A Guide to Track Cycling Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Guide to Track Cycling

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Track cycling is the (normally) indoor counterpart to road racing. The events can vary from the short (500m) to multi-lap marathons, such as the Madison1. Some events are solo and some are team events. Traditionally, the events are split into two groups - the sprints and the endurance races.


For track cycling, you need two things: a track and a bicycle.

Tracks can be 250m, 333m or 400m long. The standard for world-class events is the 250 metre track consisting of two banked 180° turns linked by two straights. The banking on the curves is around 45° and the straights have a slight banking too. The start/finish line is in the middle of one straight and there is a secondary start/finish line opposite for races such as the pursuit that pits one competitor against another. The track is normally made of polished wood.

Track bikes are effectively simplified road bikes. They do not have brakes or multiple gears and they do not allow the riders to freewheel. This means riders must slow down by gradually reducing their pedalling. This is where road riders may have problems when first crossing over since they are used to freewheeling to save energy. The bikes are usually more aerodynamic than their road counterparts and specialised for riding in a tuck position. The 1990s saw a variety of odd shaped bikes used to take on world records, but these were outlawed.

To make the race easier, less embarrassing and less painful when you crash, you need clothes. These are normally skin-tight lycra suits in bright colours and an aero helmet that normally covers half the face. Special shoes that clip into the pedals are also a good idea.

The Sprints

The sprints are where the rider is at top speed for only a lap or two. Track sprinters should not be confused with road sprinters. Road sprinters have to cope with a hundred or so miles of high speed riding before they can launch into their sprint. Track sprinters have to cope with walking from the changing area to their bikes.

They look like more exaggerated versions of road sprinters, with thighs like oak trees wrapped in skin suits. With the size of those muscles, it is no surprise that lactic acid build-up makes it impossible for them to do more than a few laps at top speed. Great Britain's Sir Chris Hoy is a leading track sprinter.

The Sprint

This is basically one man against another over 1,000m, or it can be one woman against another over 750m. Over the first few laps, they play a slow motion game of cat and mouse, trying to get into the best position for the final 200m when all hell breaks loose. Riders prefer to bask in the slipstream of the rider in front, so a wide variety of tricks and bike handling exercises are needed to put themselves in the best position. The first round at a championship is normally a solo race against the clock over 200m. Then the head to head rounds commence. From the quarter finals onwards, sprints are run as best of three races.

The Team Sprint

This is one team against another to see who can get around the track quickest in three laps. The men ride in teams of three. The first man powers them around the first lap then drops off, then the second man does the next 250m, towing the final man up to top speed for his final lap burst. A world-class squad can do this in less than 50 seconds. The woman's Team Sprint is a two lap race with only two riders in each team.

It is not all about riding as fast as you can. The lead-off rider does not reach as high a speed as his colleagues, so can fit a lower gear to help him start. However, if he starts too quickly, he breaks the tow with those behind him and compromises the race.

Teams ride against the clock to qualify for the latter stages where two teams start at either side of the track and race against each other. In the Olympics, all the qualifying teams race against each other. In World Championships and World Cups, only the medal positions are decided by teams racing against each other.

Time Trials

These are really simple. The men ride 1km from a standing start as quick as possible. They can do this in just over a minute. The women only ride half this distance, and this takes just over 30 seconds. Track Time Trial bikes tend to have solid disk wheels instead of spokes and a triathlon handlebar2 instead of the normal dropped bar.

Sometimes a 200m flying start time trial is held. This is ridden on a standard bike. Riders have two laps to build up speed before blasting off the banking. This event can be over in less than 10 seconds!


The Keirin is the longest of the sprints: a whole 2km. The set up for world-level events is that a motorbike, known as a Derny3 bike, gradually builds up speed while six riders follow in his slipstream. At a speed of around 50 kph, with 700 or so metres left, the bike pulls off leaving the riders to battle it out for the win.

In Japan, the Keirin is a major sport, with a professional academy and lots of major events. The races are slightly different. They normally take place on longer tracks with more riders. The pacing is not done by a Derny bike, but by another Keirin rider. The events normally last three days and feature around 12 races per day. These give the spectators ample opportunity for gambling.


Track endurance events do not involve anything like the level of endurance required for a road race, but they see riders at top speed for much longer than in the sprints.

