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The Cult of the Derny Rider

Derny riders act as pace-setters at track cycling events. We tried to lift the lid on this curious and intriguing group.

Jason Cobb

All photos by Jason Cobb

The two-stroke engine was bump started, and a short, stocky man wearing black tights and a pair of Chips-style shades got his leg over the frame of his 1938 model. Sod the cycling – I had come to the Stratford Velodrome to witness the Cult of the Derny Rider.

Derny bikes and their riders are sexy. Track cycling itself is in danger of allowing the tech to take over. Never mind the rider, feel the thickness of his carbon frame.

Not much has changed since the first part-motorised, part-pedal bikes were introduced as pace-makers in 1938 – and that includes some of the old boys that are still riding them. I headed to the Stratford Velo for the annual Good Friday race meet organised by the Southern Counties Cycling Union. The event is so annual that it is now in its second year.

That's slightly unfair. With over 100 years of South London history down at the Herne Hill outdoor velo, the organisers made the indoor shift as soon as the shiny Stratford Velo became available.

The contrast of the Olympic legacy with some old boys riding out their fairground Wall of Death fantasies couldn't fail to excite you. Seven derny men took to the track ahead of the traditional scratch race.

Teenage girls dotted around the track let out a pant-wetting scream usually reserved for heavily-tattooed boy bands. Olympic bronze medalist Ed Clancy gave them the nod as he warmed up around the boards; the girls blanked Mr. Ed and continued getting slightly over-excited as the funny looking derny men with their old-school cycling tights pedalled on by.

Easy, rider.

15 minutes or so of crazy track action followed. Each derny man paced a semi-pro cyclist. The rider hogged the back wheel of the derny in the same way that ducklings follow mother goose. You may be a four-time World Champion Mr. Ed, but right now you are at the mercy of the old boy on his glorified moped.

For the record, Leif Lampater and his Maloja Pushbikers team took the BPA Denry Paced title. Photos were taken with the podium girl. It was an awkward looking shot of the athletic Leif and an uncle in tights that had gatecrashed the party (above).

But what a party.

I was hooked. I had to find out more. How the hell did the derny men manage to out-sex the cool lycra kids of the cycling world? I gatecrashed the backstage party, aka the benches where the derny men were allowed to park up their machines.

"Hello Mr. Derny, why has a cult been created around you?"

A few nervous looks followed. I am probably around 15 years too early for my own derny prime. Plus I have never had anything motorised between my legs. A little bit of explaining later, and I was very kindly invited to sit amongst The Dern, where Malcolm Freeman (below) told me first about the history of the funny looking bike.

Malcolm Freeman, derny rider, silver fox

"Tandem bikes were originally used for pacemaking. But these couldn't go fast enough and so they used a motorised bike. To have the effect of pedaling, they had an additional gear added to make it look like you are cycling."

Clever. No effort, yet still the sexiness.

"The main part is the lever throttle. You can regulate the speeds slightly with the pedal action. It is initially there for the looks. It adds the effect of being in a bike race."

Fellow derny person Pip Taylor (below) told me about the attraction:

"I was an international amateur in the '80s. I did a lot of racing behind them. There was almost a mafia amongst the derny riders. They would go from race to race; they would be the guys that the pros would trust. It was an absolute thrill to ride behind them.

"10 years ago I enrolled for my licence. I went through the tutorial to become a certified pacer."

Pip Taylor, derny rider, wearer of cool t-shirts

Fascinating though all of this was, I felt that someone was missing from this chain-gang relationship. Where was Mr. Ed? I looked over my shoulder to see the big boys of the cycling media world fornicating over his latest ride. I wiped my nose and continued the conversation with Pip.

What's the relationship like between you and your rider?

"One of the key skills is the rider's ability to ride very close behind the rear wheel of the derny. You'll follow the derny within two or three inches if you are skilled. The derny rider must pace him smoothly and within his ability.

The rider has two instructions: 'Allez' means speed up, and 'hoe' means slow down. If he's getting into difficulty he has to shout hoe early enough for the pacer to knock the speed back for him to recover."

Is there a Tinder-style app of the derny world to help you find your perfect motorised match? Pip explained:

"The organisers will normally allocate you a rider. If you are pacing on a regular basis then the rider will match up with you.

"I looked at my rider's results. I knew that he could ride behind the derny, but I didn't know what condition he was in. I had to talk to him beforehand and see how he wanted to ride the race. We looked at the other guys in the race and we could assess them for their ability.

Both boys were ex-riders themselves. It soon became clear that I was conducting a post-race interview. They had literally just ridden the dream around the boards of the Stratford Velo.

Over to Malcolm: "You have to be fairly fit. Your mind has got to be active. You are controlling the race 90% of the time; you are competing. You are living the dream from when you were racing yourself. We are all in competition, but safety comes first."

It's a similar story for Pip: "It's almost like racing again. You get that adrenaline, you get nervous. There is a fear factor because you don't want to mess it up. You don't want to cause a crash, but you want to pace the ride to the best of your ability. When you are in the race it is just like a bike race – it is quite physical. It's an exciting spectacle. There is an element of showmanship."

You can forget all of your fancy Team Sky lycra and livery; the derny look is the 'Man at C & A ' when compared to the Paul Smith of the pro riders.

Pip added: "The derny look is governed by rules. You must have black bottoms, you must have solid shoes with short laces. You're not looking for aerodynamics because you are the wind block. If your clothes are a bit baggy, or if you're a big guy, that's an advantage."

And so you can forget a diet of bloody awful gel bars and head straight for the all-you-can-eat buffet, and still live out your derny dream days.

Let's bump start that engine, boys.

There is a need for new derny blood to come through. But sometimes, as Pip explains, it is all about the bike: "We qualified 15 riders last year for their licences. Dernys are hard to come by. They are not cheap. There is a group at the Reading and Welling tracks; the others are privately owned and they require quite a lot of maintenance. They are not the most reliable. They don't like idling; mine stalls very easily if I'm not running it. They are very agricultural. The throttle is like a lawnmower."

You wonder why derny riding isn't part of the GCSE sports curriculum. And what about those screaming teenage girls?

"It is very male dominated. There are one or two female riders around. There is a comradeship amongst us."

I still wasn't entirely sure what the Cult of the Derny Rider actually meant, apart from a funny sounding engine and getting away with a look that was last seen on Brighton beach giving the Mods a good kicking.

I approached a third member of the derny clan to ask what his motivation is:

"I couldn't even answer that."

Ask a silly question...