diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 02, 2012

I went to the Paralympics again yesterday.
I went to two events in two completely different locations.
I started in the Velodrome, which I'll tell you about below.
And I'll tell you about venue two tomorrow.

Cycling - the venue: Velodrome
Excuse me if I use the word iconic, but the curvaceous Velodrome is probably the most memorable chunk of architecture on the Olympic Park. The roof's gained it the nickname of the Pringle, which would have been extremely clever marketing on behalf of official Olympic sponsor Procter & Gamble if only they hadn't sold the brand to Kellogg's a few months ago. It's also one of the hardest venues to get Paralympic tickets for, accommodating only 6000 spectators, which means that fewer than fifty thousand people will have got inside by the time it closes its doors this afternoon. They're peculiar doors too, designed more like an airlock. It's essential that conditions inside are warm and breeze-free, so doormen let you in first to a glass antechamber, close the outer door and then usher you into the greenhouse beyond. I wasn't expecting it to be 28 degrees inside. I'd dressed for autumn, so three hours of summer meant a swift trip to the water fountain was in order. Sales of water were brisk, although beer not so, probably because it was too early in the day.

The interior of the Velodrome has a real wow factor, or at least it made me gasp silently when I entered. It's not the influence of the exterior structure that does it, indeed you probably couldn't guess the shape of the roof while sitting within. Instead it's the size of the place that feels unexpected, with that looping track edging right up to a ring of seating, and a large expanse in the centre where the workings of competition are revealed. Each competing country has its own small area of floor, a fenced off cubbyhole in direct proportion to the team's size. Cuba got a couple of chairs, whereas GB's area was youth-club-sized with laptop, slouching zone and a table stacked with gum and drinks. It'll be rather emptier in the middle when the place opens up in legacy, but lucky old London, this is a magnificent facility for the capital's future cyclists to enjoy.

Cycling - the event: Men's Individual B 1km Time Trial, Men's Individual C4 Pursuit, Men's Individual C5 Pursuit
Blind cycling. It ought to be impossible, if you stop and think about it, especially on a tightly curved track. But it works, and fast, because each competitor rides a tandem with a pilot on the front. Eight pairs set out on the 1km ride early on Saturday morning, with the first two unlucky enough to have their chains fall off and need a restart. Britain's Neil Fachie, piloted by Barney Storey, whizzed round the track in world record time to hit gold medal position with one pair to go. It was expected that teammates Kappes and MacLean would be very strong contenders but they had one false start followed by another so were disqualified, their four-yearly opportunity lost. Neil and Barney grinned through the Victory Ceremony ("as is customary, for those who are able, please stand for the national anthem of Great Britain"), then showed off their medallions (diplomatically) back in the Team GB bikeshed.

Next on the track, the Individual 4km pursuit. That's 16 laps of the track at blistering pace, which would be tough enough for athletes with all their limbs, but these are Paralympians. Some athletes had shortened forearms so couldn't have reached normal handlebars, others had legs missing so were pedalling with their prosthetics. Britain's Jon-Allan Butterworth inspired the crowd with another world record breaking performance, then raised one and a half arms to the crowd in celebration. His Guinness Book place lasted no more than fifteen minutes before Australia's Michael Gallagher swiped back the honour J-AB had merely borrowed. It's a damned fast track here at the Velodrome, so fastest-ever times in several categories are getting rather commonplace. A round of applause to the commentary team, who managed to stay the right side of entertaining and informative throughout. And also to the DJ, or whoever it was selected the thumping background music, with a a soundtrack ranging from Ill Manors to Led Zeppelin via The Smiths.

It's futuristic-looking stuff, this racing lark, all multi-coloured lycra, filled-disc wheels and streamlined helmets. The crowd were inspired to cheer loudly, generating the famous Velodrome roar, although their enthusiasm tailed off rather as the morning continued. The very first race was deafening throughout, but by the end the cyclists were rotating in relative silence. It is remarkably hard work to keep up applause and cheering through a succession of four minute heats, so the commentators occasionally had to remind us that we were here to provide an atmosphere. Britain's Jody Cundy got full support, as he sped round in the pursuit pedalling with his Union Jack prosthetic leg. He was back in the Velodrome following a ranty incident on Friday best forgotten, and produced what looked like an unbeatable sprint, except it only led to bronze. We can't win everything, and didn't, but Britain's track cycling record continues its medal winning ways.

» Nine photos from the Velodrome

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