altWhile I am certainly no Chris Hoy, I consider myself to be a reasonably good cyclist. It was for that reason that I rather courageously - or foolishly depending on your viewpoint - decided to participate in a track cycling session at the Wales National Velodrome at a press conference that preceded the UK School Games.

Jamie Staff, the Beijing Olympic gold medalist in the team sprint, was leading the track demonstration with four young cyclists due to compete in the UK School Games, which started last night, before five members of the media were allowed to join the session.

Reassuring myself that I was in the capable hands of an Olympic champion, I booked one of the five places convinced that everything would run smoothly. However, things did not go according to plan.

Having made a hasty decision to drive from my home in Essex to the Velodrome in Newport, I arrived rather late after a five-hour journey, most of which was spent admiring the tail lights of the stationary cars in front.

Eventually finding the Velodrome (map reading was never my strong point); I hurried to the track where I was immediately asked to change into my sports gear as the demonstration was ready to get underway.

Although I do not think driving a car down the M4 is how Jamie warms up for his races, I realised that the time to pull out of the session whilst saving face had long expired. As an aspiring young sports journalist, I certainly didn’t want to be labeled “that chicken from insidethegames”.

When I returned to the track, I was given a bike, which was extremely light, a helmet and some gloves. It did not take me long to discover that unlike the mountain bike in my garage, this bike had no brakes! It also had very thin tyres and handlebars that curved downwards. I was beginning to realise that I may be in some trouble.

As I looked round the Velodrome, I saw just how steep the track was. The two ends of the track were so vertical I thought they had been replaced by walls.

Feeling less confident by the second, I approached Jamie with a smile that did not conceal my nervousness.

Apart from me, there were only two other cyclists from the media taking part in the session while the rest of the assembled press watched on with obvious amusement.  “I thought there were meant to be five guys from the media?” Jamie asked. “No, two pulled out,” said a gentleman nearby. Though I laughed, I thought that they probably had the right idea.

We put our gloves and head gear on and climbed onto our bike by leaning against the metal rail on the inside of the track to put our feet in the straps attached to the pedals.

alt“Okay then” Jamie said, “Make sure that you hold the bottom of the handlebars. You will have to lean forward [in the superman position]. It might hurt your back a bit but make sure you stay in that position if you can”.

“These bikes [track racing] obviously have no brakes so you have to slow down your pedaling to go slower and pedal backwards to stop.

“Make sure you keep pedaling or you will fall off. Always look straight and a good piece of advice is to go hard into the slopes as you approach them. They are the same gradient as the ground if you cycle at a steady pace on them. Okay guys, 'Let’s go'."

Having barely understood most of the instructions, I set off on the flat part of the track hoping I would get the hang of it once I started riding. My first thought was that it wasn’t too difficult. I could feel the gears clicking but I kept a steady pace behind Jamie and the bike ran smoothly.

“Okay,” Jamie shouted, “Let’s head up the slope a bit."

Tentatively, I moved my bike onto the slope and although I felt I was at a right angle, the bike gripped the slope well.  “Just keep a steady pace,” I reassured myself, “and you will be fine."

With the wind blowing hard against my face which actually proved a pleasant sensation, I began to get more adventurous and advance further up the slope. Things were going well when, after about 10 laps of the track, I began feeling a little tired. You may call me unfit, but I was going round those slopes extremely fast to ensure I didn’t fall while trying to keep up with an Olympic champion!

Getting steadily more tired by the second, I began to fall quite a way behind Jamie when suddenly, the bottom of my tracksuit got caught in the pedal strap. Though I didn’t fall, I wobbled aggressively as I managed to pull the bike back in a straight line.

Hoping the assembled press hadn’t observed this, I quickly glanced at the inside of the track where a group of grinning faces confirmed to me that they had indeed noticed. I valiantly peddled on until Jamie finally called us in.

It took a while for me to slow down sufficiently to grab hold of the metal rail that would bring the bike to a halt but with Jamie’s assistance, I managed to do so. I climbed off the bike completely breathless and dripping with sweat but still in one piece.

altJamie rode up to me with a smile on his face. “Did you enjoy that?” he asked.

“Yes,” I admitted, “it was good fun. It’s so tiring though. How on earth do you do that for a living?”

Jamie smiled again in a gesture that said more than words ever could. The smile indicated that it is years of hard, tiring work and dedication on a track like this that makes an Olympic champion.

I think I’ll let Jamie do the hard work, endless training and tough competition, though. I’ll stick to writing about it.

Tom Degun graduated this summer from the University of Bedfordshire with  
a BA First Class honours degree in Sport, Media and Culture and joned insidethegames last week as a reporter and our Paralympics correspondent