Your Guide To Olympic Track Racing

It's unfortunate, but I think many cyclists don't fully understand track racing, so they tend to ignore it. Certainly, it isn't as straightforward as road racing. In a road race, the first person across the finish line wins. Same goes for criterium racing. In a time trial, the person to cover the course in the least time wins. Sure, there's some team dynamics in there that will change tactically how a race plays out. But otherwise it's really very straightforward.

And gears. On your road bike you can always find the right gear during your race.

No so with track racing. Let me try to shed some light on it for you. At least I hope you can watch the Olympic track events with a little more background so you can appreciate and understand what's going on.

Track Bikes Explained

First, and most obvious, track bikes have a fixed gear and no brakes. No coasting either. As the bike moves, so must the feet.

Individual events tend to be like time trials, so track cyclists will use aero bars and helmets in those races. The bunch events (any event where the cyclists may be shoulder-to-shoulder) require many more handling skills, so the aero bars are ditched in favour of regular drop-style handlebars.

In the sprinting events, the specialist will use "old-fashioned" toe clips and straps - usually 2 straps per shoe. There is nothing old-school going on though. The massive power bursts a Sprinter will exert on the track demands that the feet be firmly locked to the pedals. Clipping out at 70kph with your feet spinning at 120+rpm would be disastrous!

Because they can't change gears during an event, track cyclists must really understand their bodies and the nature of the event before starting. They can change the size of the chainring and/or rear cog on their bikes before the race, picking what they believe is the optimum gear for the event. Of course once on the track, they're stuck with the gear they've chosen. Experience, practice, and training are so very important. You really can't fake it on the track. Track cyclists, compared to road cyclists, have a much more intimate understanding of gear ratios.

Track Events Explained

For now, I'll just cover the scheduled track events at the Beijing Olympics. There are more events that we race on the track, but this primer I hope should help you enjoy watching what will be contested in Beijing.

Points Race
The Points Race resembles a 40km criterium on the track (25km for the women). However, intermediate sprints are held every 10 laps. 5, 3, 2 and 1 points are awarded to 1st through 4th places respectively on each sprint lap. If a rider laps the field, he is awarded 20 bonus points. If he then drops back and is lapped by the field he loses 20 points. So if you lap the field, stay there!

The winner, as you've probably figured out by now, is the racer with the most points. Tactically, he doesn't need to win every sprint, but he should be trying to place in them all if he wants a chance at success. It is usually a race of carefully pacing himself in between sprints, and then positioning himself in the beginning of the sprint lap to unleash a well-timed jump in the last 100m or so.

The Points Racer needs a gear that he can turn over quickly for the sprint, but doesn't leave him too spun out for the other times in the race when the pace can get quite high for a number of consecutive laps, like when an opponent may be attacking and trying to get away from the field.

Flying 200m - also known as the 200m Time Trial
The track cyclist is given 2 laps from a standing start to "wind-up" their gear before plowing all-out into the final 200m. Only that last 200m is timed. The cyclist will stay high on the track, using the most distance to get the gear rolling, and then use the slight "downhill" banking from the top towards the bottom of track to give them their final kick at the gear before hitting the starting timing strip.

A track racer can pick a bigger gear than what they may use in a Match Sprint, because they've got those 2 laps to get the gear going. World-class times are around 10sec.

The Flying 200m times are used to seed the initial pairings for the Match Sprints.

Match Sprints
These are the classic cat-and-mouse track events that most lay-people think about when they hear the words "track cycling". Canada's own Lori-Ann Muenzer won Gold in this event at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Racers are paired up based on their Flying 200m times. There may be 1/16th and 1/8th finals if there are enough competitors. In a perfect world, riders 1, 2, 3, and 4 from the Flying 200m would advance eventually to the semi-finals as they've got the best Flying 200m power. But Match Sprinting is about more than pure power. Tactics are huge.

In the 1/4 finals and beyond, each pairing is a best 2 out of 3 races, each being 3 laps long. Before their first race, riders draw straws (or some similar random selection) to determine who will "lead" in the first match. That rider must take the lead position when they first begin, and must ride no slower than walking pace in the first lap. But after they start pedaling, all hell can break loose, depending on how one rider thinks she can out-fox the other.

If she thinks she's a better endurance rider, and doesn't have a superior "snap" to her sprint, you might see her go all out right from the start, hoping to wear her opponent down just enough to keep her from jumping around to take the win. It is a very risky proposition, as the second rider can simply draft off the first rider the whole race until kicking it to sprint out of the draft, sling-shotting herself to victory somewhere in the last 200m. You don't see this happen very often, least of all at the Olympic level.

Usually you see a bunch of cat-and-mouse tactics. The riders are playing with availability of a draft to make it work to their own benefit. It tends to be easier to win a Match Sprint from the second position. Simply wait for the lead rider to start her sprint, respond fast enough, enjoy the draft behind her, and then kick it one final time in the last 200m. However, the lead rider can fake it a few times, maybe eventually catching the rear rider off-guard just enough such that the lead rider can hold her final sprint all the way to the finish.

Or, while the lead rider is looking down the track (she can't really ride the whole track looking backwards, can she? You'd be surprised!), the rear rider initiates a massive jump, gets a gap just big enough that the other rider misses the draft, and the rear rider runs away with the victory.

