Saving Herne Hill - London's other velodrome

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London's Olympic velodrome is sparkling, ready for the coming Games. But what of the once world-famous but now downtrodden Herne Hill Velodrome?

Take in the view across London's one-time Olympic velodrome: open and exposed to leaden skies and pouring rain, the banked racing circuit's surface is worn down to risky levels.

Puddles pool towards the track's central oval and trickle away across the grounds.

Start Quote

Steve Cook, cyclist

As we can see, the place is falling down”

End Quote Steve Cook Herne Hill cyclist

The pavilion and grandstands are boarded up, rotting. Water runs down decaying walls to soak the bright green moss that is breaking down the brickwork.

No crowds are cheering here. Instead there is just the sound of damp pigeons cooing amid the metallic splatter of raindrops on iron steps.

The café, toilets and changing facilities are in darkness and huddle together, housed in temporary cabins in a muddy car park.

This is not some neglected future vision of how Stratford's shiny new velodrome might look, come the post-2012 legacy era.

It is the reality of London's other velodrome, built in 1891 and one of the oldest in the world.

Once billed as "the world famous" Herne Hill velodrome, it is London's single remaining Olympic finals venue from 1948.

And it shows.

On this dreariest of February days, it is suffering under the kind of weather London 2012 organisers hope never appears during their Games.

Herne Hill velodrome
  • Built in 1891
  • 450m long track
  • Banks at 30 degrees at its steepest
  • From 1903 hosted the annual Good Friday meeting, at peak attracting 10,000 spectators
  • Hosted 1948 Olympic Games
  • Tommy Godwin won Olympic bronze there in the 1km time trial and team pursuit
  • Bradley Wiggins raced there from an early age

It's enough to deter most of the increasing number of track cyclists and their fans who usually make their way up the narrow driveway, squeezed between south-east London semis, to the 450m velodrome track.

Bar one: Steve Cook is secretary of VCL - Velo Club Londres, the track cycling club that shares the venue with Herne Hill Youth, which runs mountain biking and the off-road, short course races of cyclo-cross.

He began racing when he brought his son down for training and decided to swap tea with the other parents who wanted a go.

He is full of the thrills of racing on a steeply-banked track like Manchester or London's indoor Stratford velodrome: "It's just like a wall, you have to ride the bends really hard and you can rest a bit on the straights - if you're not really moving fast you would just fall off.

"You get G-forces in your stomach, amazing. It's like a wall of death thing - the faster you go, the more you grip."

Shallower Herne Hill, he says, is better for encouraging beginners. But it needs some TLC.

"As we can see, the place is falling down," he says.

"It's very much treasured by the people that ride here. The surface is just about gone, like very coarse sandpaper, so when people have crashes, they get nasty grazes."

Olympic stardust

The velodrome has frequently struggled to keep going - on a piece of land that would be ripe for developers.

But a 15-year lease has just been shaken on with landlord the Dulwich Estate - meaning money from donations can be spent on resurfacing the track.

The scope of a Save the Herne Hill Velodrome campaign goes further, backed by local cyclists, supporters and celebrities.

So far, the campaign has raised about £50,000 in individual donations. British Cycling will be investing £300,000 to resurface the track and the cost of developing the whole site is £5m.

London 2012 - Begin your journey here

London view
  • Sport, news and more 2012 information

The plans add a new pavilion, café, proper changing and storage. The aim is to bring in more schools, families and charities helping disabled people to cycle.

At a recent launch meeting in London's City Hall, politicians including former Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell and Boris Johnson's sports commissioner Kate Hoey pledged their support.

Lord Coe swooped in to sprinkle a little Olympic stardust and plant the London Games organisers behind them.

Among the skinny-faced cycling types were those who recall Herne Hill's glory days: when crowds of 10,000 crammed in for the annual Good Friday highlight and the gates had to be locked to stem the flow of devotees.

Tommy Godwin was one of those 1940s and 1950s heroes. He won two bronze medals at Herne Hill in the 1948 Olympics in the team pursuit and 1km individual time trial.

Now he is a twinkly-eyed 90-year-old, keenly proud of his medals.

His glories are seen only in crackly black and white footage, but he says the memories are "indelibly printed" on his mind. He speaks of Britons who worked in a factory all week, took a day off to ride the velodrome and beat professionally-prepared European rivals.

"The memories are very vivid," he says. "On that day, packed the stadium was, the whole sea of faces all round.

"When I rode the 1,000m time trial it was just a roar all around the stadium."

"At the Olympic Games, to get the wonderful feeling of so many British people shouting and cheering for you, it gets quite emotional.

"My father was there, a 17-and-a-half stone man crying because his son had won a medal. It's still emotional," he says, choked. "I'm a very proud Olympian."

'Faster and faster'

Critics may ask why London needs two velodromes.

Even among the cycling fraternity there are mutterings that the plans are ambitious. That an improved velodrome will be expensive to run and entry costs may rise, excluding people.

But supporters say Herne Hill will act as a feeder, a nursery for up-and-coming cyclists, before they progress to "take chunks out of the boards" in Stratford.

Start Quote

Without going round and round, how will my Dad deal with his mid life crisis?”

End Quote Freddy Wright Herne Hill cyclist, 11

Some of the plans' most ardent champions are Charlotte Cole-Hossain and Freddy Wright, both 11, who have been track cycling for the past three years and came second and third in their national cycling events.

In tandem, they say they "love cycling. It means everything". Charlotte explains the value to young people: "It's a safe, fun and a really friendly place to ride a bike. We're learning more and more about how to race.

"The coaches are all experienced riders, full of great advice - we're getting faster and faster."

Plus, they joke, the track has scope for all the family - how else will their dads avoid "getting fat"?

"Without going round and round," they ask, "how will my dad deal with his mid-life crisis?"

'Nightmare' scenario

The team from Hopkins Architects behind the curvaceous Olympic 2012 velodrome has drawn up the Herne Hill proposal and believe it makes sense to bring the two cycling projects together by redeveloping Herne Hill.

Senior partner Mike Taylor says the Olympic build has been "amazing" but the idea that it could be detrimental to Herne Hill's future is a "nightmare" at a time when track cycling is on the up.

"You've got a city of eight million people and a 6,000-seat, 250m track that can maybe have 12 people cycling around it at once in Stratford," he says. "Surely there's space for another velodrome?

"Let's get some energy into Herne Hill, get the track sorted out, do a new pavilion.

"If we can make the two into one project, we've really achieved something."

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