What is Track Cycling?
Track cycling is a discipline of cycling in which the bicyclists speed around banked tracks called velodromes. Track races are incredibly fast, and are much shorter than the typical road race would be. Track cycling has ten events, which are split into three categories: sprints, endurance, and combined. Keep reading for more information on these events, as well as the sport of track cycling as a whole.
Although its exact creation date is unknown, track cycling is thought to have originated around 1870. The sport started when banked, quarter-mile long loops of wooden track were built in the late 19th century for cycling races, the precursors to the impressive velodromes that track cycling take place on today. The very first world championships were held in 1893, and the discipline has been part of the Olympic games since their founding in Athens, 1896 (with the exception of the 1912 games). Today, five events are featured in the Olympic Track Cycling program, and ten events are contested at the World Championships.
Track cycling is contested on a wooden track called a velodrome. Velodromes are loops that are around 250 meters in length, and they have banked sides which push the rider towards the center of the track and help the rider cycle faster.
There are 4 markings on the velodrome. The “stayer’s line” and “sprinting line” form the “sprinting lane,” the most efficient route along the track. The blue band indicates the inside of the track, and a black “measuring line” is the line that the velodrome’s length is measured against.
Each velodrome has a slightly different build to it, with different bank angles, different kinds of wood use, and different construction processes. For example, the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome has a Siberian Pine track, has bank angles of 42 degrees on the turns and 12 degrees on the straightaways, and was nailed together completely by hand.
Velodromes are in many ways the main separating factor for track racing. They are iconic in the world of cycling, and conducive to entirely different styles of racing, producing much faster, high intensity races rather than the long tactical affairs that you might see in the Tour de France or in Mountain Bike races.
The equipment for track cycling is generally the same as for other kinds of cycling, including:
However, the specifications of each piece of equipment is actually quite unique to the sport of track cycling. Track cycling is all about aerodynamics and getting every millisecond that you can, and equipment is designed with these factors in mind.
The bike is designed specifically to fit the velodrome. It has a single gear and no breaks, meaning that the only way to speed up, slow down, or stop is by changing your pedaling rate. The tires of the bike are also inflated to higher pressures to decrease drag, and the wheels are distinctive “disk wheels,” more aerodynamic than spoke wheels. The helmet is also quite distinctive. It has a long taper in the back and a rounded top and front for improved aerodynamics.
Because track cycling has ten events, there are a lot of nuances to how the sport plays out. However, all races have some common features.
Track events take place at such high speeds that aerodynamics are incredibly important. The cyclist that exerts the least effort before the final sprint usually wins. Because of this fact, you will often see all of the racers lined up one after the other behind the leader, trying to “tuck in” and face as little wind resistance as possible. Then, in the final lap, the leader will try and hold off counter attacks from their opponents, who are swinging wide in an effort to get around the leader and gain the lead just before crossing the finish line. Track cycling can certainly have some of the most exciting finishes in the world of cycling.
Position Roles and Responsibilities
In most team events, there are either three or four riders to a team. In the team pursuit, riders share the lead. One rider will take the pace at the front of the pack, leading their teammates along the velodrome and taking all of the wind resistance. At some point, the leader will go high on the bank while the rest of the team stays low, giving the leader time to drift to the back of the pack and a new leader will take over.
In the team sprint, three riders attempt to get one of their teammates to the finish line. After each lap, one team member peels off and the others keep going. Therefore, only one team member will finish the race. This team member must have not just great speed, but also sufficient endurance to last the whole race. The first leader’s job is to get the team on pace as quickly as possible, and so must have the ability to explode off of the starting line. The final team member must have a combination of the two skills.
Rules and Regulations
There are extensive rules and regulations for each track cycling event. The bicycles and velodromes themselves are strictly regulated, because they are so vital to the athlete’s success. Violation of a rule can result in disqualification. Below are some specific rules of the sport:
Blue Band Infraction: On the inside of the track is a small blue band. If a rider is in the blue band and disrupts the movement of another rider, they are disqualified.
Caught-Rider: When a rider is caught in the pursuits, that rider must still finish the race distance, and cannot draft behind their opponent to improve their time.
One-Hand Rule: Athletes must have at least one hand on the handlebar of the bike at all times.
Referees and Officials
Just as in all cycling disciplines, the head official is called the president of the commissaire’s panel. The duty of the president is to oversee the entire operation and deal with appeals, major rulings, and everything in between. The president relies on a team of other officials (the commissaire’s panel) during race time.
The judge referee is in charge of the riders during a race. The JR is responsible for ensuring that all cyclists respect the rules of the race.
The starter’s job is to start the race. Prior to the race, the starter must check all clothing to ensure proper uniform attire. Furthermore, if there is a major accident or infringement, the starter has the authority to stop the race.
