If you've enjoyed the thrill of velodrome racing from the sofa but you're not sure if it's for you, or even how to get started with track cycling, check out our beginner's guide to riding on the velodrome.
The benefits of track cycling
There's a lot more to track cycling than simply riding round and round an oval. Group coaching sessions, drills and racing can give you a varied workout that can help you to improve your bike skills on the roads or trails. Here's why we think you'll love it.
- An all-weather workout - If you're lucky enough to live near an indoor velodrome, you'll be sheltered from the elements, making it an attractive prospect for winter training if the idea of being stuck on the turbo bores you to tears. Even if you're riding on an outdoor velodrome, the lack of traffic and pedestrians means you can use your time more efficiently and so, even if you are heading out in bad weather, it's hopefully not for too long and you'll stay warm!
- Non-stop effort - You can get a great workout on the track simply because you're in control of your effort - no enforced stops or starts for traffic lights and junctions like you would have out on the road.
- Hone your bike handling skills - When you're riding in a bunch on the velodrome, you'll need to learn how to control your speed as the rider in front slows or accelerates. With no gears or brakes, you'll need to concentrate on keeping track of everyone around you in order to safely move with or through the group. If you keep at it, you'll be rewarded with greater confidence and group-riding skills once you're back on the road.
- Increase your cadence - Riding at a higher cadence is a vital skill if you want to be able to ride faster for longer. You'll definitely get lots of practice at the track because you only have one gear that you have to turn constantly to keep going.
- Build your strength - Riding up the banking at either end of the velodrome, you'll be using the same gear as when you're flying down the banking so you'll be intermittently putting lots of power through the pedals to maintain a consistent speed. Try sprinting on the track if you really want to build that explosive power.
- Get real-time coaching - Many velodromes offer group training sessions which will be led by an experienced coach. The advantage of being on a track is that they can see what you're doing at all times and offer you feedback and advice that you can immediately put into action.
What do I need to start track cycling?
The good news is that it's unlikely that you'll need to buy anything new to start with. If you're a regular cyclist, you can just wear the kit that you're comfortable with on the road. Don't forget your helmet and gloves as you won't be allowed to ride without them.
It's worth considering eye protection, even if you're indoors or riding outdoors at night, to keep dust and dirt out as you'll probably be riding faster than you normally would on the road.
Modern indoor velodromes are temperature-controlled to preserve the track which is why you would have entered through an air-lock system if you have ever been to spectate. It's likely that you'll be fine in your usual jersey and shorts, but it's worth noting that older indoor tracks like the one at Calshot in Hampshire can be more variable so ask around if you're not sure what to expect.
Most velodromes will only allow track bikes to be ridden, but if you don't have one it's normally possible to hire one, as well as shoes if you don't use the same pedal system yourself, so there's no need to spend lots of money immediately.
What's the difference between a road bike and a track bike?
Aside from a stiffer frame and more racey geometry, you'll notice that track bikes differ from road bikes in three key areas:
- The gear is fixed. The only way to change gear is to change the sprocket. Track racers opt for different sizes depending on their discipline. For example, track sprinters have a huge gear to get up to speed quickly.
- You have to turn the pedals constantly to keep moving - there are no free-hubs so you won't be able to coast like you can on the roads.
- There are no brakes. When you want to stop, you'll need to slow your legs and push back against the pedals.
At the top-end of the sport, national cycling federations can spend tens of thousands of pounds to get the most aerodynamic setup that will help propel their star riders to the top of the podium. However, at the amateur level, it's possible to pick up a decent track bike for a lot less money than the equivalent road bike because of their relative simplicity.
How can I find my nearest velodrome?
Your nearest velodrome might be closer than you think.
In the UK, we're lucky enough to have no less than 28 cycling tracks. Of these, six are of the indoor type that you would have seen the pros racing on in the biggest competitions like the World Championships, Six Days and Olympics. These are in Calshot, Derby, Glasgow, London, Manchester and Newport.
Outdoor velodromes are more common as they don't need the space or expense associated with being housed in a building. They can be surfaced with wood, although tarmac and concrete are more sensible in the UK as they need to be hard-wearing in all weathers.
Indoor velodromes are surfaced with smooth wood and have steep banking at either end to allow bikes to stay relatively upright as they take the tight bend at speed.
