If you’ve been following this summer’s sport, you’ve probably watched a fair bit of cycling and marvelled at how the pros can continue cycling whilst effectively riding horizontally. How do they do it? What trickery is involved here?!

As you’ve probably guessed, there’s no trickery – just physics. In this post we explain how the velodrome works, and we take a look at some of the most common races that are carried out on the track.

The Track

A velodrome is an arena that houses an oval-shaped, 250m long track made from wooden boards. The most defining features of the track are the huge banked sides which enable cyclists to turn without losing speed. These banks have an angle of 45° – pretty steep, as the photo below shows!

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Track Inspection by Derek E-Jay, licensed under CC BY-ND

When travelling at the speed of a professional cyclist, it’s impossible to turn on a flat track without overshooting the corner. The banks on a velodrome track create a centripetal force, pushing the riders back in towards the track instead of off into the crowd, enabling them to keep up their blistering speeds.

The dark blue flat in the middle of the track is known as the apron – this is where the cyclists warm up and enter the track from. Above that is the light blue cote d’azur, signalling the edge of the track. 20 cm above, the black line signals the shortest route around the track and is the one the cyclists will want to stick to, whilst the red line is known as the sprinter’s line and exists to implement certain rules in sprint races.

The Bikes

Track bikes are like fixies – they feature a fixed gear and no brakes. This means they don’t have gears and the pedals continue turning even if you stop pedalling – you can’t freewheel like you would down a hill.

Track bikes are made from carbon fibre, making them incredibly light. You may have noticed that some bikes have solid disc wheels – this makes them more aerodynamic and reduces drag. Bikes that are used in the time trial events have handlebars that are lower than a road bike’s, helping the cyclist get into the most efficient, aerodynamic shape.

Womens Dutch Team
The Dutch team pursuit team by M. Smelter, licensed under CC BY-SA

The Races

Here we’re going to take a look at several track events: the Team & Individual Sprints, the Omnium, the Team Pursuit, and the Keirin.

Team & Individual Sprints

The Individual Sprint is just what it sounds like – two cyclists race as fast as they can for three laps. Three races are ran and the best out of three wins. This race tends to be very tactical, which is why you’ll sometimes see cyclists come to a complete stop in order to make the other rider take the lead so they can benefit from their slipstream, conserve energy, and make a mad dash at the end.

The Team Sprint is more about strength than tactics, and is an incredibly fast-paced race. Two teams (consisting of three men or two women) will compete against each other at the same time, starting at opposite sides of the track. Men’s teams complete three laps, and women’s teams complete two, with each lap being led by a different team member. The first team to get their final rider across the line wins.

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Photo by Diego Sinisterra, licensed under CC BY-SA

Keirin

The Keirin is another sprint cycling event held on the track. A motorised bike known as a derny (usually a small motorbike or e-bike) sets the speed, starting off at about 15 mph and slowly increasing to roughly 30 mph. The cyclists have to stay behind the derny until it leaves the track, which it does with 700m of the 8 lap race left to go. The cyclists then sprint for victory, and the first across the line wins.

Team Pursuit

In the Team Pursuit, two teams start at opposite sides of the track and compete against each other to either cover the distance (4km for men, 3km for women) in the fastest time, or to catch up to and overtake the other team. In this race cyclists stay close to one another, riding in each other’s slipstreams. Each cyclist takes it in turn to lead the pack, so no single rider becomes too tired.

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Photo by Diego Sinisterra, licensed under CC BY-SA

Omnium

The Omnium is the ultimate track cycling event, consisting of six different events held over two days:

  • Scratch Race: A simple race where the first across the finish line wins. Men race 15km, women 10km.
  • Individual Pursuit: Like the Team Pursuit. Men ride 4km and women ride 3km.
  • Elimination Race: Riders that are last across the line on certain laps are eliminated. The race culminates with a sprint for the finish line by the few remaining riders.
  • Time Trial: An incredibly quick race, often over in a minute or less. Riders compete to have the fastest time over 1km for men and 500m for women.
  • Flying Lap: Cyclists ride one or two laps to build up their speed, and then sprint to the finish line for the final 200m. Their time is taken from that final 200m.
  • Points Race: Men race 40km and women race 25km in this tough-to-score event. There is a sprint every ten laps and 5, 3, 2 and 1 points are awarded to the first four riders across the line. 20 points are also up for grabs for any riders that manage to lap the main field. The rider with the most points at the end is the winner.

For all races but the Points Race, the winner is given 40 points, 38 go to second place, 36 to third and so on. These scores are added to the scores from the Points Race and the cyclist with the most points overall wins. In the event of a tie, the winner is decided by whoever came top in the Points Race.

And there we have it! The velodrome features a fantastic mix of strength, speed, endurance, physics, and a healthy dose of tactics, which is why we love it!

Header image by Martin Pettitt, licensed under CC BY

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