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A complete guide to track racing

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Bradley Wiggins gets ready to compete in the team pursuit

Bradley Wiggins gets ready to compete in the team pursuit (Image credit: British Cycling)
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A crowd packed the Lee Valley VeloPark Velodrome for Wiggin's UCI Hour Record attempt.

A crowd packed the Lee Valley VeloPark Velodrome for Wiggin's UCI Hour Record attempt.
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Bradley Wiggins driving Great Britain in the team pursuit gold medal ride

Bradley Wiggins driving Great Britain in the team pursuit gold medal ride (Image credit: Guy Swarbrick)
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Mark Cavendish (Great Britain)

Mark Cavendish (Great Britain)
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Annette Edmondson wins points race at Australian track championships

Annette Edmondson wins points race at Australian track championships (Image credit: WiggleHigh5)
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Australia's Matthew Glaetzer competes in the second race of the Men's Sprint Quarterfinals at the 2015 UCI Track Cycling World Championships

Australia's Matthew Glaetzer competes in the second race of the Men's Sprint Quarterfinals at the 2015 UCI Track Cycling World Championships
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Since the frame has road spacing, extra spacers are added to the Zipp track disc

Since the frame has road spacing, extra spacers are added to the Zipp track disc (Image credit: Ben Delaney/Immediate Media)

Track Cycling began in the mid-19th Century but it wasn't until 1895 that the first World Championships took place. Early track races included bizarre high-speed events in which riders slipstreamed four-and six-man pace bikes. These were replaced by motorbikes after the turn of the century, and 'Derny' racing still plays a part in many European six-day races and riders are paced by a Derny in the opening laps of the Keirin event.


Velodromes can range from less than 200 metres (with very steep banking) to over 450 metres on outdoor, concrete tracks. However, Olympic standard velodromes need to be 250 metres in length, completely covered, and made of wood. Wooden velodromes need to be hard, straight and hold their shapes as they age. For this reason, most are built from Baltic Pine which often comes from a plantation in Finland that has supplied virtually every recently built velodrome. A 250 metre track has 60km of 40mm x 40mm x 6m planks and is held together by 360,000 nails.

Track surfaces last for decades, and get better as they get older: as the wood hardens the track gets faster.

The area infield of the track accommodates team support staff such as coaches, managers, mechanics, and masseurs; the press; officials and timing and in the case of the track at Atlanta, event office space. Offices are usually underground, but the Atlanta track was temporary so no underground facilities were dug. The track was purchased by the Quebec government in 2000, and is now a part of the Bromont Canadian Cycling Traning Center.

The Lee Valley VeloPark that hosted the 2012 London Olympic Games and where the 2016 World Championships will take place is a standard 250-metre track and is made of 56 kilometres of Siberian Pine.

Bikes and Equipment

Track bikes are minimalist. There are no brakes, one gear, so no derailleur, and no freewheel; if the back wheel is turning, so are the pedals. Speed is controlled by pedalling and by pushing back on the moving pedals.

Disc wheels are used for aerodynamic reasons even though they are heavier, weaker and far more expensive than spoked wheels. Front discs are only used indoors as the slightest breeze sends a bike blowing up the track. Three and four spoke wheels have most of the aerodynamic advantages of discs without the problem of instability in a sidewind and are therefore commonly used up front.

Track bikes are fitted with 'tubulars' or 'singles' that are glued on to the rim. A very thin, smooth rubber tread covers a silk tyre case holding 150-200psi of pressure.

Riders are firmly attached to the bikes using step-in pedal systems, or standard pedals with two sets of straps. It's vital that riders can't accidentally pull out of the pedals, and that power transfer be as efficient as possible, so riders use shoes with extremely stiff soles. Over the years many pedal and shoe systems have been tried, including ones that build the pedal axle and bearings into the sole, so the rider has to be laced into the bike.

The Riders

Track racers need excellent fitness, usually expressed as a high VO2 Max measurement which indicates the rider's ability to use oxygen efficiently. Sprinters need lots of 'fast-twitch' muscle fibres, and one coach was famous for refusing to even look at riders who can't jump to reach a point a certain distance above them. The hugely-muscled anaerobic animals that infested sprinting in the 80s are less common now because sprinters have to do slightly longer events, too, and so cannot afford the extra mass that comes from training specifically to sprint just for 200m.

