As I walk through the entranceway of the Wales National Velodrome in Newport, small clues give the impression that something big is going on.
There’s a clicking noise behind me - two youngsters hurry past, their cycling shoes audible on the tiled floor. From a side-door teenagers emerge, bright in their team’s strip. The focus in their eyes adds to the air of anticipation.
I follow the corridor down a slope in search of a track that I’ve only seen on TV. Seconds later I look up and see the ceiling is also leaning downwards, then I hear it. Distant at first, a whirring - it becomes a rumble - closer - and at once the air above my head is alive with the drone of spinning wheels as a pack of cyclists rides out the G-force of the velodrome bend.
Up a last flight of steps and I am within the track’s perimeter. After my underground hunt, the expanse of the arena is giddying. This is the Ice Breaker series.
Newport stands beside Manchester, Glasgow and London as one of four UK cities to have an indoor velodrome. Not just for elite athletes, this Olympic standard facility is also nurturing the Froomes and Pendletons of the future thanks to Ice Breakers.
When it started six years ago, the event aimed to get children having fun by cycling indoors, but it has come a long way since.
Event organiser, Garrie Tillet, explains: “The first three years it was very much building, then those who started with the system progressed and now they’re at the top end, so this has been a fantastic development vehicle for them. It’s inevitable that kids who set out as beginners five or six years ago are smashing it round here now.”
With an event in January, February and March, Ice Breakers gives more experienced young cyclists the chance to compete in quick, solid racing during the quiet side of the cycling calendar.
Children can start using indoor velodromes at ten years of age. Boys and girls race separately in under 12, under 14 and under 16 age categories. In line with the Olympic omnium, each age group has a points race, the scratch, and the stomach-clenching ‘devil’ which sees each lap’s slowest racers eliminated until just two remain.
This year Sunday is being used for junior racing - 16 to 18 year olds. Many are on the brink of a high profile career in the sport, and Garrie points out a number of national champions among the racing pack.
British national sprint coach, Jan Van Eiden, is also in attendance to see how his junior team measures up. In an office with a commanding view of the arena, the double world sprint champion is clear about the importance of this event.
“There’s nothing like this in the UK. Opportunities to race on the track are so limited so we really need this Ice Breaker series to help develop the youth foundation and to help build quality riders. The stronger cyclists can have a go against the British sprint team cyclists and if they’re good enough we’ll start looking at them. This is where it’s all starting. I’m also hoping we can get more kids into the sport,” he explains.
The model is clearly working at the top end, but Garrie is aware of the event’s founding values.
“At the start Ice Breaker’s focus was on having a go and having fun. I’m really keen to keep that element. It’s a great winter workout and a fantastic education. Most importantly the kids are with their mates and having a great time. There’s a great social atmosphere.”
Andy is senior coach at Reading club, Palmer Park Velo. “This event is a stepping stone to kids preparing in the early season. It lets coaches assess their kids’ levels, so if they want to ride nationally, they need to be riding here,” he says.
“Ice Breakers has become renowned for the quality of the racing and the quality of the organisation. The work that Garrie and his team do is awesome - it’s why the place is packed and why the best riders in every age group in the country are here,” he adds.
Cyclists sit and chat in their teams, some stay warm by pedalling their bikes on rollers, their torsos shift minutely from side to side as they maintain their static rhythm. Our conversation plays out to the metronomic orbit of the racers. For its efficiency and precision, for what it is achieving for beginners and experts alike, this looks like a professional venture, but little money is changing hands.
“We depend 100 per cent on volunteers. They help with the signing on, the marshalling, the timing - everything,” Garrie explains later. Entrants pay a small fee for the day to cover expenses such as food, track hire, insurance and administration.
“These kids deserve to be treated in a competitive manner - the results should be as good as you’d get in an elite race, the organisation should be just as accurate and efficient,” he adds.
Project Officer for Welsh Cycling, Ian Jenkins, sums up the reasons behind the initiative’s evident success.
“It’s the volunteer force behind the scenes that really makes the event tick. Guys give their time but they have great fun together and they do a very professional job. It takes upwards of 15 people to make an event like this run,” he says.
“What an endorsement that British Cycling are running camps based around the competition.
Welsh and Great Britain cyclists, Sam Harrison and Jon Mould are two locals to have gone through the system to the international stage. Both are potential medal prospects in the Commonwealth Games 2018.”
“The kids understand the fun approach we have but some of them can take it quite seriously. I think it’s a very healthy environment and the longer we can keep the enjoyable element, the better,” he adds
One of those kids is Alexa from Palmer Park Velo club, who has been racing today in the under 14s. “Track is my favourite - it’s fun to ride around the velodrome. I like beating my friends, I like the speed - as you get older, you get faster and faster. Techniques are different for every race, so you’ve got to get used to the changes”, she says, before adding: “I’ll be riding in the nationals this year. I’d like to become a professional cyclist.”
As the final events take place, the teams begin to leave. I return to the corridors beneath the velodrome and hear the approach of a now familiar rumble. It is the future of British cycling right here in south Wales, and it’s in rude health.