At this juncture, I feel I should admit something: I love to drive. Perhaps that’s not the most endearing thing to confess in a cycling-centric blog post but there it is. Ever since I passed that awful test twelve-ish years ago, I’ve driven pretty much everywhere – picking up family, friends and neighbours along the way, partly for the excuse to keep my hands wrapped merrily around the familiar steering wheel for just a little while longer. I even learned to drive buses in my youth, which required the loan of a fellow pupil’s dirty work-boots since my own size fours just wouldn’t cover the pedals. Driving and me: we’re inseparable.
This particular love affair was a slow-burner though, since I wasn’t quite a natural. After four attempts, that was apparent – after six, it was painful. I think I’ve mentioned that I’m not a very practical person. I’m a thinker, not a doer and unfortunately you can’t parse your way through a botched three-point turn. Eventually though, driving became part of my consciousness, coating every synapse until I found myself checking the rear-view and hitting the brake even when walking. But there was a long and arduous period when all things driving were the enemy and I was simply trying to stay ahead.
And that’s kind of where I am with cycling: the will is there but the skill is still firmly at the fifth driving test stage. All parts are pulling in the right direction – it’s just not quite instinctive yet.
So, after two Bikeability lessons and a couple of hours of wobbly practice, when offered the chance to try out the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome for Cycling Scotland and the Evening Times, I didn’t think, ‘hmm, I’ve never used cleats before’ or ‘track bikes have no brakes’; I thought, ‘I’d better dig out that life insurance policy before I head off’. And so it was that I found myself on the concourse of the country’s newest cycling venue, with a concrete-shaped bruise down half my body and an expensive – but thankfully lightweight – track bike coming to rest somewhere between my spleen and my pride.
Feet not touching ground, no obvious means of stopping and one fast-approaching barrier makes Paula a very topple-y girl.
It wasn’t a good start to my track cycling experience but, in these situations, when I’m lying in a giggling heap on the ground, that’s when I’m unbeatable. I’m rubbish, I know I’m rubbish, everyone within eye-shot knows I’m rubbish so there’s really no pressure to be anything else. I can just be my plain old rubbish self without fear of disappointing anyone. You see, I might be clumsy, anxious, talent-less even but, at the core, I’m as tough as a bag of spanners – a big foolhardy bag of spanners – and sometimes that’s enough.
With the track emptied of potential victims and the advice of the head coach, the wonderful Kevin Stewart, ringing in my ears, I wobbled, veered and lolloped into motion on the infield (or apron). Admittedly, I swerved slightly too much on my first try, hitting the shallow banking and collapsing to the wooden slope in a graceless mess but, once I was going, there was no stopping me. No, literally, there was no stopping me. Building up speed on the super-quick surface was amazing, until I realised that at some point I had to guide the bike back into the barrier and bring the whole hurtling show to a halt. I can still hear poor Kevin’s shouts of “towards the barrier, Paula, not towards me” coming closer and closer and… Luckily he’s a strong boy.
The bumps and bruises didn’t stop me from having another try though, with Kevin surreptitiously directing me onto the côte d’azur, where the apron ends and the track – and fun – begins. I spent the quickest eternity what-felt-like-whizzing-but-was-probably-trundling around that eerily empty loop, reminding myself and anyone close enough to hear my delight that, for that all-too-brief afternoon, I was the luckiest girl alive.
Sure, I suffered helmet-meets-concourse-induced whiplash for about a week and my legs resemble a map of Mordor, but I’m still smiling Chesire-ly and I’ll definitely be going back – insurance documents in hand – as soon as Kevin and the rest of the velodrome team are ready for another onslaught.
In the insightful words of Roger Alan Wade: if you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough. In my case, the inverse applies equally well.