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Track cycling might just be one of the most exciting, fast-paced facets of the cycling world. It requires a specialized bike and sharp technical skills. And while there’s nothing easy about it, track cyclists tend to agree that there’s no cycling experience quite like it either, which always has them coming back for more. The skills acquired through just a few beginner’s track training sessions alone transfer well to road and mountain biking, making it the perfect supplement to any endurance cyclist’s training routine.
If your closest velodrome is indoors, then you’re in luck, because wintertime is the perfect time to pick this new discipline. Not only will it help keep you in shape as you relinquish hours of outdoor training, but after a winter season of consistent track cycling, you’ll undoubtedly notice some added fitness and technical skills that you didn’t have prior to your time on the track.
Before grabbing your bike and heading to the nearby velodrome, it’s important to know the basics about track cycling because there are some notable characteristics that set it apart from any other cycling experience you’ve ever had. The bike, the track, training methods, and rules are just some things you should be familiar with prior to beginning. It’s generally a good idea to inquire about any bicycle-specific stipulations that the venue where you plan on riding might have; some venues allow only track specific bikes while others might let you bring a road bike on an amateur night. Many venues offer the option of renting one of these highly specialized bikes, so you can avoid making any significant financial investments in track cycling until you’re sure it’s something you want to stick to. A helmet, kit, pedals, and bike shoes are all you really need to get started, so if you’re already a cyclist, it’s likely you have most of what you need sitting in your closet.
Track cycling bicycle
Track bicycles are built for speed, resilience, and to ride safely over velodrome tracks. At first glance, they look very similar to road bikes, but upon further inspection, you’ll see the differences between each bike and its accompanying components. Because the aerodynamics of a track bicycle is the driving force behind its design, many of the noted variations either decrease the overall weight of the bike or reduce wind resistance.
A focus on aerodynamics results in a simple bicycle design with only parts and components that are essential for propelling it forward as efficiently as possible. Track bikes are designed with a single chainring and cog, and lack brake calipers and levers, which means you’ll have to relearn how to accelerate, slow, and stop your bike, as you won’t have gears or brakes to rely on. Track bikes also differ from road bikes in that they have a higher bottom bracket that allows enough clearance between steep bank surfaces and your pedals, a seat tube positioned at a steeper, more aero angle, less fork rake (a steeper head tube) that enhances steering response and maneuverability. The simplicity of a track bike coupled with its geometry and component placement increases the bike’s overall aerodynamics, making it faster and more efficient.
While focus on aerodynamics is apparent by the simple design and construction of the bicycle, the importance of safety and resilience is obvious by the materials selected to make the bike frame. In order for it to be safe, the material selected must provide enough stiffness and rigidity needed during an aggressive race, but still be able to withstand crash-related impacts and forces. The two most common types of materials used for track bike frames are carbon and aluminum. Steel bikes are still used, but have become uncommon.
Carbon is often chosen for its lightweight, durability, and comfort. The tradeoff is that it’s also more expensive and not as resilient as other materials. Depending on the circumstances of a crash, carbon’s somewhat brittle nature can result in a cracked or shattered bike frame. Because of the highly regulated environment of a velodrome, the likelihood of someone getting in a crash that would result in a damaged frame is low, but the possibility remains. For many cyclists who compete, it’s a risk worth taking because carbon is lighter in weight than aluminum or steel, making it the fastest option.
Advances in technology have allowed bike manufacturers to manipulate aluminum in ways that have made uncomfortable, heavy, slow-moving aluminum bikes a thing of the past. Aluminum might be heavier than carbon, but what it gains in weight, it also gains in durability and resilience. Even though an aluminum frame can’t crack or shatter and can generally be ridden with dents, it’s still possible for your bike to sustain a dent that could interfere with its functionality. A well-designed aluminum bike is more than sufficient, even if you make the leap from fitness rider to competitor. In fact, just as many track races are won on aluminum bikes as on carbon.
Track bicycle components
If you’re already a cyclist, then you know the importance of riding quality equipment. Fortunately, due to the simplicity of track bikes, you don’t need to spend a small fortune to get a very good one.
Brakes. One thing that will likely take some time getting used to when starting track cycling is the brake situation. Road bikes come equipped with front and rear brakes, and even beach cruisers customarily have coaster brakes. Track bicycles, on the other hand, don’t have any kind of brake system. Even though that sounds dangerous, statistics continue to show that velodromes remain one of the safest riding venues. Before participating in a race, you’ll have plenty of time and opportunities to practice maneuvering without brakes. There are several ways to approach slowing down and stopping, all of which you will learn in the preliminary training sessions. Riding up the track’s steep banking is one way for you to decrease speed.