Unlike runners, but like swimmers, track cyclists can be competitive over a large range of distances. This is due to them not having to support their own body weight, so all their energy can be put into movement. Track sprinters with their tree-trunk legs build up lactic acid too quickly to compete at distances over a few kilometres, but the endurance cyclists don't have this problem. This is why many endurance track cyclists make a name for themselves in road cycling afterwards. They often make successful time trialists and occasionally road sprinters.


The Individual Pursuit is a 4,000 metre race (3,000m for women). In the knockout stages and medal races, riders start on either side of the track and ride as fast as they can. There are two ways of winning. You can record the faster time at the end of 4,000 metres or you can 'achieve the catch', that is, you overtake the other rider, having gained 125m on them.

Riders obviously cannot be at max all the time, so they work out a schedule with their coach. The coach then 'walks the line', edging one way along the straight if the rider is ahead of schedule, and the other if they are behind.

Again, in the World Cup and Championships, riders qualify against the clock then go head to head for the medals. In the Olympics, all riders who pass the qualifying time enter a series of knockout rounds.

Famous Pursuitists include the great Viatcheslav Ekimov, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Boardman, Rebecca Romero, Roger Rivière, Rebecca Twigg, Grahame Obree and the BBC's voice of cycling, Hugh Porter.

Team Pursuit

The Team Pursuit can be one of the finest examples of a team working in harmony in all of sport. The races are the same length as the IP, with men riding in teams of four and women in teams of three. Riders pace each other, each taking a turn on the front before riding up the banking and dropping back into line at the back of the train. Like the IP, you can win on time or by catching the other team. In the men's race the time is taken on the third rider across the line, so teams can lose one rider during the race.

The system of qualifying and races are the same as in the IP.

Scratch Race

The Scratch Race is a very simple concept; lots of riders ride around the track for 15 to 20km and the first person to cross the line is the winner. If a rider gains a lap on the field and keeps this advantage, then they win regardless.

Points Race

Things start getting a bit more complicated here. This is like the scratch race, in that it is a longer distance racer, over 30-40km and there are a lot of riders. The concept is fairly simple, again, in that every ten laps and at the finish, there is a sprint across the line. The first few over the line get points and the person with the most points wins. Except they don't. This is because if a rider breaks away and gains a lap on the field, they win 20 points. It is therefore possible for a rider to break away, gain a lap on the field and sit in the pack for most of the race and win despite never contesting a sprint.

The Points Race is extremely tactical. Dangerous riders are marked, and their attacks can be nullified letting other riders gain a lap with counter attacks. It can be confusing trying to work out who is on what lap and who has scored what. Don't worry about that, you haven't seen anything yet!


It was been suggested that only six people in the world can watch a Madison and comprehend what is actually going on without the help of spotters, computers and mind-expanding drugs. Put simply, it is the Points Race for pairs. Knowing this and that the name comes from Madison Square Garden where it became popular should help you pretend that you know as much about it as the next spectator.

Only one rider per team races at any one time. The other rider in the team cycles slowly around the edge of the track trying not to be hit by anybody. Normally a switchover happens every few laps; at this point the racing ride catches and passes the non-racer, then grabs their arm and drags them forward, transferring momentum. This is the tricky bit of the Madison, trying to work out who is racing, who is rolling and who is switching.

The teams do not get points for the gaining laps. Instead the team that has gained the most laps on the field wins. If more than one team is on the same lap, then it goes to points. Like the Points Race, this is tactical as well, often with the best teams being marked out of the race.

The Omnium

The Omnium is track cycling's pentathlon. It seldom turns up at world level, mainly cropping up at amateur and junior events. There are five events, the winner gets one point, the second placed gets two, etc...

  • A 200m flying-start time trial.
  • A 5km scratch race.
  • A 3km individual pursuit
  • A 15km points race
  • A 1km time trial

Two of these events are suited to the sprinters, three are best for the endurance riders. The aim is to find the best overall rider.

The Hour

The big record for track cyclists is 'The Hour'. Few readers will be surprised to find out that this involves cycling around a track for an hour and seeing how far you go. Henri Desgrange, the first organiser of the Tour de France, was an early holder of the record, with 35.33km in 1893. Many of the greats of road racing have held the record including Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Eddie Merckx. Merckx's 1972 ride of 49.431km was done at altitude in Mexico City and he described it as the hardest ride of his life.

His record lasted for 12 years until Francesco Moser topped him. Nine years later, Graeme Obree turned up in Norway with his own design of bike with a unique riding position (soon banned) and infamously the bearings from a washing machine and recorded a 51.6km ride. This was soon topped by Chris Boardman, regained by Obree and then the two leading road riders of the time, Miguel Indurain and Tony Rominger both had successful attempts at the record, all of these at Velodrome du Lac, Bordeaux. In 1996 Boardman posted a 56.4km distance in the Manchester Velodrome.

