Ron Webb, the doyen of track design

“And the winner is…”

That nerve-wracking moment familiar to Oscar nominees, when the sealed envelope is peeled open painfully slowly by whoever has the honour of presenting the award, a card withdrawn from said envelope at leisure, whereupon a broad grin is feigned, a long, languid lean in towards the microphone, then the announcement made.

“And the winner is… the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton.”

Watch the YouTube clip of the 2011 Stirling Prize [no currently available] and I swear you can hear boos and mumbles mixed in with the cheers. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The online ‘people’s poll’ run by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) before the prize presentation proper in Rotherham had the Olympic velodrome as runaway winner with 62.9 per cent. Zaha Hadid’s school trailed home in fifth (out of six candidates) with a paltry 2.8 per cent. Just shows how much the public knows about architecture…

Hopkins is the company that won the bid to build the London velodrome back in 2007. For the design of a new building in the UK to be acclaimed from all sides at the outset was practically unheard of. For it to gain in popularity as the beautiful curved shape emerged on the skyline of east London amid other less well-received Olympic facilities was remarkable. Cycling is now so popular in this country that even its buildings can do no wrong.

Olympic Velodrome

I put it to Jonathan Watts, one of the velodrome’s architects with specific responsibility for the roof, that the evening in Rotherham must have smarted slightly. Was the train journey back to London a tad subdued? He smiles, just a little, but is too tactful to dish any dirt. “The Stirling Prize is the Oscars of architecture. The prize went to Zahir Hadid for a school building, which was a bit of a surprise and we were disappointed, but you have got to take these things in your stride, I guess. We got to build the velodrome, so we were quite happy with that.”

Prize or no prize – and the velodrome has won others, including an award for structural engineering excellence – Hopkins Architects are justifiably proud of the work and Watts is happy to spread the word. It is fitting that his area of expertise is the roof, as it is the defining aspect of the building’s design. For the velodrome to be saddled with a moniker borrowed from a potato-based snack may seem belittling, but I have to say, having stood on top of the thing, that calling it The Pringle is not too far wide of the mark shape-wise.

Back at ground level looking up, it echoes the track within – albeit at 90 degrees to the direction logic suggests the 250-metre track might run. Inspiration for overall design, Watts says, came from “the evolution of the bicycle, and the dynamism and movement of track cycling itself.”

No architectural qualifications are needed to stand back, admire the form of this building, and appreciate what Watts is saying. Ascend the steps to concourse level and a swathe of red cedar timber cladding – which will weather and darken over time, Watts assures me – arcs above your head.

London 2012

Glass runs the entire way around the concourse, with the structure above seemingly unsupported, giving the interior that rare commodity for a velodrome: natural daylight. Step inside, look up, and eight long strips of clear roof panels aid the concourse level glazing, reducing dependency on artificial lighting, all part of the energy efficiency conditions set by the Olympic Development Agency.

If spectators at the World Cup in February, the first event to be held on the new track, wondered why they were a tad warm it is because the riders’ needs come first. Record-breaking times demand certain atmospheric conditions. And judging by the four world records that fell over the four days of racing, the architects have got this aspect right too.

“Normally, for general public use, you would want it to be 18-26 degrees with good air movement so it feels really comfortable,” Watts explains. “But for Olympic and top-level competition, you want between 24-28 degrees with no air movement, and high lux [light] levels for high definition TV. Draughts and air temperature have a big bearing on times, but that is only 20 days of the year. You have to design for both of these scenarios.”

Sir Chris Hoy’s input proved useful for seating arrangements. The surge in crowd noise on tracks like Manchester as riders hit the straights is noticeable to competitors and spectators alike. Hoy’s suggestion to wrap the entire track with seating will give a consistent wall of sound when Olympic racing commences in August, with that low-slung roof helping keep the atmosphere intimate but, importantly, loud.

Lee Valley VeloPark

That iconic roof used 300 tonnes of steel – compared to the 3,000 tonnes for Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre – with stressed cables forming a lattice holding prefabricated timber cassettes. Aside from the sustainability and ecological conditions laid down in the design brief, I wondered if there was pressure to use British companies in the construction.

“All the structural timber is from a company in the north of England,” says Watts. “The cable net in particular is such a precision piece of engineering, and there were only three companies we could consider at interview level who were capable of doing the complexity of analysis, design and fabrication. We ended up going with a German company.”

All of this gleaming steel and timber would count for nought if the track within was not up to scratch. The safe hands of British based Australian Ron Webb were tasked with this part of the design, marking his 62nd track worldwide, including Manchester and Newport. “I was retired before I finished Newport, but they pulled me out of retirement,” says Webb as we sit on dusty concrete, watching his team of workers in action. “It’s an Irish company. Their boss worked for me on Edinburgh, Athens, Seoul, Wanganui, probably 15 Six-Day tracks. And I’ve got other guys here who worked on Sydney and Melbourne, so they are a very experienced crew.”

It is hard to hear the softly spoken Australian over the noise of hammering from all sides, hard hatted men clambering up the banking and using 360,000 nails to keep Siberian pine strips in position. Hammers, in this age of power tools? “I insist on that. A good carpenter knows exactly where his nail goes. If you have a nail gun, it is not accurate enough. And also, if you are standing at the top of the banking and slip using one of those, it wouldn’t do your future any good…”

Olympic Velodrome

I understand the inference and it sounds very painful. As a former professional track rider himself, Webb knows thing or two about pain. Travelling Europe’s velodromes specialising in motor pacing behind the big bikes, Webb considered what separated good tracks from bad. “I used to think it was a matter of luck which was which, until I realised that a lot of people who designed tracks had not been bike riders. It’s a little like playing golf: you would rather play on one of Arnold Palmer’s courses than one designed by the local borough engineer.”

The long straights and tight bends design common on the continent came from Six-Days, where space was often tight. Even as 250m permanent tracks were built, they kept the principles of their predecessor’s dimensions.

“As a bike rider, I didn’t like that, especially towards the end of my career. If you were a sprinter and weighed, together with your bike, 100kgs, and you are doing ten seconds for 200m, as soon as you get past that bend and start heading in a different direction you have got centrifugal force coming into play, which effectively adds another 70kgs. It’s the same principle as driving a car round a roundabout. If you take the foot off the gas, then you drift out. With the very tight tracks, like Calshot, you have to pull your bike up straight coming off the bend. I thought that was unnecessary so I started designing fatter tracks. And riders seem to like it.”

Fatter tracks and faster tracks. Webb particularly studies the exit of the curve, utilising the centrifugal forces to positive effect, throwing the rider out of the bend. He seems reluctant to take any credit for world record times already recorded in London, with a clutch more surely set to follow in the summer. “I wanted to make a track that was easiest for the rider. I just build the stage for them to perform on.”

And what comes first, the building or the track? Chicken or egg? “Hopkins the architects understood the situation perfectly. I design the track and then they design the building around it, and that is the only way you can work. It would not be possible the other way around.”

Gallery: Six Day London through the lens of Léon Van Bon

That is reassuring to hear. For all the plaudits heaped on the aesthetic, practicalities have to take preference. The World Cup event provided a useful dry run for last minute tweaks – moving the riders’ toilets closer to the track centre, for example. Those pre-race nerves can play havoc…

This article was originally published in Rouleur 33 in 2012.
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