As Olympic fever subsides, David recalls a visit to the fastest and most dramatic velodrome in the world, where Sir Chris Hoy’s legacy lives on and he enjoys a far-flung following.
On top of the world
As Sir Chris Hoy sped to Olympic gold in the Keirin, he really did have the support of the Big Man up there. That’s right, big Bernardo Lujan, up there 11,210 feet above sea level in Bolivia. When I met Bernardo, the manager of the Alto Irpavi velodrome in La Paz, he told me all about the day Hoy came to town. Sir Chris had left a legacy of tenacity, courage and raw speed in this remote cycling outpost. Set free to ride this, the fastest track in the world, I quickly set about demonstrating that British cycling could be about so much, erm, less.
Bolivia holds a lofty place in the world of track cycling in more ways than one. While the lack of oxygen in particular makes pedalling a drag, absence of air in general reduces ‘drag’ to such a degree that Alto Irpavi is the home of cycling world records. Arnaud Tournant’s 2001 kilometre mark of 58.875 seconds still stands, proving narrowly too quick for Hoy in his heroic attempt 2007 attempt. The ‘real McHoy’ fell foul of travel chaos on his journey to the velodrome, as indeed did I. Unsurprisingly, my trouble was rather more self-inflicted.
Cycle commuting in Bolivia
As something of a veteran of Bolivian cycling I wasn’t unduly fazed by the altitude. In fact, odd as it might sound, a descent of 1000ft from the centre is required to reach the velodrome in the southern suburbs of the world’s highest capital city. Yet navigation was a little more taxing. I’d been meaning to get to Alto Irpavi for a few months, but was slightly puzzled that none of my Bolivian mates knew where this cycling Mecca was. In fact no one seemed to have even heard of it, let alone the exploits of the mighty Hoy. La Paz is a maze of incomplete streets and informal lanes strung though and up the sides of a staggering Andean gorge. Navigation errors can be expensive on such steep streets. Somewhere in the concrete chaos was a velodrome. In hindsight, perhaps I should have taken a taxi.
Lost in el Barrio Sur, a friendly passerby confidently directed me to what turned out to be a BMX track. An increasingly desperate search through unfinished housing estates followed, punctuated by regular lung-bursting pursuit events involving crazed canine competitors: an idea to freshen up the next Olympics perhaps? Finally the velodrome loomed above me, the kind of improbable concrete monument to themselves that Latin American dictators were knocking out for fun by the time of its construction in 1977. It’s easy to imagine that the decaying grandeur set in around 1978. The air was heavy with dereliction, disuse and disinterest. It was the only thing that the air was heavy with. I needed a drink and a sit down. Perhaps they had a Gatorade vending machine in the lobby? I knocked on the locked entrance. A dog went nuts behind it. Hmmm.
A legacy to be proud of
Happily one of the few people who knew where the velodrome was in La Paz was at home. Bernardo Lujan lives in the stadium, a genial host for this random punter on a Hoy heritage trail. Happy to talk to a fellow cyclist about his own road racing days, he soon got over the disappointment that I did not personally know the big man. Sir Chris and his family had not only left a profound, friendly impression on their visit to La Paz, they had also donated a number of track bikes for the Sunday morning club to use. Far from the hyperbole of home media, how good it is to find the hallmarks of a great man.
Despite the weeds and crumbling concrete outside, Bernardo and his wife keep the clubhouse spotless inside. Although I was keen to stress I’d never ridden on a velodrome before, it seemed rude to turn down the loan of a track bike fished out of the storeroom. I shouldered my new steed and emerged blinking from the tunnel into the arena.
Several things immediately struck me about the velodrome experience, Bolivian style. Compared to coverage of track cycling on TV, there was certainly more washing hanging out to dry in the centre of the track than I expected. Also, one OAP on a rusty old boneshaker gently circling the Lujan family linen at roughly 5mph was one more than I had anticipated. While a bare concrete bowl might seem an unusual location for a recreational senior ride, a quick chat revealed that he liked to get out here for exercise and, in fairness, La Paz does not have a wealth of alternative traffic-free routes. Finally, I had assumed that a terrifying concrete race track would be the preserve of the more experienced cyclist. However, a couple of social workers had decided this would be the ideal venue for the person in their care to learn how to ride a bike. With no instruction. The unfortunate chap was unsurprisingly spending all of his time sliding down the sheer banking before gamely remounting, weaving another couple of metres and toppling off again. Looking at my fellow cyclists inching their way around the track I suddenly realised how the British Olympic team must view the opposition.
With my trainers coping as well as possible with the Look pedals, I warmed up for my own bungled kilometre bid. Vaguely remembering something about leaning and not steering round the banking, I hit my first corner at full speed and promptly flew straight off line, towards the rail and a nasty end. A backdrop of jagged snow-capped peaks and precipitous cliffs thundered towards me. My mind suddenly turned to the limited scope of my travel insurance policy, the ground made by Evo Morales in introducing universal health care in Bolivia and, worse than the impending injury itself, how I could possibly explain such a ludicrous incident to my wife. I made what I imagine is the classic mistake in these circumstances and steered hard left. In no time at all I was plummeting straight down the slope towards the drying clothes. By the time I got on the back straight I seemed to have made about 10 turns to get round one bend.
As the stadium clock didn’t look like it had been working for a good few years, Bernardo did me the favour of timing my attempt on a mobile phone. At 333 metres a lap, it seems like a simple ask to complete three quick spins. However, steering around a weaving or prostrate learner and a virtually static granddad did little for my time. That and a complete lack of technique, resulting in white-knuckled fear as I hit every bend. Oh, and the fact that by the start of the final lap I was shattered. Sir Chris Hoy would have already finished by this stage. This was meant to be a flying run but it was turning into an endurance event. I crossed the line to find out that Bernardo had failed to find the stop button on the phone stopwatch. Looking back, he was such a friendly chap perhaps he was just avoiding revealing the dismal truth...
So, if you ever find yourself in La Paz with an afternoon to spare, perhaps you will find your own way to Alto Irpavi? Cyclists the world over will receive a warm welcome if your luck is in, but this is no signposted tourist destination. People in the neighbourhood know more about the BMX track than this iconic velo venue. If you could time your arrival for Sunday morning you could even join in with the club session. One thing for sure, ‘heightened expectations’ will be met. ¡Merece la pena!