Give the public what they want

When asked the difference between an amateur and a professional, Reg Harris replied: “When I was an amateur I had to win. Now that I am a professional I must win in an interesting and dramatic fashion.” The distinction is gone – along with the cigar smoke and trad-jazz bands of old-time track racing, but it’s still about putting up a good show, pleasing the crowd. Match sprinting is great entertainment. 550 metres of manoeuvring for position leading up to a flying-start 200 metre dash.

national champion at 54

When asked the difference between an amateur and a professional Reg Harris replied: “When I was an amateur I had to win. Now that I am a professional I must win in an interesting and dramatic fashion.”

The distinction is gone – along with the cigar smoke and trad-jazz bands of old-time track racing, but it’s still about putting up a good show, pleasing the crowd.

Match sprinting is great entertainment. 550 metres of manoeuvring for position leading up to a flying-start 200 metre dash.

Everyone who watches asks – at least once –  ‘why not just go?’

Robert Förstemann’s thighs are so big he walks like a special-needs case. In the very last race on Sunday – the Bronze medal best-of-three decider – he went from the gun. His opponent Kevin Sireau of France, hesitates in momentary disbelief, tries to chase for a few hundred metres, then gives up, allowing Robert to start celebrating, half a lap out.

Their first match – won by the Frenchman – was  timed at 10,492. Förstemann took the second in 10,483, For the decider Robert covered the timed 200 metres in 16,531 with his hands off the bars and no one else in the picture.

The wasteland?

Sunday afternoon in the Olympic Velodrome, Lord  Coe makes a short speech in which he praises the glamorous new wooden ‘O’ and recalls how seven years ago, on the same spot, he was ‘struggling with rotting fridges’. When politicians – who all champion grassroots sport – talk about the Olympic Park in the Lower Lea Valley, it’s customary to infer – even to state explicitly – that it was built on waste land.

“The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Milan Kundera

Now

Sunday afternoon in the Olympic Velodrome, Lord  Coe makes a short speech in which he praises the glamorous new wooden ‘O’ and recalls how seven years ago, on the same spot, he was ‘struggling with rotting fridges’. When politicians – who all champion grassroots sport – talk about the Olympic Park in the Lower Lea Valley, it’s customary to infer – even to state explicitly – that it was built on waste land.

 then

When you lost skin racing dirt-bikes over the scrub hills of Eastway grazes took time to heal because the land was composed of rubbish. Where tyres eroded the earth, fragments of brick and glass emerged. Despite this cruelty the environs of the cycle racing circuit, the adjacent nature reserve and allotments were a green haven.

The cycle racing at Eastway covered all disciplines – except track racing – at all standards. The Tuesday time-trials would regularly feature riders capable of covering the undulating, one mile circuit, ten times in 23 minutes, while other competitors took a quarter hour longer. All were welcome and all valued.

pedalpower at Eastway

Post-games plans for the Olympic lands include a velo-park around the new indoor track, which stands where the Eastway home straight once ran. During the tortuous and bitter negotiations over this legacy those who now control the land have often overlooked the fact that this new facility will not be a gift. The velo-park is repayment for what was lost in 2006 when the old circuit – on land dedicated for the quiet enjoyment of the people of East London forever – went under the bulldozers.

One analysis of the Olympic bid  is as a massive land-grab. Once this Summer’s party is over it will be time to deliver all the promises made in the frantic run-up, time to take down the temporary buildings and tear up the temporary coach-parks. We can look forward optimistically to the Eastway diaspora’s glorious home-coming, to racing on land from which all toxic waste has been diligently removed. The new park is due to open in 2013, but the useful outdoor cycle-sport elements won’t be reinstated or sustained because that’s what the land-grabbers want. They prefer the wasteland myth. Vigilance is necessary.

This land belongs to you and me

If God had meant us to walk why would she have given us bicycles? Pushing on into Angel Lane, over the bridge, which is much higher than it used to be – see the Olympics does have fitness benefits for the general population – in search of rolling access, the first turning toward the great new ‘Croydon’ was unambiguously marked ‘NO CYCLES’. People in cars or on motor-cycles were welcome. I wasn’t. Through Leyton and out along Ruckholt Road. At Eastway the same story. A signpost to Westfield but – again – no access for unmotorised people. The how-to-get-here > cycling, on the mall’s website boasts of 800 parking stands but doesn’t tell you how to get to them.

