We look at cycle speedway, a sport that involves simple bikes, short ovals, and physical content between riders..
Anybody who has a passing familiarity with two-wheeled motorsport will probably know of motorcycle speedway racing, where four lunatics slip and slide their way on an oval dirt track, each trying to reach the chequered flag first. But did you know that pedal-powered cyclists can compete their own version of speedway? With the help of Barry Carpenter from the Hellingly Lions — the oldest active cycle speedway club in the world (!) — we look at this unique sport, which involves simple bikes, short ovals, and even physical content between riders..
[image credit: Michelle Rideout]
I’ve never heard of cycle speedway — is it a new thing?
Not at all. Cycle speedway began in the bombsite era, post-war. Tracks came up in every area of the country but one by one they disappeared as the land was redeveloped. However, to give you an idea about how popular cycle speedway was in its early days, 10,000 spectators watched the first international between England and the Netherlands at London’s Earls Court in October 1950.
Today, cycle speedway has maintained its presence in around 30 locations across the UK, as well as spreading abroad to countries such as Australia and Poland. Hellingly Lions is the oldest surviving club in the world, having been formed in the winter of 1946. That’s a heritage that the club is very proud of.
So what is cycle speedway then?
Cycle speedway is a form of sprint track cycling. It takes place on short oval shale tracks where four riders go head-to-head to see who can win the race. Like traditional track racing, the bikes used only have one gear and no brakes. However, unlike track racing, there is no banking to deal with and the action is explosive, with riders literally going elbow-to-elbow. In fact, physical contact between riders is part of the nature of competition.
Because of the simplicity of the equipment used cycle speedway is accessible, affordable, family-oriented and takes place in clubs throughout the country. And, as with most other forms of cycle racing in the UK, cycle speedway is governed by British Cycling.
‘Elbow-to elbow’ and ‘physical contact’? Sounds a bit hairy — do people get injured?
Serious injuries are very rare but cuts, bumps and bruises can be a regular occurrence as it’s a full contact sport. You can buy good protection, though, which is recommended. Generally, race clothing covers the whole body with special padding for knees, elbows and hips and — since 1999 — helmets are also required.
So how are races actually run?
Depending on the occasion, a cycle speedway meeting might involve individuals, pairs or teams. Each race is contested by up to four riders, racing anticlockwise around normally four laps of the track (although lap numbers may be reduced for younger riders). Quite simply, the winner is the first rider across the line on the final lap. Points are awarded for placings in each race and in a team event, and the winning team is the one with most points at the end of the day. Just like with motorcycle speedway, riders slide their left foot along the track as they race round turns!
I know motorcycle speedway is held on big dirt ovals but where are cycle races held and how can I find my nearest venue?
Races take place all around the UK on outdoor tracks. However, because a cycle speedway track can be quite a short and nondescript little oval, if there’s no racing taking place at the time, you might be completely unaware of its presence.
In addition to the permanent outdoor tracks, cycle speedway also takes place indoors in sports halls, or on a sectional track that is taken to different venues around the country. To find out more details and the location of your nearest club visit British Cycling here.
Of course, alternatively, you could just find a flat area, mark out an oval with cones, and go racing yourself!
Do I need any special kit?
As well as the protective clothing we mentioned above, the only other thing you will need is a bike. These can usually be borrowed from your local club, although if you get the racing bug you may want to put together your own as it’s quite easy. Generally speaking, beginners’ bike tend to be stripped down old mountain bike frames with a freewheel, single gear, and no brakes.
OK, so how do I get started?
Find your nearest club, contact them about when their next club or training night is and pop along for a go. Because cycle speedway is a regulated and recognised branch of cycle sport, there are a range of goals and achievements you can aim for as you develop. Domestically the sport is run in four regions across the country. The top four teams in each region then compete to become the region’s representative competing for the national team title in September. There are also the individual national championships, which take place over the August bank holiday weekend, this year in the Midlands region. Then at international level you can be world champion both individually and as a team member racing for your country.
How much fun is it?
It’s as much fun as you can have on two wheels, that’s for sure. The sport pushes you to your limits both mentally and physically. It’s great if you want to compete, but it’s also excellent for all-round good health and fitness.
>> To find out more information, visit the Hellingly Lions here and the British Cycling cycle speedway page here <<