At first the track was made of rolled ballast. Within about five years it was upgraded to add banking and sections made of wooden boards on the straights. It became, and remained, enormously popular. Photographs from the 1920s and 30s show a track entirely recognisable from what's there today, but crowds that are hard to imagine; often ten thousand or more, they said, for the annual Good Friday meeting.
By the time George Lacy Hillier died in 1941 his 50 year-old velodrome had been called into service in the defence of London as a storage depot for barrage balloons. By war's end in1945 the track was cracked and covered with weeds; a sorry sight, facing a sad future, until the greatest sporting movement in the world intervened to turn potentially terminal decline into Herne Hill's crowning glory.
The story of cycling at the 1948 Olympics was meant to be the tale of Reg Harris and his three gold medals. Reg was the reigning world champion, and he went into the 'Austerity Olympics' carrying extravagant expectations. The Manchester Guardian wrote that “he may well be regarded as almost certain to carry off the Olympic title” in the sprint - but not just in that race; in the tandem sprint and the kilometre time trial at Herne Hill as well. Then, three months before the Olympics, Reg Harris fractured his back in a car crash and, as he was recovering fully from that accident, broke his elbow in a bike race in Manchester. He finished his training with his arm in plaster and rode in the Olympics dosed up on anaesthetic to kill the pain.
Herne Hill was recovering as well. The track was resurfaced, hurriedly rather than perfectly - as well as could be managed in the 'make do and mend' spirit of the times. When the heats got underway there were long delays caused by punctures – delays so long that, when Reg Harris raced against the Italians in the final of the tandem, it was almost dark; too dark for the photo-finish equipment to work. There were inches in it, but the gold medal went to the Italians on the basis of the judges' best guess in the gathering gloom.
Reg Harris took silver in the sprint as well, and the cobbled-together race schedule meant that he was denied the chance to compete in the kilometre time trial. Frustration for him turned to opportunity for Tommy Godwin who took one of his two bronze medals in that race and began an association with Herne Hill that continues, affectionately, to this day.
The Olympics gave to Herne Hill the prize of an international reputation, and a resurfaced track. Armed with those, the velodrome soldiered on in the post-war years while others fell into disrepair, or closed. The Good Friday event still drew good crowds and attracted big names, but George Lacy Hillier's baby was in danger of becoming an orphan. The track passed from its original owners to the National Cycling Union; from them to the Greater London Council; and finally to Southwark Council.
By the late 1980s the Olympic surface had worn out. This time, money for its renewal came from the Sports Council and the EEC, and the funding was generous enough to allow a full rebuild: a steeper, faster track than ever before, where records fell.
So, in 1991, Herne Hill Velodrome raced to its centenary with a future that looked reasonably assured – but, as it turned out, deceptively so because, by 2005, the track was closed. There was a fleeting resurrection that year when it opened for the Good Friday meeting but deadlock in negotiations over a new lease meant that, day to day, for the first time that anyone could remember in its peacetime history, the velodrome was shut.
The deal that opened the gates again was done when the VC Londres cycling club agreed a new short-term lease and took over responsibility for running the site. With a sigh of relief that was audible throughout British cycling, the velodrome officially reopened on August 5th 2005, helped on its way at the reopening ceremony by past champions including Tony Doyle and Chris Boardman.
But even on that bright day the nature of the deal that had been done meant that a question mark hovered like one of those wartime barrage balloons over the velodrome. A short-term lease made it difficult to raise long-term funding for a track that was, once again, in urgent need of resurfacing. This time the danger to its future came not so much from old cracks and pot-holes in the surface but from the more modern risk that it would not be insured.
And so, in 2010, with another Olympic Games on the near horizon, the people who ran the velodrome, the cyclists who used it, and the residents who lived around it, drew themselves together rather uncertainly for another effort to preserve the life of a place that means so much more, to so many thousands of people, than any entrepreneurial Victorian cycling champion could conceivably have imagined when the first section of track was laid in Herne Hill nearly a century and a quarter ago.