The Events

While this guide doesn't cover the complete variation of track disciplines, most are included and can be broadly classified into "sprint" and "endurance" events. For the newcomer to the sport, or even experienced observers, certain track cycling events can be a complete mystery. The following is a brief description of the races that feature in this week's World Championships in London and the Olympic Games.

Sprint events

Individual Sprint (Men/Women)

Traditionally held over three laps, this event captures the essence of track cycling Although it is normally a one-on-one event, earlier rounds can feature three or more cyclists on the track at the same time – also during a repechage. It is a cagey affair to start as the competitors typically eye each other off for the first 6-700 metres, trying to manoeuvre each other into an unfavourable position, before launching an explosive sprint for the last 200 metres, which is the only part of the event that is timed. The first across the line wins the race.

Tactics are the key to this race, and many people wonder why it is so slow for the first two laps. The main reason is that unless you can surprise your opponent early, you will waste too much precious energy in starting your sprint from lap one. If the other guy is on your wheel, it's all over.

An important rule is that of 'possession' of the sprinter's line, a line marked 80 cm from the pole line near the base of the track. A rider who positions themselves below this line in the final 200 metres is not allowed to be forced out by another rider e.g. pushing in from the inside. This is one of the most often broken rules causing reversals in sprint results.


Kilometre Time Trial (Men)

Probably the most painful of track disciplines, the "kilo" as it is known commonly, is raced as a time trial over 1000 metres. To do well in this event you have to have an explosive start, good top speed, and endurance to carry you through the last few hundred metres where the lactic acid build-up in your legs becomes almost intolerable.

The current record is 56.303 seconds, set by François Pervis in Aguascalientes in 2013. Pervis' fellow Frenchman Arnaud Tournant was the first rider to break the one minute barrier in 2001, lowering his own previous record of 1.00.148.

In this event, two riders often start on opposite sides of the track although it is essentially an individual event. The kilo is ridden in the World Championships, however, it was removed as an Olympic event before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

500 m Time Trial (Women)

Held over half the distance of the men, the women's 500m time trial requires explosiveness as well as good top speed. Typically, the fastest 200m rider is also the best over 500, although this is not always the case. It is different to the men's race with respect to the endurance required.

Like the kilometre, this is not an Olympic event.

Team Sprint (Men/Women)

Teams, made up of three in the men's event and two in the women's event, compete over two or three laps. Two teams will start on opposite sides of the track and the aim is to complete the distance in the quickest possible time. On the start line, the riders will be spread in a line across the width of the track but they will fall into a line, one behind the other, when they start. The leading rider begins from a mechancial start gate, while the others are held by helpers.

After the end of each lap, the leading rider pulls off completely, leaving the next to fight the wind. Therefore, the first rider has to do one laps, the second, two laps, and the last rider three laps (in the case of a men's event). Hence, rider number three typically has the best endurance: A good kilometre time trial rider is chosen for this position.

The exchange between the leading and following riders is critical - the back of the leading rider's rear wheel has to cross the "pursuit line" ahead of the next riders front tyre. Then the leading rider has 15m to pull completely out of the lane. If not, the team will be relegated to last place in the round, as happened to the British and Chinese women's teams in the London Olympic Games.

Keirin (Men/Women)

The keirin is a motorpaced event that is very popular in Japan, where it originated. In that country, huge amounts of money are bet on races and professional keirin riders command impressive salaries.

Generally 6-8 riders will take part in a Keirin at any one time. A derny motorbike paces the riders from 25 km/h up to 45 km/h for the first opening laps. The speed of the bike will gradually increase until, with two and a half laps to go, the derny bike pulls off and the sprint is on. Tactics can be important here, as the lead-out is often quite long. If one team can get two of their riders in the final, then they are at a distinct advantage.

Endurance events

Individual Pursuit (Men/women)

Held over 4000 metres for elite men and 3000 metres for elite women, this is considered an "endurance" track event, although the speeds are still extremely high. Two riders start on opposite sides of the track and try to set the fastest time over the allotted distance. Normally, a qualifying time trial is ridden that determines who is eligible for the semi-finals and finals. The fastest ride is often produced here, as in the finals, the only important criterion is to beat your opponent. If one rider catches the other, i.e. puts half a lap into them, then the race is over.