At this point, the governing body, the UCI, decided that none of these attempts counted. They reclassified everything since Merckx's ride as the 'UCI Best Human Effort Hour'. They said that to get the proper record, you couldn't use aerodynamic bars, wheels or helmet. The frame could not be of monocoque construction. This caused record attempts to tail off.

In 2000 Boardman, now suffering from osteoporosis, returned to Manchester on a proper bike to take on Merckx's reinstated Hour record. He beat it by a whole 10m. This lasted for another five years before Ondřej Sosenka beat it by 250m.

The IHPVA/WHPVA (International Human Powered Vehicle Association/World Human Powered Vehicle Association) Hour record uses streamlined recumbent bikes and is a lot faster. The 19 July, 2009 ride of Sam Whittingham covered 90.6km.

Six-Day Races

Six-day races have their origins in the London suburb of Islington. They grew out of an endurance time trial held at the Agricultural Hall in 1878. The sport grew quickly in the USA. Races were six days long so that nobody had to compete on a Sunday! Originally the racing carried on 24 hours a day; riders could choose to race all the time or take breaks to sleep. Eventually, and inevitably, riders started doping to keep themselves awake.

To combat this, races were cut back so that riders could only ride 12 hours in 24. In order to keep the races open 24 hours a day, paired racing was introduced. The pioneer of this was Madison Square Garden in New York. Hence paired racing became the 'Madison'. Races were often not full on; when the crowds were thin, the riders backed off and did stuff like reading the paper. Major celebrities who used to attend include Bing Crosby, who sometimes helped to pay hospital bills of crashed riders, and Peggy Joyce, who contributed to some of the prizes.

Modern six-day races are no longer one long race, but indeed are a series of long night races where the winner is the person who has completed the most laps.

World Championships and World Cup

The main event each year in track cycling is the World Championships. The winner of each race is allowed to wear the rainbow jersey of the World Champion for the next year every time they race in that event. For example, the World Sprint Champion may wear the rainbow jersey every time they race in the Sprint, but not in the Keirin. All World Champions are entitled to wear the rainbow cuffs on their jerseys for the rest of their cycling careers, even into road racing. Riders tend to compete in national teams.

The next level of races down is the World Cup Classics. These are a series of events that run throughout the Northern winter. As well as national teams, the large nations also have 'trade teams', much like the trade teams of road cycling. An example of this is the Sky+ HD team which contains a lot of the top British riders. It is closely connected with the main national squad and allows the UK to effectively run two teams. Since the UK has a lot of world-class riders, it gives some riders who would not normally make the squad a chance to compete for medals and also allows younger riders to be blooded in.

Cycling in the Olympics

Each sport in the Olympics has a certain number of gold medals on offer. Athletics has the most with 47, followed by swimming with 34. Cycling has 18. The cycling medals are split between the road medals, the mountain bike medals and the track cycling. For Beijing 2008, the BMX was introduced, but the total medal count for cyclists was not increased. This meant that the sprint time trials were dropped. This caused some controversy, especially that more medals were not made available to the sport as a whole to allow more events.

As anybody who has read down to here so far will have realised, track cycling is not the most equal of sports. Men's races are longer than women's and in the team sprint and team pursuit, the women have fewer riders. In the 2008 Olympics the men's programme included both pursuits, both sprints, the Keirin, the Points Race and the Madison while the woman's programme just had the Points Race, the Individual Pursuit and the Individual Sprint. For an example of how this translated to competitors: the British Team had 11 men and only three women!

For the 2012 Olympics the two programmes have been equalised. Of course, there are no new medals on offer so while swimmers carry on with getting the chance to cash in on loads of medals by swimming the same stroke over a bunch of distances, most cyclists lose the chance to gain individual glory. Most of the individual events, including the flagship Individual Pursuit, have been dropped, to be replaced by the Omnium, seen by many riders as a joke event that they last raced in junior events. Unless they race in the Omnium, no endurance rider has a chance to win an individual medal. The programme consists of the Sprint, Team Sprint, Keirin, Team Pursuit and Omnium.

1A team race named after New York's Madison Square Gardens.2Triathlon bars have the ends turned up instead of down.3This is basically a bicycle with a tiny two-stroke engine on the front, where the back wheel is powered by both the engine and the pedalling.

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