While the Tour Down Under celebrated its 20th anniversary in and around the Australian city of Adelaide this past week, on the west side of town, a very different and utterly unique cycling sport was preparing for its 60th anniversary: cycle speedway racing.
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton
Little known but passionately played, cycle speedway is sometimes called “poor man’s speedway racing.” The little sibling of motorcycle speedway racing, cycle speedway is run in a similar fashion. Like the motorcycle version, cycle speedway pits small groups of riders against each other on a short, but intense four-lap race around a gravel track. But unlike regular speedway, cycle speedway utilizes custom-designed single-speed bicycles.
And although it is a little-known sport in North America, it boasts a strong following in England, Australia and Poland. “The sport first started in England during World War II,” says Mick Harley, the founder and director of the Findon Cycle Speedway in a working-class neighborhood in western Adelaide. “It started out during the bomb crisis in WWII. Kids, looking for something to do, would race their bikes around the bomb craters in England.”
Australia, with its close ties to England, was quick to pick up on this novel sport; and Poland, with a strong tradition in motorcycle speedway racing, also embraced it. With only three countries actively participating in the discipline, cycle speedway remains very much a niche sport. But here in Findon, where kids and adults, literally from all ages, come out to compete, it is practiced enthusiastically every weekend from February through October.
Harley, a longtime local, is nothing less than an institution, for the Fendon Speedway was his doing. At the age of 15, Harley spent a lot of free time racing his bike around the neighborhood with his friends. Looking for a way to become more organized, he convinced the local council to build a gravel track near to where they stored the gravel for the local roads. And as the club prepares for its 60th anniversary, Harley is still very much a fixture.
In speedway racing, groups of generally four or six riders line up at the start. When the starter calls, they ready themselves in a bike stand. And when the start gate rises they take off in a mad dash toward the first corner, where they quickly hit their seats, extend their inside foot and slide around the turn. The short straightaways offer little room for passing, but the compact corners are often highly strategic as various forms of jostling and contact are permitted. A strong and experienced speedway racer will come underneath a competitor and literally push them toward the outside as they vie to take over the front position. Crashes are commonplace here but, as Harley is quick to point out, “There have been only 20 broken bones in 60 years of racing.”
“I started racing when I was three or four and have been racing ever since,” says Cody Chadwick, who finished second to his brother Joel in last year’s world championships. “I just love the competitiveness. It’s a real contact sport racing side by side. And when you come into a turn and can bump them out of position it’s a good feeling.”
Understandably this unique sport requires special equipment. Soccer pants designed for goalies are ideal as they fit snugly around the legs and are reinforced, offering extra padding for crashing. And indoor soccer shoes are often used to grip the block pedals.
The bikes too are unique. British bike manufacturers Archie Wilkinson and Pedal Power Cycles, as well as Mielec bikes in Poland, are three of the most reputed speedway frame builders, producing the compact aluminum frames. Compact gearing (generally 33×17) is also preferred, as it allows for quick accelerations out of the turns. But while the bikes are equipped with a single speed, unlike track bikes they are equipped with a freewheel as well, so that the cyclists can stop pedaling in the turns and use their inside foot for balance.
In addition, riders tweak their bikes to suit their own particular style. Chadwick for example tilts both his handlebars and his seat upward. “The tilted bars are better for the standing starts and the tilted saddle allows me to keep a low center of gravity in the corners,” he says.
For some, speedway racing is a sport unto itself. But for others it can be a formidable school for other kinds of cycling. Olympic gold medalist [in the Madison] Brett Aitken is by far Findon’s greatest success story, because he grew up racing on the gravel here before going on to Olympic glory. At 13, Aitken was already representing Australia in international speedway events in the open ranks. The only problem was that he was nearly half their weight. “I was a 55-kilo kid going up against 100-kilo men who wanted to knock me over the fence. When you are that scared on a bike you learn to ride pretty fast!” says Aitken, who adds that speedway racing was instrumental in providing him with the skills that he used later to win gold in the 2000 Olympics.
And while Aitken remains the club’s brightest graduate, 13-year-old Braylan MacDonald represents, in many ways, the club’s future. While MacDonald is barely a teenager, he has been part of the Findon’s Skid Kids youth program since he was four, and he has won multiple national championships for his age group. “I just love it. I dunno’ why really, but I love it,” MacDonald says. “He doesn’t miss a day,” adds his mom Kyra. “It’s good for him. It keeps him fit. It gives him a good attitude and it teaches him respect.”