Gears. Track cycling bikes are single gear which means there’s only one gear available for your use, as opposed to the multi-speed gears that come standard on most other bikes. Instead of relying on varying gear sizes to change speed, track cyclists adjust speed by adjusting their cadence, which forces them to be more efficient in a wide range of cadences. Since there’s only one gear and the bike is designed to go relatively fast, it takes quite a bit of strength to get it rolling and accelerate it to a comfortable speed. If you find it challenging to keep the bike moving or experiencing knee pain, you might need to upsize the rear cog until you build up strength. Because there’s no freewheel, you cannot “coast” on this kind of bike; in other words, your bike only moves when your legs are pedalling. With only one gear, it also means that track gears must be selected before your race based on the type of race, the conditions, and your fitness level.
If you plan on changing the gear that your bike came with, make sure whatever you buy matches what you have. While the rear cog is fairly universal, if you plan on replacing the chain ring or the cranks, look for is the bolt circle diameter (BCD), the measurement between the chainring bolts on your chainring and the chainset, usually written on both the crank and chainring, expressed in millimeters. If the BCD is not visible, simply measure the distance between the two adjacent bolt holes to determine the right size. The crankset and chainring BCD must be the same to be compatible.
Cranks. Cranks on a track bike rarely need to be touched. The most common reason for swapping out a crank is if the person is shorter in stature and experiencing hip or knee pain, which generally results from the crank arm being too long. Under these circumstances, it’s better to go to a bike shop for a proper fitting than to guess your crank size. The sooner you’re running on the right gear, the sooner those hip and knee pains are a thing of the past.
Tires. Tires are an important feature on a bicycle. They’re literally what connects you and your bike to the surface you’re riding on, so it’s crucial that your bike’s tires are appropriate for the ride they’re about to take. There are two types of tires to consider, each of which look the same on the outside, but are very different in construction and function: tubular and clincher. Tire width, tread, and durability are all things that should be considered, too.
With the smooth, debris free nature of an indoor velodrome track making tire punctures highly unlikely, most track cyclists who ride in an indoor venue prefer tubular tires. Tubular tires are one full, completely round piece with no open part that needs to be sealed. No additional or separate tube is required because it already has one sewn into it making them more lightweight. Because they don’t have a clincher bead, a physical feature that allows them to grip the wheel, tubular tires must be glued or taped to the rim. Some might find this extra step to be a nuisance, but the lack of clincher bead makes the tires more balanced and aerodynamic, enhancing overall performance and stability when running higher and lower pressures. Even though tubular tires tend to be more expensive and more difficult to change once they’ve become worn, the added support that adhering the tire to the rim offers makes them well worth the hassle. Clinchers are an appropriate option if you plan on riding on a rougher surface track because it’s double layer adds some durability.
Clincher tires are generally less expensive and easier to change out than their tubular counterparts. They differ from tubulars in that they are constructed of two layered pieces - the tube and tire - and hug the bike rim tightly, requiring no adhesive. Because the tire overlaps the tube, creating a double layer that increases durability, clinchers seem to function well on outdoor tracks, whereas tubular tires are generally run on indoor tracks.
In recent years, the standard widths of track bike tires has gone from 19, 21, and 23 millimeter tires to 23 and 25 millimeters. Wider tires experience less rolling resistance, which makes them more energy efficient, and because they compliment the width of the rim better, are even more aerodynamic.
Tread will primarily depend on the kind of training or race you’re doing because traction requirements vary depending on use, as well as riding surfaces. The smooth surface of indoor tracks require little tread. The same tires used for indoor tracks can be used on outdoor tracks, however a grippier tire with more tread is a better option for outdoor use.
A velodrome is an arena or stadium where track cycling takes place. All velodromes are oval-shaped and feature tracks with large, steep banks, but the track size and bank steepness differs among venues.
A velodrome can be indoor or outdoor, some of which are even convertible and offer the convenience of being both. Tracks vary from lengths and bank steepness vary with venue. Olympic standard velodromes are a minimum of 250 meters in circumference and nonOlympic standard ones range from 150 to 500 meters.
Indoor tracks are generally constructed with board made from timber, synthetics, or a combination of both, compared to outdoor tracks, which typically feature asphalt, concrete, or wood surfaces. Material selection and installation must be carefully considered to ensure rider safety as they travel at high speeds. Materials that warp or that become easily damaged and poorly laid boards that start to lift compromise the track’s surface smoothness and could result in an accident.
Track cycling is a carefully regulated and monitored sport. Velodrome venues require new participants to undergo a safety course, or in some cases a series of courses, which ensure you know how to ride on the track with others in a safe, respectful manner. Upon completion of this prerequisite, the rider is certified as knowledgeable of track and venue rules, requirements, consequences, and rules of etiquette.
Training. Once you’ve completed the safety certification prerequisite, you’re cleared to start training on the track. Riding around an oval track repeatedly doesn’t sound especially exciting, but coaches incorporate a variety of training games, drills, and exercises into their training sessions. The diverse selection of drills and exercises includes group and solo riding, sprint and endurance.
