Exclusive: Chris Hoy on his debt to the Meadowbank Velodrome
For 47 years it has resembled one of those small music venues famous for their ability to discover talent: the King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut or 100 Club of sporting venues.
It has been much loved and shamefully neglected. And soon, with Edinburgh Road Club and other local cyclists throwing a farewell party and running non-ironically named “taster sessions” this weekend, it will be no more.
Last week, when he was in Edinburgh for the book festival, Sir Chris Hoy paid a final visit. “I got one of the guys from the Road Club to let me in for a wander round.” He was with his parents, who are among the many volunteers to have played a major, if largely unheralded, part in the Meadowbank story.
It was an emotional experience. To stroll around the crumbling facility, says Hoy, “brought back so many happy memories and sadness and a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality”.
“When I went under the cabin, where the bikes are stored, it was the smell that got me – it was so evocative. It brought it all flooding back – the nerves I used to feel turning up on a Tuesday night for the track league.
“Silly little things pop back into your head,” Hoy continues. “Racing at the track league, the Scottish championships, spending the summer holidays training there. I was 17 and I would spend the whole day down there; if it was sunny, there was nothing like Meadowbank. I’d go home sunburnt, with my cyclist’s tan lines, and exhausted, having done a million training efforts.
“You remember the highs: the first race I won, a handicap race at the Edinburgh Grand Prix, when I held on and won a £50 voucher for the Edinburgh Bike Co-op. I bought a helmet with that.
“You also remember the freezing cold nights, your lungs torn to shreds in the first race, which was always flat-out. And the awful crashes – Jason Queally coming off and getting a massive splinter in his back. Or turning up on an overcast day, warming up, then the racing being rained off at the last minute. Pursuit qualifying takes about four hours; there could be two guys left to start, then there’s a hint of rain in the air and the whole thing is called off and you have to start again the next day.
“That could be frustrating – there was always talk of a roof being built, but it never happened. But the place has so much charm. And its legacy is amazing.”
Indeed it is. Apart from Hoy, it was in the Meadowbank Velodrome where Brian Temple, at the 1970 Commonwealth Games, won a silver medal. In the 1980s it produced a multitude of British champions, mainly thanks to the City of Edinburgh Racing Club, Meadowbank’s “home” club, with Eddie Alexander excelling on the international stage, too. Into the 1990s and Graeme Obree graced its boards; then there was Hoy, Craig MacLean, Marco Librizzi, James McCallum, Kate Cullen, Callum Skinner, and too many others to mention.
It was almost never built. When Edinburgh was awarded the 1970 Games there was a cost-saving proposal to host the cycling at one of the country’s concrete tracks, perhaps Grangemouth. But Arthur Campbell, president of the Scottish Cyclists’ Union and a high-ranking official in the International Cycling Union and Commonwealth Games Federation, led the campaign for a state-of-the-art wooden track, and one was duly built in a corner of the Meadowbank complex, wedged in beside the Edinburgh-London railway line. The passing of the trains provided an aural backdrop to the racing in the open-air velodrome.
When Edinburgh hosted the 1986 Commonwealth Games the track was rebuilt at a cost of £450,000, but still, bizarrely, without a roof. It rained a lot during those Games, playing havoc with the cycling programme and prompting Prince Edward to christen it “the Wellydrome”.
When Hoy first visited, in April 1991, aged 15, he had already tried BMXing, mountain biking and road racing. Not many kids had the opportunity to try racing in a velodrome – Hoy, living in Edinburgh, was lucky. More than lucky: he owes everything, really, to Meadowbank Velodrome and the people who kept the wheels turning there for 47 years. “I wouldn’t have become Olympic champion without Meadowbank. Not just the facility, but the hundreds of people, the officials, organisers, commentators, the people who made sandwiches. It’s great that there’s a Glasgow velodrome but a shame that people from Edinburgh won’t have the same chance I had, to just give it a go. It was very sad to go back there last week and realise that it won’t exist any more.”