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“The last time I was here, I went down right there!” says Ben pointing to the back straight right before it kicks up to the steep banking. “A kid from the Mexican National Team tried to go through a gap that just wasn’t there. That was almost 20 years ago!”
As a young rider Ben was a ‘trackie,’ that brand of cyclist addicted to racing fixed gear bikes on the velodrome. He was considered an endurance track rider. Of course, in the track world, endurance is a 4000m pursuit ride.
“I had a pretty good motor, and a pretty good sprint. I was a ‘tweener,’” remember’s Ben. “I wasn’t gonna be a match sprint guy, and there were plenty of pursuit guys faster than me, so I really gravitated to the points race. I could go out and try to get a lap and still go for some sprints.”
The Encino Velodrome was his home track as a young rider, going to Tuesday training hours and then racing there on Friday evenings. It was built back in 1961, the fulfillment of a life long dream for four Southern California businessmen: George Garner, Bob Hansing, Jack Kemp and Charlie Morton. It began as an asphalt track, was refinished with cement in 1963 and has recently undergone another renovation with a new surface and infield.
“The track used to have a really rough surface when we raced here. It was like racing on a cheese grater! This new smooth surface is amazing!” says Ben after a few hot laps.
He decided to build up a new track bike after years of criterium, MTB and gravel racing. There’s nothing like a track bike for pure efficiency. No brakes, no derailleurs, no cassette. It’s quiet and quick, with the fixed gear truly making the rider and bike one machine. He chose a dual purpose frame by Van Dessel, one that can be set up with drop bars for mass start races like the points race, or aero bars for pursuit and team pursuit.
The trick with a track bike is choosing the right gearing. Too big and you can’t react quickly to attacks, too small and you spin out when the pace gets high. Ben was on a 49×15, a good gear to get his legs used to the banking and fixed gear again, but he’d go bigger on race day. Spinning with an Izumi-V chain, Ben sets his tension very carefully by sliding his Zipp 808 in the rear dropouts.
“I love how quiet and efficient this chain is, but with any chain the tension has to be just right. I try to run fairly loose, but you don’t want to throw the chain off the ring if the track has any bumps. Luckily this new surface is really smooth and this Izumi chain is really well made,” he says.
Where a chain designed for a derailleur has a lot of lateral flexibility to move across the cassette, a good track chain, like the Izumi-V, has much less lateral flex, ensuring it can be run loose for really low drag, yet won’t jump off the chain ring. The Izumi V even uses a special connecting pin, like a small nut and bolt for extra security.
“This chain is one of a few approved for elite Keirin racing in Japan. Those guys put out a ton of power, so I know this is more than tough enough for me!” laughs Ben.
Ben rolls around slowly at the top of the track crossing the Olympic rings commemorating the 1968 Olympic Trials which were held at the track. After warming his legs up he dives down the steep banking and quickly spins the gear up.
“There’s nothing like that feeling!” says Ben. “The acceleration of dropping down the banking, then the g-forces as you rocket through the corners at 50kph–it’s addictive, there is really nothing else like it in cycling!”
After about 30 minutes on the drop bars, Ben swaps to his aero bars for some more efforts. As he whips around the velodrome in his aero tuck he stays as close as he can to the black line. That’s the measurement line. Ride above that and you’re going farther than 250m around the track. Above that is a red line, and the area in between is the sprinter’s lane. That’s where you want to be on the bell lap of a mass start race or match sprint, as other riders can only pass you on the outside, taking the long way around.
As Ben cools down on the infield warm-up track he chats with some of the other riders there for their morning workout. He learns the Masters World Championships are just two months away at the LA Velodrome. The glint in his eye says this return to the banked corners of the Encino velodrome may be a lot more than just one morning!
To get started at the Encino Velodrome go to: encinovelodrome.org
What we rode: The Izumi-V Chain. For more info go to: izumichain.co.jp