I could go on and on with scenarios, but those are the basics and I think anything else is really just a variation on the theme.

In the Match Sprint, the racers will usually pick a smaller gear than used in their Flying 200m. It is important to be able to accelerate the gear quickly, so you can react quickly, and that means running with a smaller gear ratio. Of course to have a really fast top-end speed, that may mean riding at 140+rpm. Track racers, especially the sprint specialists, spend a lot of time working at high cadences.

Individual Pursuit
The Individual Pursuit is a 4km timed event (3km for the women), looking like an individual time trial on the track. Most of us treat it that way when we race.

Riders are paired, with each starting in the straight-aways on opposite sides of the track. It is a timed event leading up to the finals. In the finals, (the Gold medal match and the Bronze medal match), it is simultaneously a timed race and an actual "pursuit". If one rider catches the other, the race is over. It doesn't happen very often. Otherwise, the rider with the fastest time wins.

Lately, Pursuiters have been moving to bigger gears and lower cadences (though still in excess of 100rpm). The key to a successful pursuit, like any time trial, is pacing. Don't start too hard. Don't start too hard. Don't start too hard. If anything, Pursuiters keep a tiny bit back in the first kilometre, and then roll it steady through to the end of the race.

Riders will often calculate a schedule of lap times to race against, with an assistant or coach on the sidelines calling out the splits. In the schedule, the first lap usually has 3 to 5 extra seconds added to it to account for the starting effort to accelerate the bike. After that, the track cyclist will aim for a constant or slightly decreasing lap time.

World-class times should be less than 4:20 mm:ss for the men's 4km Pursuit, and less than 3:30 mm:ss for the women's 3km Pursuit.

The Keirin originated in Japan in 1948 and really got organized during the 1950s. Dedicated professional Japanese Keirin racers must graduate from the Japan Keirin School - an arduous process. It is treated almost like horse racing over there with dedicated tracks and all of the betting that goes along with it. No such betting happens at the Olympics - but who knows what happens back in the home countries' bars?

6 riders are paced behind a motorbike for 5-1/2 laps, before it pulls off the track leaving the riders to race all out for the last 2-1/2 laps. The motorbike starts at 30kph and accelerates continually to 50kph before it leaves the track.

The starting order (position 1 lowest on the track, position 6 highest) is determined from a draw of sticks. Position 1 must take the wheel behind the motorbike, unless another rider jumps him to it. That first position can have tactical advantages, depending on the strength of the rider, or if he is working for a teammate.

The Keirin is usually the roughest track event, at least from what I've seen. Think of 6 cyclists in a Match Sprint that starts at 50kph, and accelerates further to close to 70kph at the end. The riders can afford to go with a gear bigger than their Flying 200m gear, as the 5-1/2 laps of drafting really allows them to wind it up.

The Madison started in the track racing days of Madison Square Gardens back in the early 1900s. Think tag-team wrestling on the track, and you start to get the picture.

It is one big race, with teams of 2 riders each competing. At any one time, only one rider is actively racing while their teammate rides slowly higher up on the track. When they want to switch, the 2nd teammate begins to accelerate down the track, and then with a well timed hand-grab maneuver, the first teammate will virtually try to sling-shot his teammate down the track.

Other than this switching in and out of riders, the Madison is a Points Race, with sprint points awarded every 20 laps over the course of a 200 lap race. It's great fun to watch, but must be confusing as all hell for the commissaires to keep sorted out as to who's in, who's out, and where the lead rider is on each lap.

A good Madison team usually consists of a Sprinter and a Pursuiter. The Pursuiter may do most of the riding with the Sprinter jumping in briefly to relieve the Pursuiter, and then jumping in again to contest the points laps.

Team Pursuit
This event is a team version of the Individual Pursuit. Teams of 4 ride a 4km Pursuit. Finishing times are determined from the 3rd rider's time across the line. Tactically, then, teams could use-up one rider earlier in the race, and drop him towards the end.

In the finals, like with the Individual Pursuit, the race is won either with the best time or if one team catches the other. Dropping a rider in the finals, then, is not really an option unless it's maybe happening in the last lap.

Team Pursuits take an incredible amount of synchronized work from the riders. Riding a perfect line, dropping back quickly, getting on at the back efficiently. These are all keys to riding a successful Team Pursuit. Look for the times to be under 4 minutes to cover 4km.

Team Sprint - also known as the Olympic Sprint
Each team consists of 3 riders racing what looks to be a Team Pursuit in the beginning. However, the lead rider peels off after the first lap. Then rider 2 peels off after the second lap. And finally rider 3 is the anchor bringing it all home. As in the Team Pursuit, 2 teams are on the track at the same time, each starting on the opposite straight-away.

The finals are determined from the finishing times of the preceding heats, with times 1 and 2 from the semi-finals contesting the Gold/Silver and times 3 and 4 contesting the Bronze.

Now Don't Simply Watch The Racing On TV - Give It A Try Yourself!

Really, there aren't many velodromes in North America. If you have one in the city where you live and haven't tried it yet, why not? Most velodromes have learn to ride clinics. And they should have loaner/rental track bikes, so you can try it out before deciding to invest in your own track bike.

I first tried track racing only 4 years ago. I now race on both the road and track. It might be a bit of a compromise to continue doing both. But you know what? It's all fun. And that's not a compromise.

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