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Velodromes fulfill your inner need for speed

Published January 25, 2013

Driving a McLaren Mercedes SLR at close to 300 km/h in lane No.3 of a Spanish oval race track was pretty cool.

The car was stable and had a neutral steering feel; close to flat cornering. No doubt an army of sensors and electronics were keeping the vehicle in trajectory. But beyond good automotive engineering, this was as much about civil engineering: Drive at the right speed in a corner that is banked at the right angle and the tires will hold.

Unfortunately, I was not the SLR driver. In fact, I wasn’t even there.

But Canadian home builder and philanthropist Peter Gilgan was. And judging from the grin on his face as he recalled the experience, I can only assume that testing the banked-corner theory first-hand must have been awe-inspiring.

Listening attentively was Tim Hockey, group head of Canadian banking at TD Canada Trust. The three of us were sitting down late at night a few weeks ago talking about oval tracks. In fact, we even spent some time enthusiastically putting together a model of a track.

One piece of plastic at a time, we built a 3-D model of a $56-million velodrome. The real thing is being built in Milton, in time for the cycling track events of the 2015 Pan Am Games. Gilgan and Hockey have been instrumental in that project.

Riding a bicycle around a velodrome is much like driving an SLR around an oval track. But the experience is rawer and more visceral. There are no electronics — just a steel-tube frame chassis, a big engine and direct steering that tells you exactly what the slick tires feel.

In both cases, it’s about pure speed and adrenaline: using the full width of the track and its banks to your advantage, following the flow of the curve, hiding behind others and using their drag until you can pass them.

On one end, a pushrod V8 running at almost 10,000 r.p.m.; on the other, a human heart beating just shy of 200. With 42-degree banks, Milton will be significantly steeper than Daytona International Speedway. But it’s all the same battle: bend the laws of physics and have a little fun.

Many have written about the tremendous benefits of having a world-class indoor cycling track in the GTA — for the competitiveness of our athletes (and our gold-medal count) and the health of our communities — cyclists and non-cyclists alike.

Getting into the bucket of an SLR in Spain or a NASCAR race car in Daytona will cost you a bundle. But a night at the velodrome will cost you no more than a night at the movies.

I still remember my first session on the wooden planks many years ago in France. After a couple of short lessons, I was out on my own, following the natural flow of the track — at low speed, sticking to the centre of the track initially, and then rapidly growing confidence. In the end, this was a truly exhilarating experience, a feeling of freedom and invincibility.

To experience the thrill of speed on the planks, there is no need to be an Olympic athlete. You don’t even need to be a cyclist, really. When the Milton track opens, there will be plenty of rental bikes available and programs to teach you how to ride them.

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