The second week of the diving class came and went without a hitch, but before the final open water dives, there was one last cycling endeavour to be had.

I’d met a guy called John at lunch in the office a few times. We’d chatted a bit about the Tour de France as it had been going on through August, and he’d mentioned that nearby Burnaby sported a fully enclosed velodrome. “I’ve been meaning to organise some beginners’ track lessons there, but we’ve always been one person short. Would you be interested?”

You’re damn skippy I was interested.

I turned up at the track after work on Friday, parked the car and pushed through the revolving doors*. The wooden track takes up the centre of the dome, leaving enough space at one side for changing rooms, offices and the like, but the corridor narrows down to barely a shoulder-width as it curves at the end. I followed voices along the curve under the eaves of the track, passing racks and racks of track bikes locked up under the banked corner, to find Pete, Monica and John already being fitted for their rental bikes. We were all kitted out in hilariously overcompensatory cycling clothing, and we were all shitting ourselves.

Claire, our instructor for the evening, picked out a bike for each of us — incredibly light Treks like this — and we wheeled them out through an underpass and into the centre of the track.

This was going to be scary.

The track is 200m long (too short for the Olympics, apparently) and is banked at 47° at each end. It’s the steepest track in North America, and if you don’t cycle at something like 30km/h around the corners then you fall off. It’s as simple as that. There were a few riders up there already, caning round and round to an astonishing cacophony of noises: tyres hummed over the lacquered wood, and the track creaked and groaned as the riders flew over it.

Claire explained the markings on the track to us: the côte d’azur, or ‘on-ramp’ at the bottom; just above it, the metre-wide sprinter’s lane bordered by a pair of red and black lines, and the blue stayer’s line about halfway further up. It seemed impossibly distant. “That’s where you wait during the Madison,” she told us. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you up there — and a bit higher — before the end of the night.”

We had a few laps of the côte d’azur to get used to our brakeless, fixed-gear bikes. The rationale here is that if track bikes did have brakes, all it would take is one twitchy rider in the pack to brake suddenly and there would be a massive pile-up. The consequence is that slowing down is much, much harder; you have to let your legs continue to move with the pedals but apply a bit of pressure as they come up from bottom dead centre. It’s possible to just lock your legs up, but do it with enough determination and the still-rotating pedals will catapult you up and over the handlebars. I came close a couple of times.

After that we were encouraged up onto the straights, then back to the côte d’azur for the corners and eventually, once we felt we had enough speed, up onto the track for the whole lap. The sensation is exhilarating, and mortifying. With ten or twelve beginners on the track, our speeds were all over the place: some riders were caning round as if to the velodrome born; others were creeping around with tyres squeaking in protest at the lack of speed in the corners. Claire had explained some track racing etiquette — call out “Stick!” as you approach someone to overtake, or let them know whether you’re passing them on the inside or outside, for example — and rounding a corner was terrifying mixture of wall-of-death speed and dodgem manoeuvering. “Stick!” I’d yell. “Jesus — stick!” as a laggard ambled round in front of me, barely fast enough to keep from sliding off the track. All the while, the more gung ho riders shot by with an airy whoosh and occasionally a whoop of glee.

We went on to experiment with pace lines, where a team of four cyclists circle the track in single file, the front rider each lap peeling off to the back of the pack. We yo-yo’d forward and back like a horizontal slinky; no brakes might prevent sudden stops but it doesn’t make it any easier to keep a constant speed. After that, Claire led the entire gaggle up to the top of the track for a flying 200 metres, where you hurtle down to the sprinter’s lane by the infield for a flying lap. These were exercising enough, but finally we moved onto Madison drills.

The Madison is a slightly bizarre race between teams of two riders: one rider rests above the blue stayer’s line, cycling slowly to conserve their energy, while the other races around the sprinter’s lane at the bottom. When the pair swap over, the racing rider transfers some of his momentum to his teammate by linking hands and slinging him forward. We weren’t going to try this (most of us were still astonished by every lap we managed to complete without injury or mishap), but we were going to get part of the way there. First, Claire told us, “You’re going to be riding with your hands in the drops. No using the flat bits on top. Take one hand off the bars on the straights, then put it back on for the corners. When you’re happy with that, try riding an entire lap with just one hand. Then do the same with the other.”

Okay, okay, we nodded.

“And then, you’re going to pair up. One rider is going to stay on the black line” — as in, the 2-inch-wide strip of black tape at the top of the metre-wide sprinter’s lane — “and the other has the whole of the sprinter’s lane to move around in. The second rider will stay slightly behind the first, and rest their right hand on the first rider’s back. For one whole lap.”

I know this doesn’t sound difficult. Reading it now, it sounds like a piece of cake. But on that track, where the illusion of a smooth surface at a distance was replaced by a rippling, creaking, tramlining mass of wooden boards, and where the 47° banking had you almost more horizontal than vertical in the turns, it seemed like an impossibility. The riders in each pair would have to speed up and slow down respectively in the corners to make up for the different radii of their turns; the outside rider had to quite literally toe the line with as little deviation as possible, and the inside rider had the awful task of making it round the track one-handed at 20 miles per hour just to avoid falling over by default.

Pete and I paired up and gingerly headed off. A few laps in I could complete a circuit one-handed, staring fixedly at the boards in front of me and pedalling like it was the only thing keeping me from smashing painfully into the blue paint of the côte d’azur, because that’s exactly what it was. A few laps after that I held to the black line as Pete steadied himself in the sprinter’s lane with his hand on my back, and a few laps after that we swapped over and managed a second paired lap, this time with me wobbling along below and slightly behind him, managing to keep my hand planted on his back for one complete lap. We had all the coordination, grace and assurance of newborn calves on an ice rink, but we did it. We came down to the infield sweating with nerves, and, if I remember rightly, actually high-fived each other without even a hint of irony. Claire congratulated us, and we were happy.

I can now say without a shadow of a doubt that velodromes are awesome.

* The pair of fire doors next to the main entrance have a big sign on them: “Do Not Open Both Doors at Once!” I asked Claire the instructor about this and she told me that the ’drome has an air-supported roof — it’s basically a huge balloon which is kept rigid only by fans maintaining positive pressure inside it. Unfortunately, air-supported domes have certain problems, like collapsing when it snows.

Fixed gear riders on the street get round this by doing a little hop: they lock up their legs as the back wheel comes off the ground and skid to a halt when it lands.