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Inside the 2012 Velodrome

Hugh Pearman

I did so wish I’d brought my shiny new bicycle. Though frankly, this is not quite the place for a squishy town bike with mudguards, a rack on the back and a kickstand. The kind of bikes that use this place don’t even have BELLS, for goodness’ sake. They are velos. And this is their drome.

It is, to be exact, the 2012 Olympic Velodrome, by Mike Taylor of Hopkins Architects. Hopkins worked with structural engineers Expedition and services engineers BDSP. It’s a class team – selected in competition by a panel including cycling champion Sir Chris Hoy, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, and RIBA past president Sunand Prasad. The class shows. This, the first big venue on the Stratford site to be completed, is a very good building indeed.

It is to be a permanent venue, and unlike the main stadium by Populous, or the Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid, it won’t be modified after the event – except to have a ‘velopark’ created around it for the public. So the building you see now is exactly as it will always be. That gives it a distinct advantage: it is a largely uncompromised design.

The first thing you notice is its delicacy. Sports buildings are often clod-hopping affairs. Not this one, which is designed to be as lean and tight as a Lycra-clad Olympic Gold Medallist. Even the Western Red cedar cladding seems shrink-wrapped. It’s all generated by the roof, which is a cable-net structure. Half the weight of a conventional roof on such a building, it is stretched from a relatively slender ring beam running round the edge of the swooping, Pringle-shaped roof.

Then when you walk inside, it’s all very immediate. No transition lobbies – the moment you’re through the doors, you’re in the action. The building floats visually on a ribbon of glass at entrance level, so you can see in from outside, and vice-versa. It is well daylit from strips of rooflights. Seems obvious, but it turns out that most velodromes are dark, enclosed places requiring a lot of energy to run. This one is largely naturally ventilated as well as daylit. Top marks.

It seats 6,000, so can generate quite an atmosphere. Though when I saw it with Taylor, it was deserted apart from a few builders attending to the snagging list. The centre of the arena was an empty lake of blue flooring. The banked track, made of long thin strips of Siberian pine and designed to be the fastest in the world, was pristine. Just as the roof defines the external appearance of the building, so the track defines the internal appearance. As Taylor says, it’s like some Futurist vision of speed.

It’s not quite perfect – the intrusion of various accommodation pods at concourse level interrupts the all-round transparency, for instance – but this is a minor cavil. Overall, I found it totally refreshing. Once the Games are over, I’ll be back. On my bike.