Herne Hill Velodrome21 minute read

Herne Hill is one of the most significant sites for the history of British Cycling. A feature in two Olympic games, and host of many world and national champions, the track is imbued with the memories of the past cycling glories. Despite the remnants of phantasmagoria among those who know of the track’s history, the memories of the past have not been enough to keep today’s cycling elite coming to the track to compete.


Down a quiet residential street in Dulwich lies a small gate. The type of gate one would miss completely if they did not know it was there. Through the gate there is a narrow, pot-hole-marked drive flanked with high fences on either side.

Herne Hill Velodrome Entrance 2
The narrow entrance

Arriving after dusk, commonplace for wintertime London, makes for an even more austere entrance as the drive is completely dark. It is an odd entrance to Herne Hill Velodrome, a sporting venue which has been around since the 1890’s, played a part in two separate Olympic games, and regularly attracted crowds of 10,000 during its heyday in the 1920’s and 30’s (History, Herne Hill Velodrome). Today, Herne Hill would be best described as utilitarian. The track itself is well lit with a recently re-paved surface, but the rest of the facility is threadbare. Nothing else is lit at night, and the spectator areas are largely closed from use.

Herne Hill Velodrome Seating
Deemed unsafe, the Victorian Era pavilion and seating has been boarded up.

Local cyclists meet at the velodrome to use the enclosed track for team training or track cycling sessions, but leave right after they are finished.

Herne Hill Velodrome is a unique space with a combination of historical significance and modern day utility. However, poor facilities limit the continuation of its elite sporting past. Through their concerted action, the velodrome’s users have shifted the emphasis to gathering, developing, and growing the local cycling community.

While there are elements of Pile’s (2005) phantasmagoria entwined in the Herne Hill experience, it is not immediately apparent. The track’s current connection to elite cycling is quite limited, calling into question the agency of phantasmagorical memories to enact change. Phantasmagoria can exist passively in this space only so long as the current utility is enough to preserve its traditional use.

Bourdieu’s sources of power resonate with recent community developments at Herne Hill (Bourdieu, 1984). However, habitus, capital, and field are largely assumed to be external; the products of surrounding stimuli sub-consciously manifested among individuals. The Friends of Herne Hill (‘Friends’ for short), who manage the day-to-day affairs of the velodrome, and the Herne Hill Velodrome Trust (HHVT), who fundraise and lobby on behalf of the velodrome, directly challenge that assumption by actively changing the capital required of cycling or the perception of the cycling community among wider society.

This paper will begin by discussing the history of the velodrome, followed by its declining relationship with elite cycling. This constrains the velodrome’s image as a historic home for cycling and somewhat dilutes the phantasmagoria of the elite competitions. Finally, the paper will examine the amateur community at play at the velodrome. It will look at the developments among the cycling community within the local population, and discuss the implications of the community’s actions on the sub-conscious nature of Bourdieu’s ideas.

Herne Hill Velodrome opened in 1891 with help from investors in the London County Cycle and Athletic Club (Watts, 2008). Many noted cyclists visited the velodrome to perform feats of incredible strength and endurance, like Frank Shorland who rode over 460 miles over a period of 24 hours while being paced behind a motorbike in 1894. The spectacle was so popular that the entire compound was full to capacity hours before Shorland was due to finish (Watts, 2008). Throughout the early 1900’s, many national and international champions raced at the track. It even hosted the track cycling events at the 1908 and 1948 Olympic Games (Watts, 2008). After 1948, the interest in the track gradually declined. Though it still attracted some big names, the highly successful Italian road cyclist Fausto Coppi visited in 1958, participation at the velodrome steadily (Watts, 2008). Eventually, only a handful of local amateur cyclists remained for the occasional race.

Herne Hill’s future looked bleak in 2005; it had to close its doors after the land owners (the Dulwich Estate) failed to secure a lease since it could not afford to refurbish the track (Rhys, 2005). Though it reopened by 2007, the track’s prospects worsened when the 2012 Olympic Committee chose to build a new velodrome complex, rather than renovate and use Herne Hill (Rhys, 2007). The degrading riding surface forced some events to be cancelled, but limited one-year leases prevented long term security and discouraged renovation attempts (Masters, 2011). After a concerted effort by the Save the Velodrome Campaign and local cyclists, British Cycling (the national cycling body) secured a new 15-year lease on the site in 2011 (Walker, 2011). Along with the lease, British Cycling resurfaced the track to make it smooth, weather-resistant, and fast-rolling (Masters, 2011). In 2013, a £400,000 grant from the Olympic Legacy Project paid for floodlights around the track and a smaller junior track within the original track (Morgan, 2013). Following these upgrades, today’s facilities within the track barriers are quite modern, providing a safe place for cycling.

