The Herne Hill Velodrome - fighting for survival.
Photos and story by Tricky Skills, March 2005
Herne Hill Velodrome has staged a race meet every Good Friday for more than one hundred years.
That's almost as many flat tyres as the away team coach use to come away with from the old Millwall ground. The event that took place over the Easter weekend looks like it might be the last.
The gates to London's Home of Cycling were padlocked last month because of a dispute with landlords Dulwich Estate and leaseholders Southwark Council.
Southwark's lease expired on 1st February and Dulwich Estate rejected the request for a five year extension, citing a lack of confidence in the Council (you don't say) to raise the seven million pounds needed to refurbish the stadium. Self styled 'leisure lifestyle' company Fusion has been appointed manager of the site in the interim.
This is the same company that across the border in Lambeth has being taking more than two years to sign the lease to run Brockwell Lido, with yet another summer season at Brixton Beach looking uncertain.
The gates at Herne Hill are locked and the track and surrounding stadium is already heading the way of ruin as a new tenant is sought. A 'potential partner' has been found, but there is no indication if cycling will be part of the plan.
Dulwich Estate has a commitment to provide 'leisure facilities' on the land. One man's leisure is another man's Gala Bingo or Burger King.
Worse still, the prime property land could legitimately see private housing built on the site of the velodrome, with a private gym for residents use only, and still not breach the conditions of the lease.
Sport For All? Seems notů
Herne Hill Stadium has a long association not only with cycling but also athletics. Built in 1891, the Victorian construction was originally known as the The London County Grounds.
Cycling was the boom leisure activity of the time and similar tracks were built at Catford, West Ham, Putney, Kensal Rise, Wood Green and Paddington. Herne Hill stands alone as the only surviving evidence of Victorian London's love of cycling. But the venue is much more than a museum piece.
The original wooden banked cycling track (splinters ahoy!) has been replaced with 450 metres of cement. The running track that was also a feature of the original design is now a football pitch.
Herne Hill Harriers have their roots at the stadium. Founded in 1889, the Burbage Road venue became the summer headquarters for one of the proudest name in UK athletics. A world record 15 mile run was set at Herne Hill by Sydney Thomas in 1892, clocking up an impressive 1 hour, 22 minutes and 15 seconds.
Football is also a feature of Herne Hill. The Amateur Football Cup Final took place in SE24 in 1911 between Bromley and Bishop Auckland.
With local non-league team Dulwich Hamlet having their own problems with the lease of Champion Hill (spot a theme here?), Herne Hill was penciled in as a possible replacement ground.
The London Welsh Rugby Club also trained for many years here, hence the reason why The Commercial Pub opposite Herne Hill station is decorated with Welsh rugby memorabilia.
Cycling has always been the main sport at Herne Hill though. The finest hour for the old stadium came in 1948 when the arena was chosen as the venue for the track cycling events of the Games of the XIVth Olympiad.
The official Olympic report says: 'Herne Hill track was the only suitable one. Minor repairs were carried out, spectator accommodation increased by the erection of permanent stands, gates and turnstiles were augmented and a temporary stand erected on the back straight.
Press accommodation was increased, 12 telephone boxes installed behind the press seats and the BBC erected a stand with a control room beneath. First aid and refreshment accommodation for competitors and officials were provided in marquees in an adjacent field.'
With London still ravaged from war and rationing rife, competitors were encouraged to cycle to Herne Hill on their bikes as the best mode of transportation.
This is NOT a feature of London's 2012 bid. Sadly neither is Herne Hill, although a twenty million pound plus new velodrome out towards Lee Valley is part of the plan, with the gates to Herne Hill remaining padlocked.
The SE24 Olympic facility was opened for one final time over Easter. If you were a fan of either top European track cycling or old men wearing tight shorts then you were in for more than a Good Friday.
The car park was full even before the time trials had finished. Always room for a bike though, with hundreds of spectators preferring the two wheel option en route to the hidden Herne Hill sporting treasure.
Tucked away behind an unassuming South London suburban street, the sight of an Olympic sized outdoor track is one of the Seven Wonders of South London. The Lido, Larkhall Park, The Oval, Streatham Ice Rink, Brixton Windmill and my front room completing the roll call.
There is a 'jockey mentality' amongst the riders as they gossip about the weather, the price of a pint of milk and haven't cycling shorts for the more mature gentleman become tighter in recent years?
With the time trials complete, the Good Friday meet was met with the midday sun as the first riders took to the starting line. The Super Eliminator was up first. This is 15 lap sprint with the two riders trailing at the back of the pack after each lap eliminated. The technique is to hang about the relegation zone and preserve your energy for one final push. A bit like Crystal Palace's Premiership campaign.
The slowest lap of the day was for the parading of the raffle prize - a (*spit*) mountain bike complete with GEARS (!) and get this... bloody BRAKES!! I bet it would still be able to beat my Brixton to Tottenham Court Road Challenge time of 15 minutes flat though.
The one lap sprint races were the cycling equivalent of a microwave meal. Differing times for different models, press the start button and then do untold damage to your body before you hear the bell at the end.
And then out came the Petrol Heads as the highlight of the Herne Hill meet. The boys on bikes were there to pace the peddlers. Each cyclist had a matching motorised mate.
It was one of the strangest sights that I have seen in cycling - a leather boy standing to attention being chased down the track by a cyclist. I usually end up with my front end up the backside of a cabbie in central London, but it's not normally by choice.
After five hours of cycling, the gates were locked once more. I cycled back through Brockwell Park with destination Sunny Stockwell. So many things are taken for granted in South London, but slowly slowly some of these leisure facilities are being lost.
But how the hell do you lose a bloody great big velodrome? The seedy world of local government and lease holdings looks set to strike again.
Herne Hill Velodrome was built on the back of a surge in popularity for cycling. Britain is experiencing a similar interest in the sport with our cyclists returning from the Athens Olympics with an impressive medal haul. Bradley Wiggins claimed an impressive Gold, Silver and Bronze, a feat he puts down to his association with Herne Hill:
'Ever since I was a youngster I've had a great deal of fun, pleasure and enjoyment riding at Herne Hill. I hope that the track can continue to give promising youngsters the same opportunities that it has given me.'
It's not just the lycra luvvies either that use Herne Hill. A BMX track has been built around the perimeter which is popular with children at the weekends as they are introduced to the benefits of cycling. With the gates to the stadium padlocked, this is also now out of bounds.
It would be easy for the plight of Herne Hill Velodrome to become London's forgotten sporting site as the hype around 2012 moves up a gear.
With a sparkling new track being built out East, who needs a Victorian velodrome anyway? Who needs another Burger King for that matter? Or a Gala Bingo or a bloody great big new housing estate?
Photos and story by Tricky Skills, www.onionbagblog.com
Click here for Velodrome photos