Other officials include the secretary, timekeepers, finish judge, and deputy commissaires.
Lingo and Terminology
What does it mean to be pulling? Where is the sprinter’s lane? Read below for information on all of these terms, and more:
Blue Band: A wide band of blue to mark the inside of the track.
Cadence: How fast your legs are spinning. A high cadence means that you rotate your feet around the center of the pedal more times per minute.
Cornering: Leaning to one side as you turn to increase your speed. Important skill for track cycling in particular, because of the sheer number of turns in each race.
Draft: A person riding right behind the leader in the leader’s slipstream is “drafting.” It is an efficient way to save energy.
Pull: The person leading the pack and taking all of the wind resistance is “pulling.” It is harder to pull than to draft.
Rail: The innermost part of the track before the infield.
Sling: A strategy used in team races wherein one teammate grabs another’s arm, then “slings” them forward to give them greater momentum.
Sprinter’s Lane: An area marked by two lines that is the fastest route for sprinting. In sprints, a cyclist cannot pass an opponent on the left (inside) of the sprinter’s lane.
Straight: The parts of the velodrome between the turns; the straightaways.
Track Stand: A rider can stand still on their bike during sprint events, in an effort to coax their opponent into taking the lead. However, the rider must remain on the bike at all times.
Track Cycling Skills and Techniques
Track cycling requires a different skill set than road racing or mountain biking, because races tend to be much faster and much shorter. In addition, the surface of the velodrome dictates some different techniques than would be required on the roads. Aside from having greater explosiveness and leg speed, perhaps at the cost of endurance, track cyclists must have great technical aptitude as well.
Because tracks are banked, riders must be able to gauge incline angles and the effect that it has on their center of gravity. This is something that is learned through practice and experience.
In addition, track cyclists must also be able to navigate close quarters, because track racing is a game of inches. Drills like cone weaving are great for improving an athlete’s handling while at top speeds.
The arm sling is another skill unique to track cycling. A rider can link arms with their teammate during team events whenever a teammate is making a pass. The riders link together, and then push off, getting momentary boosts of speed as they make the pass.
A track cyclist may not have the incredible endurance of a Tour de France winner, but they certainly have technical capabilities that more than make up for it.
Track Cycling Coaching
Track cycling coaches are in unique positions in the world of cycling. Typical track cyclists spend a lot of the time in the gym building up their strength because races tend to be short and require quick bursts of maximal effort. Track coaches are well-versed in not just cycling training techniques, but also have expertise in the gym. Coaches spend most of their time improving their athletes’ strength, cadence, and explosiveness, and during competition can often be seen on the track, yelling out splits and encouragement to their riders.15
Track Cycling Strategy
Strategy in track cycling is of paramount importance. Races can be won or lost by fraction of seconds, and there is little room for error. In general, it all comes down to the final laps and the sprint for the finish.
The three principles of sprinting strategy are distance, position, and speed. Depending on your proximity to your opponent, if you are ahead or behind the leader, and how fast you are going, your strategy will change significantly.
If you are behind your opponent, one of the most important things to do is to “take height.” To gain the lead before the finish line, it is most efficient to swing wide on the turn, going high onto the bank so that the steep incline can push you down in front of the opponent. On the other hand, when in front of your opponent, you must make sure to “watch your door,” which means ensuring you’re not vulnerable to an attack from the opponent. You must always be aware of your opponent’s location, and if they do take the lead away from you, you must stick close so that you have a chance at regaining it.
Track Cycling Drills
Track cycling can be more technical than road cycling, and there are many finesse drills involved in becoming an elite track cyclist. A lot of these drills are particularly useful for training children.
One such drill is slalom riding. Place cones around the track, and as you ride, weave in and out of them. This will teach you to manage having many opponents in super close quarters.
Another drill for technique is scanning. Because you need to see your opponents, you must be able to look over your shoulders at top speeds while still maintaining control of your bicycle. A partner should ride behind you, and periodically call your name. When they do, you must look back without changing direction or falling over.
Snail racing is another drill that can be used to improve balance. The object is to cover a lap of the track as slowly as possible, without falling over or losing balance. Harder than you think!
Track Cycling Events
Track Cycling has ten main events, broken into Sprint, Endurance, and Combined categories. While all ten events are contested at the World Championships, only Individual Sprint, Team Sprint, Keirin, Team Pursuit, and Omnium are contested at the Olympics.
Individual Sprint: Cyclists sprint around the track for three laps. This race is typically finished in under a minute.
Team Sprint: Two teams of three riders start at opposite sides of the track. One rider from each team leads a lap, then peels off until only one rider from each team remains to sprint for victory.
Kilometre: Two cyclists face off head-to-head for a kilometre sprint. The world record for this event in 56 seconds.
Keirin: Racers are paced by a motorbike for 3 laps at increasingly fast speeds, before engaging in a 3 lap sprint to the finish.