The rest of the track compound, however, has still been need of an upgrade. Fortunately, the lease was extended in March 2016 so the pavilion could be renovated. Construction began a few weeks later, and is expected to be completed by 2017 (Hornsby, 2016). The new pavilion will have changing rooms, a few meeting rooms, cooking facilities, and a covered spectator area. The HHVT believes that these upgrades will improve the spectator experience at the velodrome, and rekindle the days when people visited the track to watch, as well as participate in, cycling.

New Pavilion Render Herne Hill
An artist’s rendition of the new pavilion. It was designed by the same architect who designed the Olympic Velodrome in Stratford.

Herne Hill has a long connection with elite cycling. In its early days, huge crowds visited the velodrome to watch record-breaking displays of strength and endurance. The 1908 and 1948 Olympics stand out, but there were significant races at the velodrome even during non-Olympic years. On 11 June 1938, Dunlop sponsored a series of track races at Herne Hill. Over the course of the day, fans could watch four different professional races and six amateur races. Among the competitors were the reigning professional road race world champion, professional track sprint world champion, amateur sprint world champion, world’s tandem record holders, British Empire champion, and national champions from Germany, Holland, France, Britain and Switzerland (Dunlop Jubilee, 1938). More recently, the track was the childhood training spot for Sir Bradley Wiggins. He trained at Herne Hill from the age of 12, and went on to win three Olympic gold medals for track cycling and became the first British winner of the Tour de France in 2012 (Sir Bradley Wiggins CBE, 2016). This long history of cycling excellence at the track gives it a certain appeal that newer tracks lack.

The track has received some benefits from the memories of its past. Paul Facer, Chairman of the Friends, believes that an understanding of the track’s history gives it a unique character such that the feeling of the space would be incomplete without those memories (Facer, 2016). The Southwark Council, through its Olympic Legacy Project, helped fund the 2011 renovations. This project was specifically set up and funded in an attempt to protect sites of historical Olympic significance in Southwark (Hornsby, 2016). Without its connections to the Olympics, it is unlikely that Herne Hill would have been able to use that funding to improve its facilities. Phantasmagoria has improved the user’s experience at the track, both through imagined dreams of the past and through physical improvements made possible by historical connections.

Though the memories do exist, the relevance of Herne Hill’s history seems passive; it is only recognized after outside events raise interest in something associated with Herne Hill. The Olympic Legacy Project funding did occur because of Herne Hill’s role in the Olympics, but nobody would have thought about past Olympic sites if the Olympics were not coming to London a year later. When Sir Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, his childhood connection to the track inspired many news articles talking about the track and spreading information about the sporting history of the track (Ailes, 2012 and Howie, 2012). Without Wiggins’ success, or the corresponding popularity of cycling in Britain, it is unlikely that anybody would have seen fit to publish news articles about the site. Though the history of the velodrome may be interesting to some, the public interest driving the news articles and government projects is not in Herne Hill itself, it is in tangential topics which happen to share some similarities with the old velodrome.

There are even some cases where phantasmagoria was completely unrelated to elite cycling decisions. In 2015, when Wiggins was attempting to break the record for the furthest distance cycled in an hour, he chose the 2012 Olympic Velodrome in Stratford, even though his ‘home’ track was just across the city at Herne Hill (Cary, 2015). He chose that site because the pristine wooden riding surface and indoor air conditions were better for riding quickly; he might not have been able to beat the record if he had been exposed to wind at the outdoor Herne Hill track. Similarly, the Great Britain Cycling Team, who won gold medals at seven out of ten track events at the Beijing Olympics, choose to train in Manchester rather than Herne Hill. Geraint Thomas, Wiggins’ teammate at the Olympics, explained that the Manchester velodrome is better-outfitted and has all the professional facilities the riders and coaches need to perfect their training (Thomas, 2015). Despite the history of elite cycling at Herne Hill, and even a personal connection to one of Britain’s most accomplished cyclists, Herne Hill does not attract the interest of the science-driven world of elite cycling.

