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Re: November 2002 issue of Classic Bike
On page 65 you have a very interesting article on motor pacing at Herne Hill.  Our Cycling club is based there and our members would be very interested in the article.  Would it be possible for me to obtain permission to copy said article to our website?

Mike Peel

Yes, you can put the article on the website so long as Classic Bike is prominently credited: 'Feature reproduced by permission of Classic Bike magazine - November 2002 issue'

Becky Cornell
Editorial Assistant

Laps of the gods: a model R Triumph pace bike at Herne Hill in the Twenties and (below) Triumph Thunderbird that continues the tradition today

Story by Danny Defazio

... but for how much longer? Modified TR65 Triumphs are continuing a long tradition by acting as pace bikes for cycling racing at the last velodrome in London. But its days may be numbered as the local council threatens to wave the final chequered flag…


When London staged the Olympic Games in 1948, more than 48,000 people packed into the Herne Hill Velodrome to watch the cycle track disciplines. Fast forward 54 years and 1 am greeted by blank looks and the shaking of heads when 1 ask directions to the venue that still stages cycle events.

The evidently little known Herne Hill track, in south east London, is the last remaining velodrome in the whole of the Greater London area and the south east. And there is now a question mark over its future the local council is undertaking various feasibility studies and there is talk of cycling giving way to football. A final decision will be made in October, 2003.

So 1 had better get a move on. I am here in Herne Hill to try out one of the ten 1982 Triumph TR65 Thunderbirds used as pace bikes.

Pace bikes in the sense that the ten Thunderbirds stay on the track for the entire race, getting their pursuing charges up to racing speed and then adjusting accordingly.

It makes for the extraordinary spectacle of up to ten motorcyclists and ten cyclists haring around the velodrome, with the spoils going to the first, hard-pedalling cyclist and Thunderbird 'driver', as the Triumph riders are called, to cross the line.

Above: Twenties velodrome action on the Continent

Right: frame with roller prevents cyclists from jamming into the pace bike

Below: this heavyweight machine in action on the Continent

And a Thunderbird in the sense that, at first glance, the machine 1 am given to try out certainly looks like a Thunderbird and, notwithstanding the absence of any form of baffling, it sounds like a familiar Meriden twin. But when you actually start to ride this adapted machine, you quickly realise that a good part of what knowledge you have acquired about motorcycling is of little use.

For a start, you straddle the bike rather than sit on it. There isn't a seat... well, not one worthy of its name. Instead, there is a rump shaped panel.

But then, with this machine you are forced to either stand on the ground or on the footplates. Making the transition from one to the other is the catch.

Fortunately I have 57 year old Colin Denman, one of the three coaches at the track, as host for the day. He explains that the secret of getting safely airborne is to have someone hold the back end of the bike and give you a running start, while you perch on that absurd panel and work out which way you are planning to wind the throttle. After all, you do have a choice.

Professional pace riders know that every wisp of air flowing beneath their underarms is literally a drag to the following cyclist, which is why a crude mechanism allows them to turn the throttle in reverse. This means that their arms are pinned tight against their, bodies.

However, when you are standing on the hot seat and hanging on to those absurdly long handlebars, you revert to being a slave to convention and wind up the throttle as normal anti clockwise. Thankfully this is only a practice run. It would be a different ball game in competition.

Then, you suddenly notice that the gear lever is on backward, so the sequence is one up, three down. As for fifth, forget it. It is not on any of the bikes. Colin does not know why.

A short stroke (76 x 71.5mm) torquey twin, the 65Occ machine is as forgiving as Hillary Clinton, and soon you are wobbling your way to the first embankment. You could imagine them all sniggering behind on the terraces but you are too busy trying to work out the laws of physics to worry about image. The huge rear sprocket demands that you shift up rapidly, and soon you and the bike are climbing the wall. Instantly, you begin to reappraise gravity and realize just what a big baby you are.

Triumph's sporting links

Launched in 1981 two years before the collapse of Meriden the Triumph Thunderbird was an economy 649ce motorbike, priced at £200 less than the Bouneville. Only 400 machines were made and the marque was largely forgotten until a mini revival of interest in recent years (see the feature in December 2001 issue of CB).

