Eastway – Nostalgia, the Future and Getting There
Recently it has been brought to my attention it’s been 10 years since Eastway closed, and that has got me thinking…
It’s hard to find a seasoned cyclist in and around London, above a certain age, who doesn’t have at least one fond memory of Eastway. To those who aren’t familiar with the name, Eastway was a closed road cycle circuit in Stratford, East London which first opened in 1975.
For 31 years the 1.6km circuit and surrounding grasslands stood as East London’s home for road, time trial, cyclocross and XC mountain bike racing. Over those years the likes of Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Sean Yates, Robert Miller, Barry Hoban and Pat McQuaid (in his racing years) graced the track; it helped launch the careers of Laura Trott and Ian Stannard who were both members of local clubs and was the first home of Lea Valley Youth CC, one of the biggest youth specific cycling clubs in the country and, funnily enough, my first club.
So it’s understandable that, when in 2004 it was announced the site was to be demolished to make way for the 2012 London Olympics, the local cycling community lead by the Eastway users group put up a fight. Initially they fought to keep the much loved facility then, eventually, to secure a suitable replacement. And so after huge efforts by the users group: Redbridge Cycling Centre was built. Opening in 2008, a long two years after Eastway closed. (I won’t go into the details of the fight for Eastway here, as it is a well worn story. Use the link at the bottom to find out more).
Redbridge Cycling Centre, also known as Hog Hill, had big boots to fill but it was never going to be the same. The difficult part of any kind of change in any level of cycling, from the brutal length of Milan-San Remo right down to the jersey you wear riding week in week out, is nostalgia. Being a cycling fan means always thinking the past was best. Thinking Eddy Merckx will always be the greatest; that the classics were better before race radios or that riding was easier when you were younger. Then while we are all focused on being faster, our next ride or who’s going to win the tour this year, we kind of get stuck in what I can only describe as some sort of oxymoronic progressive limbo. We become so wound up in trying to make the next thing great as we think the past was we almost forget what’s going on right now, never really changing how things are done. So ten years on from losing Eastway, what has changed?
Well, in a surprising twist, a lot. Thanks to the Olympics, and in addition to Hog Hill, we now have the world class Lee Valley velodrome (currently hosting the track world championships) with its own closed road circuit, mountain bike tracks and BMX track. We also have Hadleigh Farm mountain biking circuit – a softened version of the loop used by the pros at the Olympics. But most importantly: we have huge amounts more people cycling.
I started riding at the beginning of the cycling boom when Hog Hill first opened, just as cycling started to find its way into the public consciousness. After reading about Hog Hill in the local newspaper I went down to a Lea Valley Youth CC Saturday morning session and was hooked straight away. From then on Team GBs success at the Olympics has increased cycling’s popularity even further.
For decades cycling was a niche, at times an underground sport, so it’s part of our history to not be the most open bunch, it is quite an insular sport at times. I know I have been party to that initial education and induction into our sport that teaches new riders the basic skills of bunch riding and cornering and not wearing pants under your shorts. But now, thanks to the power of the internet, there are thousands of riders out there learning the ropes for themselves, riders even racing unattached to any club. There are thousands of people who love the sport but are not taking those vital first steps into the volunteering roles that so often the sport relies upon. If we want the thriving community we once had at Eastway, first we must have the riders that actually make the community.
While Eastway may have been a great circuit, the facilities there were not the best. Compare it to another very similar example: Herne Hill Velodrome. It is the oldest continually used velodrome in the country. It has a thriving community of users and a great history. Despite this, we almost lost it 2005 and 2010 over disputes on the leases and ownership of the land. Eventually British Cycling had to step in to secure the future of the site. Only once its future was secured could any regeneration work be started on the dilapidated track and pavilion. Progress is now being made with a new track surface, a tarmac track centre and floodlights but there is still a way to go before it is truly where it should be as a top class sporting facility. It’s easy to imagine Eastway would be in a similar position now had it survived. The fact remains that Herne Hill is only still in use thanks to a dedicated cohort of riders fighting to keep the track open.
The one thing that connects Eastway, Hog Hill and Herne Hill is the riders that use them. As riders we are characterised by the fights we put up to keep what we have and ensure there is a legacy for our hard work. We need to look at what we loved about what we had then look at what we have now then realise the power is in our hands to make it just as good in the future. It’s all too easy to get complacent and lose what we have. Its hard work doing what we do and it really helps if there’s someone there to help take a turn on the front. We need some new blood to help drive the peloton along for a bit while we can take a breath and appreciate what we have. There were even rumours that Hog Hill’s future was uncertain for a while. These facilities are only going to survive if there are people using them, the same goes for clubs and races too. Sadly it’s all too easy for us to be stuck in our ways and alienate the people we really need. This is where I come to the point of this blog post: I don’t think the cycling community is quite as inviting as it could be.
Personally, I think there needs to be a shift in the way clubs attract new riders. Generally people seem to stay with clubs once they’re in but that first step is the hard part. At this moment I cannot suggest any alternatives, I am just identifying a new trend: people start cycling and don’t join a club and do everything on their own. While they may participate in club run events they never get the opportunity to step up into the running of the events because they aren’t part of a club. It is down to the clubs to attract new riders to make sure there is a future for those clubs. We need to reverse the trend of new riders being completely solitary. While many people, including myself, use riding as escapism there comes a point when you need other people to progress and have fun. We have to show new riders that joining a club is the best way to do that.
I’ll admit that us cyclists are a stubborn bunch and sometimes change isn’t always fun but it’s crazy for our sport to be growing at such a rate yet our local venues and events always having a slight undercurrent of instability. The people make the place, I mean Eastway was just a field with a tarmac road running round it wasn’t it? Yes but it is still remembered so fondly for the good times had there. We fought to save Eastway, we fought for Hog Hill to be built now we must fight to make the local riding community as great as it can be, so someone is there to fight for it again when needs be.
In ten or twenty years’ time, wouldn’t it be great if someone happened to remark that “this was like the old days at Eastway”? And in so few words sum up exactly what we are striving for with every club session, midweek time trial or weekend race: to enjoy the simple pleasure of riding your bike with friendly likeminded people. After the bikes, the people are the best part cycling culture, so let’s invite more people to the party: the more the merrier hey.
Yours in cycling,
Find out more about Eastway and its last days at: http://cyclesport.london/blog/eastway-1975-2006-ten-years-gone/