Take a look at our map of velodromes in the UK to see where your nearest one is.
Can I just turn up to the velodrome?
The track cycling community are a friendly and welcoming bunch, but you do need to learn some basic skills before you're let loose on the velodrome. Many tracks offer introductory sessions, but if not it's worth reaching out to a local cycling club as they'll be sure to know the right people to talk to.
It's worth remembering that some velodromes require accreditation before you're allowed to ride without an instructor and this can be venue-specific so, even if you're accredited for one track, you might need to go through the process again somewhere else.
What do the lines mean on the velodrome track?
If you've ever watched track cycling, you would have seen that the track has lines of different colours painted at specific positions and each of these has a meaning.
- Côte d’azur - This is the wide blue band which is technically not part of the track at all and not used for racing. If you're warming up or cooling down from drills or a race, you'll probably ride in the côte d’azur, staying out of the way of riders on the track.
- The datum line - This is 20cm above the côte d’azur and 5cm thick. The datum line is the line on which the official length of the track is measured and is the shortest line you can take in an event.
- The sprinter's line - 90cm above the datum line, you'll see the red sprinter's line. The best route to take around the track on a sprint lap is generally between the red and the black.
- The stayer's line - This is the blue line half-way up the track. It's named for 'Stayers' races which are paced behind motorbikes to indicate the area of the track where it is safe to overtake. It's also used in the Madison - a race where teams of two riders hand-sling each other in a high-octane relay race - to separate the racing riders from the resting riders.
What are the different track cycling races?
Track cycling has a rich history and many different types of track races have come in and out of fashion over the years. If you go to watch the racing at an overseas velodrome, you might be surprised to witness events that you have never even heard of.
With long-distance endurance events and more punchy sprint races, track cycling has something to suit all kinds of athletes. Here are some of the races that you'll see at most major events like the World Championships and Olympics:
Two teams of four riders each ride 16 laps or 4,000m. The teams start at opposite sides of the track and there are two ways to win - either catch the team in front of you or complete the distance in the fastest time. The time is taken on the third rider to cross the finish line if no catch is made. You'll see that the four riders take turns to ride at the front, pushing the pace before falling back to recover in the slipstream.
In the men's race, teams of three riders race over three laps. For the women, it's two over two laps. Each rider takes the front for a lap before peeling off for the next rider to take over. The finishing time is taken when the final rider finishes.
A real test of endurance, this event has had many iterations over the years and has included as many as six races, although the current form is officially four:
- Scratch race - A mass-start race over 40 laps for men and 30 for women. The winner is the first to finish.
- Tempo race - A mass-start race which is the same length as the scratch race, but after the first five laps the winner of each lap wins a point. If a rider can lap the field, they earn 20 points. The winner is the rider with the most points.
- Elimination race - Also known as 'The Devil (takes the hindmost),' the last rider to cross the start/finish on every other lap is eliminated until only one remains.
- Points race - The longest event in the Omnium, the Points Race takes place over 100 laps for men and 80 for women. There are points up for grabs for the first five finishers at the sprints, taking place every ten laps, and anyone who can lap the field earns themself a 20 point bonus. The winner is the rider with the most points.
With roots in Japan, the Keirin sees riders follow a derny (pacing motorcycle) which increasingly gathers speed over three laps, before it pulls off leaving the riders to battle it out over the remaining three laps.
A true test of strength, the sprint sees two riders pitched against each other in a battle over three laps of the track. The opponents start side-by-side and try to manoever each other into a disadvantageous position which sometimes means riders will stop dead on the banking as they try to psyche each other out, before letting rip with an explosive show of speed in the last few hundred meters.
A mass-start event where teams of two race over 200 laps. Only one rider in each team is 'racing' at any one time, whilst the other recovers at the top of the track. To tag their team-mate in, the 'live' rider must grab their hand and 'sling' them into the action so they keep as much speed as possible. The addition of points every ten laps or for lapping the field makes this a thrilling, albeit sometimes confusing race to watch.
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Header image: Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash
Team GB at London 2012 and Four GB riders on track - Photos by Simon Connellan on Unsplash
Man on track - Photo by Jo Coenen on Unsplash
Ukraine, Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine (outdoor Velodrome): Photo by Igor Karimov on Unsplash