Track racing: a beginner's guide
Track racing is both the simplest and the most complicated form cycle racing in existence. The bikes are really simple – there are no gears, no freewheels and no brakes – and some of the racing is pretty simple too – pursuits and sprints are pure man against man, first across the line wins. However, races like the Madison, Points Race and the Devil are super complicated and the tactics involved in even simple races like the sprints can be fairly baffling as well.
Cycle tracks come in a range of shapes and sizes. Outdoor tracks tend to be quite long – often 333m – and made of concrete. They often have football pitches in the middle of them and as a result the curves at the ends are quite long and the banking is quite shallow as a result. Standard indoor Olympic tracks, such as Manchester Velodrome and the new track at Newport, are 250m and the banking is 430. While that may seem steep, shorter indoor tracks such as Calshot near Southampton are even more wall-of-death like at over 500.
Riding on such steep banking is pretty daunting for new riders so most tracks hold taster sessions where qualified coaches give new riders guidance on proper track-craft. Obviously very few people are willing to invest in a dedicated track bike just for a taster session so most tracks have a fleet of track bikes for beginners to use. They’ll normally come with clips and straps on the pedals but most tracks are happy for riders to bring their own pedals.
If you live near a velodrome, track racing is really accessible: if you’re close to one of the indoor tracks like Manchester, Newport or Calshot, you’re in a really good position as once you’ve got used to “riding the boards" you can race year round in one of the various track leagues (outdoor tracks tend to hold leagues during the summer only). Track leagues are made up of numerous events for riders of different levels. At each event riders compete in a number of different events such as sprints, points races and “devils" where the last rider across the line each lap is eliminated. Riders are split into groups on ability and gain points as the league progresses to move up into faster groups.
Track bikes have only one “fixed" gear that is (there’s no freewheel) and no brakes. Experienced racers tend to have a wide selection of chainrings and cogs in their arsenal so that they can choose a different gear depending on the event and the conditions.
One thing that is noticeable about track riders is their smooth pedalling action and their tendency to adopt a high cadence. When you’ve only got one gear available, it’s most sensible to use a fairly small gear that you can accelerate quickly rather than a big gear that is slow to accelerate but more efficient aerobically.
To take part in track leagues you will need to be a member of the organising association. As with road racing, there are numerous governing bodies such as British Cycling and the League of Veteran Racing Cyclists who oversee different track leagues – being a member of the governing body means that you are properly insured in case of any mishaps.
As regards clothing, normal shorts, shoes, jerseys and helmets are fine although many riders find a skinsuit preferable, as they get more involved in track racing.
Track racing has something to offer everyone of every age and it is something anyone who calls him or herself a cyclist should try at least once. Here are some useful links so that you too can get involved:
RCUK's list of UK tracks