An explosive start is not critical (but it's handy to have), however, the ability to ride at a consistently high speed is far more important. Many riders who go out too hard can look to be well up on their opponent, only to fade in the last 1000 metres. This has typically the greatest "cross-over" to the road. i.e. good pursuiters make good road riders and vice versa. Bradley Wiggins, Jack Bobridge and Geraint Thomas are examples of pursuit riders who've had successful road careers.

Team Pursuit (Men/Women)

Originally a men's only event, the team pursuit has been competed by both men and women since 2007. Since 2013, there has been parity between the two genders with both men's and women's teams fielding four-rider teams and competing over 4000 metres – women used to race with three riders.

Faster than the individual pursuit, although it is still an endurance event, the team pursuit is about clockwork precision as well as high speed. Two four-rider teams start on opposite sides of the track and try to set the fastest time over the distance as with the individual pursuit. The time taken is on the third rider to cross the line.

There is one qualifying round and one final in the World Championships, but at the Olympic Games there are two rounds before the final.

Riders must follow each other at a few centimetres difference to gain the maximum drafting effect from the rider in front. Following a wheel closely is a vital skill, but mistakes and crashes do happen, as the Ukrainian team showed at the 1997 Worlds in Perth. A touch of wheels in the final brought down the whole team down and cost them the event.

Australia holds the current women's World record after setting a time of 4:13.683 at the 2015 World Championships. Great Britain set the men's World Record at the London 2012 Olympic Games with a time of 3:51.659. Times are expected to fall below 3:50 in Rio at the Olympic Games.

Madison (Men)

This race is named after Madison Square Garden in New York where the event was first held. Two-man teams contest the event, which is typically 50-60 kilometres. After a mass start where all riders are 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, but impressive to watch when done well - one rider circles around waiting for his teammate, who joins hands and imparts his momentum to the slower rider.

To win the Madison, the team must score points by sprinting every 20 laps for bonuses (5, 3, 2, 1 points). The last lap usually counts for double points, but the winner of this does not necessarily win the event. If a team can gain a lap on the field, then they are in the leading position of the race no matter how many points they have.

It is a great advantage for a team to lap the field, but when the peloton breaks into many bunches, it can be difficult to tell what constitutes a "lapped field". Judges consider the largest group of riders to be the field, and when a team catches onto the back of that group they are awarded the lap.

The Madison was removed from the Olympic programme after the 2008 Games. It has been part of the World Championships since 1995 and, with three titles, Spain's Joan Llaneras holds more than anyone else.

Points Race (Men/women)

This is a solo event, scored similarly to the Madison and raced by both men and women. Again, a rider scores points in intermediate bonus sprints every 10th lap (5, 3, 2, 1) with double points usually awarded on the last lap. If a rider can lap the field, then they get 20 points, which can be enough to secure the win - but not always. If a rider drops back a lap, they will have 20 points deducted from their total, so you sometimes see riders with negative scores.

Scratch Race (Men/Women)

The Scratch race is probably the closest the track has to a road race, with riders competing to be the first across the line. Obviously much shorter than a real road race, the men's competition takes place over 15 kilometres while the women's is 10 kilometres.

This is well suited to endurance sprinters and, unsurprisingly, many World Champions in this event have also proved good sprinters on the road including Ben Swift and Kirsten Wild.

Omnium (Men/Women)

The Omnium is one of the newest event in the World Championships and Olympic Games. The men first rode it in 2007 and the women in 2009 before becoming an Olympic sport in 2012. When it first emerged, the Omnium was made up of just five events but that changed in 2010 when an additional event was included.

Since 2014, the Omnium has consisted of the scratch race, individual pursuit, elimination race, time trial, flying lap and a points race.

The scratch race, points race, time trial and individual pursuit follow the same format as they do in their individual events. The flying lap is similar to the time trial, but takes place over just a single lap.

Like the scratch and points races, the elimination race – also known as the devil takes the hindmost – puts the entire field on the track. The riders will get one lap's grace but from the second lap on, the final rider to cross the line will be removed from the race until two riders sprint for the victory.

In every event, a rider is awarded points depending on their position in the event with the winner getting the most. The aim is to accumulate the most points over the six events and the winner should be a well-rounded endurance rider. The rules were changed to include all of the sprint bonuses gained in the points race in a rider's total in 2014, tilting the advantage to the points racers.

Annette Edmondson is the current women's champion and Fernando Gaviria is the men's champion.