Individual Pursuit: Two cyclists start at opposite sides of the track. The cyclists have 4km to catch each other, and the first to do so wins. If neither catches the other rider, then the fastest 4km time wins.
Team Pursuit: This event is the same as individual pursuit, except with teams of four riders on either side.
Points Race: This race is between 25 and 40 km. Riders get points for winning “sprints” that occur every 10 laps and by lapping other riders. The cyclist with more points at the end of the whole race wins.
Madison: The madison race is a relay race, contested in teams of two riders a piece. Riders “hand off” to their teammates by touching them whenever they are tired. There is no designated time when cyclists must switch off.
Scratch Race: This is a mass-start race that takes place over 10-15 kilometers. This is a “normal” race.
Omnium: The omnium is a one to two day-long effort that consists of four different races contested throughout the event. The cyclist with the best combined score at the end of the final event wins.
Track Cycling Players
Here are some of the top track cyclists in the world, according to the UCI official Cycling Rankings:
- Harry Lavreysen (Netherlands)
- Sam Ligtlee (Netherlands)
- Corbin Strong (New Zealand)
By and large, the Netherlands reign supreme in track cycling, especially in the sprints. They even hold the world record in the team sprint!
Track Cycling Leagues
Track cycling is perhaps the one discipline that can effectively employ a league format. Because races are short, fast, and take place in arenas instead of on vast road courses, they are optimal for fan viewership. However, very few leagues yet exist.
Recently, the UCI announced that it will partner with the media conglomerate Discovery to launch the “UCI Track Cycling World League.” This league will encompass the entire globe, and will culminate in the best cyclists from around the world competing against each other, with qualification for the league taking place each year.
A private league called The World Cycling League was test-run in 2016, and has been steadily growing ever since. It has gained moderate success, however it is uncertain if it will survive with the introduction of the UCI’s World League.
- UCI Track Cycling World League
- World Cycling League
Track Cycling Teams
Teams in the track cycling world are in a precarious spot. While a growing number of companies had begun sponsoring the very best in the sport for a number of years, the UCI recently made changes to the track racing format in 2019 that essentially ended the sponsorship of professional teams. As a result, many sponsors were forced to dissolve their teams. The status of team racing moving forward is a great mystery. However, a few teams remain still, and the creation of the UCI World League may encourage new teams to crop up over the next few years.
Here are a few teams that have historically had world-class talent:
- Beat Cycling Club
- Dream Seeker Racing Team
- Team Azizul
Track Cycling Brands
There are a plethora of websites and brands to turn to when looking to purchase a track bike, or the proper apparel to go with it. Here a few of the brands that are highly recommended:
Track Cycling Tournaments
There are hundreds of track cycling events and tournaments each year. Events are categorized by the UCI as:
- Continental Championship (CC)
- Class One (CL1)
- Class Two (CL2)
- World Championships (CM)
- National Championships (CN)
- and Olympic Games (JO)
In addition, there are classifications for Juniors (under 19), Professionals, and Seniors. Here are a few tournaments originally scheduled for 2020:
Track Cycling Books
While there are many books about cycling as a whole, there are also some specific to the sport of track cycling. They include non-fiction works like Michael Kranish’ biography on Major Taylor, one of the best track cyclists in the sport’s early history; informative pieces such as No Brakes! by Sandra Wright Sutherland, which discusses the velodrome and racing on it; and training manuals like Michael Mahesh’ Track Cycling: Training and Racing.
|Track Cycling: Training and Racing||Michael Mahesh|
|No Brakes! Bicycle Track Racing in the United States||Sandra Wright Sutherland|
|The World’s Fastest Man: Major Taylor||Michael Kranish|
What is track cycling?
Track cycling is a discipline of cycling that takes place on wooden tracks called velodromes. Races range from 200 meters to 50 kilometers.
Is track cycling dangerous?
A single gear, no brakes, and the insane speeds all combine to make track cycling a dangerous sport. Having skill in the discipline is about more than just being the best, it’s about keeping yourself and your fellow competitors safe.
How fast do track cyclists go?
Cyclists can reach up to 50 mph around the banked turns!
What is a cycling track called?
A cycling track is called a velodrome (velo is the French term for bicycle). A velodrome is usually 250 meters around at the shortest part, but there is no uniform length, and some velodromes are up to 500 meters long per lap.
What are the rules of track cycling?
While the exact rules may change between events, the following are true to all track cycling events:
- The fastest time wins, whether that be in a endurance, sprint, team, or individual event.
- You may not interfere with another rider purposefully. No bumping, crashing, impeding!
- While some events have “rolling starts,” you must wait for the starter’s signal to begin your race. Too many false starts will result in disqualification.
- You can touch your teammate and give them a boost or “sling,” but you may not do so with an opponent.