get a car or go away

I’m pretty sure you can’t get to Westfield Stratford City, the shopping complex that abuts the Olympic Park, by bike. Riding round the site’s perimeter the pedestrian access from Stratford Station is up two flights of stairs followed by a long walk. If God had meant us to walk why would she have given us bicycles? Pushing on into Angel Lane, over the bridge, which is much higher than it used to be – see the Olympics does have fitness benefits for the general population – in search of rolling access, the first turning toward the great new ‘Croydon’ was unambiguously marked ‘NO CYCLES’. People in cars or on motor-cycles were welcome. I wasn’t. Through Leyton and out along Ruckholt Road. At Eastway the same story. A signpost to Westfield but – again – no access for unmotorised people. The how-to-get-here > cycling, on the mall’s website boasts of 800 parking stands but doesn’t tell you how to get to them.

Apparently the first London Westfield in Shepherds Bush had hurt the trade of posh streets in West London and I was interested in the dissonant idea that big city people might visit shopping malls. I’d always thought of Brent Cross, Bluewater, Lakeside Thurrock as places where suburban types went to trudge and gawp. My enthusiasm for the visit dented by Californian infrastructure, I rode home leaving the new tills unsullied by my coin.

To get to the Velodrome for the test event last week spectators had to assemble South West of Westfield. We arrived at Stratford in good time, took instruction from a cheery uniformed ‘greeter’ climbed the steps, cyclo-cross style, walked through the Mall then parked on Sheffield stands by a new dual carriageway. We came from Hackney so’d already passed close to the Velodrome and ridden halfway round the estate’s perimeter before starting our march.

The shuttle bus service was quietly efficient, being searched, walking across bleak plazas and queuing, all reminiscent of the indignities of air-travel. The bus took us on a serpentine tour of the Olympic site, under and over the same bridges – like hostages being deliberately disorientated. Eventually we were dropped, another walk away from the target we’d ridden by thirty minutes earlier.

The racing was exciting. The new velodrome elegant and functional even better than Manchester.

Then…

Now

When the bus returned us at the end of the day we mounted our bikes like honest men and – instead of walking in the wrong direction – rode West for home. After a few hundred metres a couple in yellow jackets walked into the road waving their arms. Of course we ignored them dodging through in a slow-motion parody of tricky track sprinters. They followed in a pick-up truck flashing their lights but – since the road was busy with motor-cars – couldn’t stop us without causing big trouble. At the Olympic Park exit fence, back – again – close to the Velodrome, we were finally halted and told-off. The staff had no coherent explanation why we couldn’t ride along a road busy with other traffic. When challenged to explain they had to fall back on the honest explanation. They were only obeying orders.

It was the cycle racks that got me thinking. Why had they been built if you couldn’t ride there? The next day I returned, rode to Stratford climbed the steps walked through the shops back to the parking racks. I knew riding westward would cause trouble ‘not you again?’ so I tried riding East towards Stratford and emerged on Leyton Road from behind a ‘no cycling’ sign.

I suppose this situation is temporary, That – in due course – cycle access will be revealed, but Westfield Stratford City has been open for six months.

In Inner London the bicycle is an obvious form of transport. Everything is near and the roads are mostly too narrow and congested for people to speed in motor-vehicles. In certain places, in some demographics, it’s become the default mode of travel.

In the outer suburbs bicycling is much more awkward and transgressive. Four-car households are not exceptional, the landscape is cut by big roads that often hog the desire-line. Places are further apart. For Inner Londoners who ride bikes the outer suburbs present a doughnut of inaccessibility between their regular haunts and the wide green World beyond the metropolis. Greater London contains the best conditions for cycle-travel in the UK. And the worst.

In most places round the doughnut’s inside edge, Inner and Outer bleed together through a liminal zone where some people look inwards and others outwards. Along the lower Lea Valley – once the peace-line between the Danes and the Saxons, then a boundary between Essex and London – the division is clearer and more abrupt. Westfield is definitely an invading out-post of suburbia, who’s imagined visitors come by car or perhaps via the public-transport hub at Stratford.

One of the many proposed benefits for the 2012 Olympics was jobs for local people, a phenomenon I’ve benefited from in a tiny way. There’s also the concept of the ‘games-train’ where rootless people – Australians, Kiwis, Canadians, etc. – traverse the globe from World Championship, to World Cup, to Olympics, ending one grand project then moving on to another. These people bring expertise. Perhaps their sympathy for the ‘local’ is not so well developed?

The roads of the Olympic Park are being laid out in a low-density, motor-friendly way. The speed limit will be twenty miles per hour. That contradiction is a manifestation of an era – and an area – of mixed messages.