Today’s connection between the track and elite cycling is often more focused on community than competition. In 2013, Herne Hill hosted track cycling gold medallist Rebecca Romero for her charity cycling event. The event included organized rides through Surrey, ending in the track. The 1500-person strong event was aiming to increase the number of people riding bikes and raise money for a charity helping underprivileged children engage with sports (Ellis, All Roads Lead, 2013). In that same year, professional cyclist Ben Swift led a track cycling session for a number of beginners and fans at Herne Hill. News editor Henry Ellis took part in the session and described it as a relaxed atmosphere whey got to meet “Ben” and learn how to ride a track bike for the first time (Ellis, I Finished Up, 2013). This type of session is clearly not intended to host intense competition, it is more about building a sense of community and connection among the people and helping them get in to track cycling. This seems to signal a shift in the way the velodrome views itself with regard to elite cycling. Rather than hark back to the past, the velodrome now looks to use elite cycling connections to help foster community and develop the cycling community that it has and can attract going forward. This sense of community is important to those who run the velodrome, as it is something they strive to build through all their actions.

While phantasmagoria still plays a part at Herne Hill, its role has been relegated to a passive existence in the cases where people still use the space based on its current utility. The lack of elite cycling at Herne Hill calls into question the longevity of the memories of its past. It is easy to think back to world-famous cycling events while similar events are taking place in the space, but those images will become less and less relevant as fewer elite cyclists know about and visit Herne Hill.

All through its history, but especially so following the campaigns to save and renovate the velodrome in 2011, the velodrome’s community has been an important aspect of its character. Bourdieu’s notions of capital, habitus, and field are useful for explaining the velodrome’s community sentiment and actions. He seems to assume that these values are largely exogenous, that individuals interact with pre-existing societal forces in their surroundings (Bourdieu 1984). The Friends and HHVT actively seek to change the capital required and available for cycling at Herne Hill and the size and scope of the community using the space.

Cycling can be an expensive sport. Though going outside and going for a bike ride on open roads is not expensive, the bike, clothing, helmet, and fancy pedals can be cost prohibitive for those entering the sport. Partly for this reason, Bourdieu (1984, pp. 218) designated cycling as a bourgeois sport, since only individuals with some level of material wealth can afford to participate. Herne Hill seeks to change that notion by keeping entry prices low; £7 for an hour on the track, a track bike to use, and a coach to lead the session. Compared to £40 for similar amenities at the Olympic Velodrome in Stratford, Herne Hill is financially accessible for many more people (Cycle the Olympic Velodrome). This is no accident. In discussions with both Paul Facer and Charmain Hornsby, trustee for the HHVT, there was a great emphasis on keeping the prices low in (Facer, 2016 and Hornsby, 2016). They achieve this by finding other sources of funding, such as selling advertising space on the fence around the track, and limiting their overhead costs. Charmain explained that the committee rejected a design for a pavilion larger than the one currently under construction because it would have incurred too many overhead fees and may have forced them to raise their rates (Hornsby, 2016). The prices have remained low because the people in charge of the velodrome, like Paul and Charmain, prefer the track with low prices that are affordable to everybody. During their decision-making processes, they make sacrifices in some areas to ensure that the velodrome moves forward according to their ideas for the future.

Cycling, especially track cycling, requires an especially high level of social and cultural capital. Track cycling, which requires a rider to use a bike where the pedals are fixed to the rear wheel and ride within inches of other riders. The Friends, combined with a collection of certified track coaches, work together like a ‘family unit’ to preserve the knowledge of the track, keep the track functioning, and help new riders (Facer, 2016). In conjunction with their goals of keeping the track economically accessible, the coaches at the track organize themselves to make sure that there is always a certified instructor available to help new track users at the open sessions. The coaches provide instruction and advice to help novice track cyclists progress with their track skills (Facer, 2016). The efforts to make riding at Herne Hill accessible have had a noticeable effect in recent years. Fifteen years ago, the community of cyclists at Herne Hill was constrained to a small group of serious cyclists who attended sessions regularly. These days, it is common to see many new faces at the sessions. Despite the ever-growing population, Paul believes the relaxing and accessible atmosphere continue the sense of community. Attending track sessions twice a week, he says that the sense of community comes from seeing some familiar faces at the sessions and also from the sense that everyone is sharing the space and sport (Facer, 2016). By lowering the capital requirements necessary for using Herne Hill, the leaders of the velodrome have allowed more people to participate in cycling at Herne Hill, and the carefully cultivated atmosphere has contributed to the sense of community which helps people build a connection to the space and other cyclists using the track.