Racing. For many track cyclists, there’s nothing more exciting than a good race. Race events are broken up into two categories: sprint or endurance. Sprint races are shorter in distance and duration and focus on raw sprinting power and technique. Sprint events include sprint, team sprint, keirin, chariot, and track time trial. Endurance races are held over longer distances and challenge riders’ endurance capabilities and related skills. Endurance events include individual pursuit, team pursuit, scratch race, points race, madison, and omnium. Multiple events can occur on the track concurrently, often resulting in a mix of varying sprint and endurance events for both men and women.
Track cycling isn’t just a way to change up your routine, meet new people, or maintain winter fitness; it’s a way to upgrade your performance and riding skills. One of the reasons that this genre of cycling is so unique when compared to others is that it requires and develops a different level of focus, responsiveness, and technical skills, all of which transfer well to other cycling practices.
- You’ll increase your cadence. High cadence demand a high level of neuromuscular efficiency, which translates to improved pedalling technique when you get back on a geared bike. Upping your cadence will likely produce less fatigue and muscle damage in roadies because it helps avoid clicking up and grinding when they need some extra speed. Training on a smaller gear inch when you first start track cycling is often suggested because it helps you learn how to spin when you want to increase speed.
- You’ll learn a lot about bike control. Sitting in the saddle with your front wheel all but touching the back wheel of the rider in front of you will teach you a thing or two about control. It leaves you little time to figure out what to do because if you’re hoping to avoid a crash, as soon as the person in front of you slows down, so will you. Learning how to control speed on a fixed gear bike can be challenging at first, but with practice, you’ll figure it out. In no time, you’ll find yourself immersed in the rhythm of the group and the frustration of over and under accelerating on your bike will just be a memory.
- Your group riding skills will improve. If riding in a group in close proximity has you nervous, don’t be. One thing to remember about this discipline is that it is practiced in a highly controlled environment with a highly qualified coach overseeing everything. The required accreditation courses will help you learn how to safely maneuver around the mass and there are usually a variety of training groups to accommodate the varying levels of riding experience. Velodrome venue staff work hard to ensure that whoever ends up on the track is verified as safe and knowledgeable of track rules and etiquette.
- You’ll get stronger. If you’re consistent with track cycling, then it’s likely that your quad muscles, calves, and glutes will get noticeably bigger and you’ll feel stronger. Endurance training builds slow twitch muscles, which allow the athlete to push on for longer periods of time because it fatigues more slowly. The physical demands of pushing harder on the pedals for several seconds when you round corners and settling into a less aggressive pedalling cadence and the explosive effort that can be required to get up the track contribute to building fast twitch muscles, which are the fibers used when sprinting.
- You’ll become more disciplined. While there are some biological factors that contribute to one’s sprinting abilities, forming a consistent routine can help you compensate for biological weaknesses. As the age old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect,” and establishing a weekly practice schedule is a good way to do it. Don’t be surprised if you see that discipline carry over to other facets of life.
- A variety of training games and race types keeps it fun and fresh. It’s hard to become bored with your exercise or training routine when things are constantly getting changed up. You can expect a mix of group and solo riding and each presented in different formats. There will be fast and slow bits in training sessions, the slower-paced drills meant to address a cyclist’s innate need to constantly ride fast and to force riders to focus on strengthening related skills. You’ll determine your strengths and weaknesses and will start looking forward to the drills and exercises that you excel in. Because there’s something for everyone, everyone has their moment to shine.
- The knowledge of a qualified coach is at your fingertips. When you show up for a track cycling training session, you don’t just suit up and roll onto the track. Plenty of people spend a good amount of money paying for a coach who develops training plans to help them reach their fitness goals. There’s a coach who is engaging everyone in a carefully planned set of exercises and drills that are meant to build specific skill sets. Not only do you have a coach administering and supervising training sessions, but you have someone who you can critique and correct your positioning technique offer advice - for free.
- N+1 (an excuse to buy new gear). Because of the special nature of track cycling, there are quite a few new additions that you’ll need to make to your arsenal of cycling gear. If you don’t already have a track bike, then you’ll have to add that to your ever growing collection of bikes that you likely have. And then there’s the task of collecting every possible chainring and sprocket size imaginable...
Track cycling is the perfect supplement to any endurance cyclist’s training program because the skills acquired transfer exceptionally well and winter is the ideal time to begin. Not only does it give you the opportunity to amp up your fitness and bicycling skills, but you avoid the frigid temperatures that make training outdoors miserable and unsafe. The only thing you stand to lose by giving track racing a go is all those boring hours on the trainer. However, you stand to gain so much: improved fitness, enhanced technical skills, and a workout session that you can enjoy all year long - regardless of the season.
If you’re still a little hesitant about the idea of riding wheel to wheel on a smooth surface with no brakes, don’t let it scare you out of the track cycling experience. Remind yourself that track cycling is carefully monitored and there’s always a coach overseeing track activity, making velodromes the safest places to ride a bike. To help ease your mind, you can also look into purchasing bicycle insurance that offers plans that address your concerns. Velosurance offers personalized bicycle insurance options to meet the unique needs of each cyclist with options that cover crash-related bike damage, medical gap coverage, and even bike rental costs while your bike is undergoing repairs in the shop.