Hidden away behind the houses of Burbage Road and Village Way in Dulwich and shielded from all passers-by except those travelling by train between Tulse Hill & North Dulwich station, this historic site is for many people the true home of track cycling in the UK and has been around for a very long time and has an impressive history.
There were a number of tracks built in the early 1890s, and Herne Hill was built as a state of the art Victorian facility in order to provide a safe, banked cycle track for the south London counties.
The track’s brainchild was a celebrated amateur racing cyclist, George Lacey Hillier, who, with the support of local cycling clubs - one of which - Dulwich Paragon - still exists today - floated a company called the London County Athletics Ground Limited to construct the first track in 1891. The cycle track was of rolled ballast with a cinder running track inside and rugby pitch in the centre. Within 5 years the track had been upgraded to a shallow banked track with partially wood boarded straights. A piece of the original wooden track now forms part of the Ken Hill Memorial plaque, & it is hoped that this plaque will take pride of place when a new clubroom is built at the venue. Another piece of the old wooden track is held by the National Cycle Museum at Llandrindod Wells, Wales.
Throughout the 20s and 30s when track cycle racing was probably at the peak of its popularity in this country, the Velodrome frequently attracted massive crowds. Attendance at the annual Good Friday event often exceeded 10,000 people, attracted by the opportunity of seeing World champions racing around the track in record times.
The 1948 Olympics
Herne Hill’s unique history as a venue that hosted the 1948 Olympic Games held in war damaged London is still remembered today, by many of the cycling fans who crowded the track side in 1948. At the beginning of 1948, having been used as a wartime barrage balloon site, the Velodrome was cracked and covered with weeds - a new bitumen surfaced track was constructed, funded by a private donation. At these games, all hopes were pinned on Britain’s four times world sprint champion Reg Harris but the Italian rider Mario Ghella beat him to second place.
Modernizing the track
After the war, the management of the Velodrome changed hands from the original owners to the National Cycling Union (then the governing body of cycling) and then to the Greater London Council (GLC) and finally to Southwark Council.
By the end of the 1980’s the old Olympic track had reached the end of its life and Sport England (then Sports Council), with assistance of EEC funding, financed a £1.5m rebuild. The new track was very advanced and extremely fast as evidenced by a succession of new records. The new track had a much steeper banking than before & the white track surface was not concrete but a synthetic epoxy screed surface that when first built, dried quickly after rain in the spring and summer. It inevitably proved vulnerable to build-up of algae during the wet winter months and even with regular cleaning, it became unsafe to use in the winter months. The grandstand was also closed off in the early 2000s after years of neglect by the operator.
The track’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in 2005 when apart from the Good Friday track meeting, the venue was closed following the expiry of the lease & unsuccessful attempts to take over the running of the it. However, following discussions between the Dulwich Estate & British Cycling, British Cycling negotiated an interim 3-year lease & at the same time an historic meeting of VC Londres saw the club formally agree to work in partnership with British Cycling and the surrounding cycling community to take responsibility for the day to day management of the venue on a voluntary basis. Herne Hill velodrome was officially re-opened on 5 August 2005 with past champions including Chris Boardman & Tony Doyle along with potential future champions from VCL & other local clubs all making the re-opening event a great success.
Since then VCL have managed the track taking it from strength to strength, catering and developing a growing demand for cycling.
The current surface
The 1990s track surface was designed to last for 20 years, and was deteriorating steadily by the early 2010s. It stayed slippery for longer after getting wet, and was becoming more abrasive and cracking. In August 2012 British Cycling, were able to secure a 15 year lease for the track, and it was resurfaced in a near-all weather, gripper, faster tarmac.
Good Friday Track Meeting
The world famous Good Friday Track Meetings first took place in 1903 when the Southern Counties Cycling Union decided to promote a meeting at Herne Hill on the coming Good Friday. The meeting was a huge success & the track was booked for following year and the almost unbroken series of meetings has continued to the present day.
Within a few years of their commencement, capacity crowds often exceeding 10000 people were being thrilled and entertained by the top British amateur riders of the day and leading Continental professional sprinters. When Herne Hill was being used for military purposes during the 1939-45 war the meeting was moved to Paddington & 1941 saw the first blank date on the SCCU calendar. Then the Government ‘suspended Good Friday’ so the meeting was held on Easter Monday.
The 20 years following the war saw the Good Friday meetings reach a peak of international prestige. In 1948 promoter Jim Wallace negotiated a sponsorship with the “News of the World” that enabled him to engage champion amateur sprinters and match them in a ‘Champion of Champions’ sprint. Sadly when this event was first staged, one of our greatest sprinters Reg Harris, then current World Champion, was seriously injured in a car crash en route to the track. He appeared in later years riding as a professional though. Also in 1948 Wallace introduced a new event, inviting comparatively unknown riders to compete in the ‘White Hope Sprint’ in the belief that they would be the future champions. How right he was as the winners through the years were to prove.
Although track racing declined in popularity from the 1960’s to the 80’s, a resurgence of interest and the advent of sponsorship for individual events during the latter part of the century saw the current promoters able to invite World class riders like Michael Hubner, Florian Rousseau, Arnaud Tournant, Graeme Obree, Bradley Wiggins, Stuart O’Grady and Jason Queally to Herne Hill to ensure the continuity of this great international meeting.