Track racing demystified
Great to watch but bewildering for those not in the know, our guide will help you get a grip on what track racing is all about.
Track racing is the perfect spectator event. Like a football game without the hooligans or mud, you can see the whole track from one seat, eat fried food and drink beer, while watching elite athletes turn cycling into a contact sport.
Despite the event names sounding more like cocktails than bike races (madison, keirin, omnium …), if you have only ever seen track racing on TV, watching a track event live is a fantastic experience. The races can be mind-bogglingly confusing, but the mayhem on the boards makes for great entertainment. With more velodromes springing up as cycling grows in popularity, the sport is becoming more accessible than ever before.
Make sense of the mayhem
What kind of race can involve a six-minute track-stand? Track sprints are not your typical dashes, but an exercise in strength, speed and tactics. The event can be from 600m to 1000m, depending on the size of the velodrome, but only the last 200m is timed. Riders begin by pedalling slowly, jockeying for position to force their opponent higher up on the track. Some even bring the bikes to a complete stop and track-stand on the pedals in an attempt to make the other ride take the lead. This is because when riding at a high speed, the rider who manages to stay just behind their opponent can slipstream, expending less effort. Just before the finish, the trailing rider pulls out of the slipstream, and using their fresher legs may be able to overtake their opponent before the line.
The points race is a series of points-awarding sprints. It requires tactical awareness as well as stamina and speed, as riders work out how hard to push, based on their score. Sprints take place every 10 laps, with the first four riders getting points (5,3,2,1) each time and at the overall finish. A rider is awarded 20 extra points if he laps the field, while riders losing a lap have 20 points deducted. If points are tied, the winner of the final sprint is the victor.
To the untrained eye, this event looks like total mayhem, but makes for a great spectator event. This team event is named after the six-day races held at New York’s Madison Square Gardens from 1899. Opposing teams are made up of two riders, who work together to score points in a series of sprints every 20 laps. After a mass start with all riders on the track, only one rider from each team is allowed in the race at a given time, meaning that teams must take it in turn each lap (or more) to have a rider in the race. Changeovers are quite dangerous: one rider circles around at the top of the banking waiting for his teammate, who joins hands and flings the slower rider along to impart the momentum.
Team pursuit and individual pursuit
Teams of four endurance cyclists compete in the team pursuit – one of the most tactical events in track cycling. The four riders circulate as a pack, with the leader riding fast enough to set a competitive pace while not tiring his team. Teams compete against each other on opposite sides of the track. The aim is to record the fastest time or catch the rival team.
The individual pursuit is a pure endurance race, with riders attempting to post the fastest time over a set distance. Riders are seeded based on their times in the qualifying round. Two riders are on the track at the same time, and if one rider overtakes his opponent, then he is declared the winner, even if the full distance of the race has not been completed.
A multi-disciplined event consisting of five different types of race, including sprint and endurance races. To win the omnium, a rider must be adept across all types of riding.
Turning the civilised sport of cycling into a contact sport, the keirin looks like total chaos. It is an old-fashioned first-to-the-finish race, with 6-9 sprinters competing at one time. Keirin races are about 2km in length, with eight laps on a 250m track, six laps on a 333m track, and five laps on a 400m track.
Riders draw lots to determine starting positions and start as the derny, usually a motorbike or tandem bike, approaches. The derny starts at the deliberately slow speed of about 25 km/h, gradually increasing in speed and leaves the track approximately 600–700m before the end, at a speed of about 50km/h. The first cyclist to finish the race is the winner.
Keirin racing is huge in Japan, and is one of the four sports that the Japanese are allowed to legally gamble on (the other three are horse racing, motorboat racing and motorbike racing). There are currently 50 velodromes in operation throughout Japan that hold races. Over 20 million people attend annually and place bets amounting to over ¥1.5 trillion ($15 billion).
Where to watch it
Most cities have at least one indoor or outdoor velodrome. Many are home to local track clubs who love to have spectators at their meets. This can be a great way to get a taste of track racing, work out the specifics of each discipline and spot up-and-coming track stars. In Australia, professional track events are usually held over summer, but there are club events held all year round.
In Victoria, Darebin Indoor Sports Centre has a 250m indoor velodrome which hosts a range of club, national and international events. For those who want to get out of the stands and onto the boards, the velodrome has ‘Come and Try’ sessions, where you can hire a bike and ride on the track with the assistance of a coach. Sessions last for 90 minutes. More information about the sessions and upcoming spectator events at http://www.vic.cycling.org.au.
Sydney is home to the Dunc Gray Velodrome in Bankstown, a legacy of the Sydney Olympics, which holds regular club meets. See http://www.duncgrayvelodrome.com for session times.
The VenuesWest Speeddome, in Midland, services Western Australian track fans. The velodrome is the home of Track Cycling Western Australia, which holds regular events (www.venueswest.wa.gov.au).
The Adelaide SuperDrome is the headquarters for the Australian Institute of Sport’s track cycling program. You can watch the pros race and train during both the on and off-season (www.sa.cycling.org.au).
Have you tried track racing? Can you make sense of the rules?
Connect with Ride On on Facebook.