mile long. So even if you’re not seasoned at hills you should be able to manage them. The key thing is to know that’s what you’re going to face and be willing to give it a try. If you don’t like hills at all, the road circuit is probably not for you. There are uphills followed by downhills followed by uphills. And a few stretches of flat in between.
You can ride down a descent, pick up a lot of speed and then use that speed to get you up the following hill. You feel the wind in your hair, or in my case hijab, and the adrenaline rush is quite something. There are different loops you can do to add even more variety. I’m no expert at hills but the road circuit was a chance to gain some experience of how to tackle them which will help me on the led rides I go on.
My husband went round a few times with me and then I told him he could go off and cycle for a bit. Many people come here just to cycle at crazy speeds, or to get in a certain distance, and well he’s one of those. It felt like a real workout to me, and I realised it’s a bit like going to the gym.
A ticket for Pay and Ride in the Velopark road circuit is at the time of writing £5. They also hire out bikes for £12 and even cleated shoes. The Velopark has a café, which we didn’t try as we like the Unity Kitchen café in Timber Lodge just a little further down in Olympic Park.
The Velopark have some great sessions to encourage people to come along, such as their twice weekly #ThisGirlCan women only sessions on Wednesdays and Sundays, and a monthly Bikes and Bakes session where you get to cycle and eat cake (but maybe not at the same time). I’m not ready to go on my own to the Velopark yet, but I have found a possible buddy to go with if my husband is not around to tag along, and finding a friend to go with is a good idea if you find the idea of trying it out daunting.
The Velopark also has other facilities, including mountain bike trails, a BMX track, VeloStudio sessions and indoor track taster sessions. There are kids sessions where they can get a taste of different cycling disciplines.
The whole point of the Velopark it seems, is precisely that it’s not the actual roads, and it’s really quite amazing.