The Thunderbirds are not the first Triumph links with the sport. Way back in the twenties, ranks of pace bikes that can best be described as Model R Roadsters were roaring round the velodromes of Europe. leading generations of .

One of the more impressive sights must have been the huge three litre V-twin Anzani-powered pace bike that enabled Leon Vanderstuyft to set a 76mph speed record at the Montlhery circuit south of Paris in 1925.

At the other end of the scale are the 90cc two stroke Puch-engined Derny practice pace bikes that are still in regular use today.

It is surprisingly sticky and tractable up there, and now the Thunderbird is roaring around the perimeter, seemingly finding its own track.

The ride is firm to painful thanks to the considerable vibration, and it feels as if you need to take a pipe wrench to the steering. The problem could be the lack of rear shockers, but suspicion soon falls on the gearing. Also, the extra unsprung weight cannot be helping and you are glad there are not potholes on the track, otherwise you would be brought down fast.

By the end of the first lap, you are beginning to get the hang of it. You are still wobbling like a Sumo wrestler but at 40mph plus, it is not that noticeable.

There is no foot brake you would not be able to use one standing up, as it would simply pitch you over the headstock. Instead, you have two levers on the left handlebar. One is for the clutch, the other is the rear brake that operates the standard Thunderbird drum. On the opposite side is a familiar Lockheed master cylinder.

Not that you actually need brakes. Well, not when you are out joyriding. But when there are ten pace bikes on the track as there sometimes are, each being pursued by a sweaty and frantic rider hurtling close behind, a totally different level of skill is required.

The Thunderbirds were housed originally at the Leicester Velodrome and were supplied and converted by an unknown dealer for the 1982 British Cycling Federation world championships. When the Leicester track was demolished, the bikes were tried at the Manchester Velodrome, but were too heavy for the wooden track, so they were sent to Herne Hill, where they reside in articulated truck containers.

The conversion from motorcycle to pace bike may look clumsy, but it works and follows a style forged by a century of experience.

The rear angle Iron frame carries a roller to prevent the cyclist from jamming into the pace bike. The roller is set at a regulation distance, and the good paceman knows exactly how to keep his rider out of the breeze and on the fastest line.

"It is quite a knack," admits Colin. "But we are in constant contact simply by shouting at each other, and you develop strategies to stay ahead."

Quite, but some would go further and say it is the paceman who is the real lynchpin of the race. After all, any fool with a pair of huge calves can pedal a pushbike. Guiding that same fool through a roaring melee of eight equally determined teams is as much an art as a science.

'Batman' stars at the velodrome

You might well ask why Colin Denham rides his Tunderbird in fancy dress. In fact, it is not a Batman costume but a suit made for the 1982 world championships.  Never a sport that attracts much money, and so the suits have yet to be replaced.  The sport may be short of cash but it is a tough sport.  Speeds of 70mph are not uncommon and there are tales of dirty tricks and sabotage, but acid attacks on riders could be folklore.  However, there have been fatalities.  During WW2 an RAF man fitted his own carburettor to a pace bike and flew over the embankment, breaking his neck.

Colin has had his share of injuries, including three broken ribs that resulted in a three-month lay-off.  "The biggest danger is a tyre blow-out," he says.  "These tyres, which are taped and gluded to the rims, operate under enormous loads.  One bike can, and frequently does, bring down everything else behind it."

Communication between driver and rider is rudimentary.  Intercoms were tried but aborted, so it is back to shouting - "Allez" for Get on with it, and "Whoah!" for slow down.

A cyclist since 1955 and a motorcyclist since not long afterwards, Colin has a Category A British Cycling Federation licence that allows him to ride anything on the track, and he keeps fit by cycling 50 miles a week.  Now he fears for the future at Herne Hill.  Not only has there been no racing this year because of lack of riders but there is the threat of a council redevelopment.

Colin Denman drove this 90cc two stroke to win the National Championship this year with fellow Herne Hill coach Russell Williams



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