Through their efforts, the Friends and HHVT have also extended the field in which the community operates. The long entrance drive and high walls around the space make for a very clear definition of the velodrome space, and take away the connection with the local neighbourhood. Once in the velodrome, it would not be difficult to imagine oneself in any part of England, as the only visible element from the surrounding neighbourhood is a train line. While the velodrome cannot physically extend beyond its land, the velodrome’s leaders have always wanted to engage with the local community through physical facilities and personal connections (Hornsby, 2016). The earlier renovations to the track included an inner ring of tarmac and a square of pavement. These changes have made the space available for children’s competitions, cycling events for disabled athletes, and bike polo players in addition to the traditional track riders who use the outer velodrome (Facer, 2016). The velodrome has become so popular that local schools commonly ask to hold track sessions as a replacement for other types of athletic activities. They see it as a great source of exercise, and offer competition to kids with poor coordination skills who commonly have trouble with football or tennis (Hornsby, 2016).

Herne Hill Velodrome inner track
The inner track and square pavement (seen in the middle of the grassy field) are ideal for children’s cycling or other sports

The new pavilion is also designed to have nice changing rooms and cooking facilities, so that corporate groups can visit and use the velodrome for the first time (Hornsby, 2016). Currently, there are no areas with overhead cover to escape the rain or many seating areas to watch the competition. The recent renovations have benefited people using the track itself, but added very little accommodation for anyone not riding. The addition of the pavilion will add better stands for spectators, and overhead cover in case of adverse weather. The goal is to create a space where spectators can come and watch the competitions at the track, even if they are not going to participate (What we Do). Though this does not extend the borders of the velodrome or break down the walls between the velodrome and surrounding houses, the new structures could help entice more of the community to come in to the velodrome compound to experience what the velodrome has to offer. Rather than extend the physical boundaries of the space, the Friends are working to extend the area of the Herne Hill community and strengthen the connections between the inner and outer walls of the velodrome.

In addition to using the physical elements of space to extend the community, the HHVT works to build working relationships with people beyond the immediate community. Charmain explained that during the efforts to attain the necessary leases for renovations, she frequently went to Southwark Council meetings to campaign on behalf of the Herne Hill community. In doing so, she showed that there was a willing and active group of local residents who had an interest in maintaining and using the velodrome (Hornsby, 2016). This display of interest helped convince in the council, who was not pre-disposed to go out of their way to help cyclists, to help the velodrome survive. By going to the meetings, Charmain helped extend the community which had originally been confined to the cyclists at the velodrome to include the entire council, so that many more people in the area are aware of, and are interesting in helping with, the issues at the velodrome. The extension of the field has not just been confined to local people. There is an old, outdoor velodrome in Milan which was in disrepair and due to close. Once the local community heard about the success at Herne Hill, they were inspired to start a similar effort to save their velodrome. The two communities teamed up to offer mutual support and collaboration. Now, the two communities are working more closely together, and even considering the possibility of an organized bike ride from Herne Hill to the velodrome in Milan to show the connection (Hornsby, 2016). In this way, the HHVT has worked to build connections not just with those in geographical proximity to the velodrome, but also those with similar interests and concerns for their sporting venues around the world.

Herne Hill is one of the most significant sites for the history of British Cycling. A feature in two Olympic games, and host of many world and national champions, the track is imbued with the memories of the past cycling glories. Despite the remnants of phantasmagoria among those who know of the track’s history, the memories of the past have not been enough to keep today’s cycling elite coming to the track to compete. The connection to cycling’s history seems to have been overshadowed by the performance advantages that other tracks can offer to professional cyclists. Even the community still using Herne Hill does not much think about the history of elite cycling, they look to the future of the community using the velodrome and how their developing riders could one day break in to cycling’s elite. The community aspect of cycling at Herne Hill has become very important to those in charge. They have a vision for Herne Hill, and they work to push the Bourdieuian elements of power in their community towards those ideals. They have created a relaxed, welcoming community where sport at Herne Hill is accessible to everyone from the first-time track rider on a budget to the experienced racer with an expensive track bike. Through the recent and future renovations of the facility, they have also improved relations with the local neighbourhood and encouraged people living in the area to become more involved with cycling at the track. Though the track still holds elements of its historical background, the track itself and the community using it are ever changing to combine their long past with a brighter future.

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