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Guide To Track Cycling: A Dizzying Array of Events

Not too many Americans are familiar with track racing these days, but it wasn't always that way. Back in the 1930's, racing was extremely popular in the United States, so big that races were held in Madison Square Garden. That era gave birth to the Madison, a two-person, tag-team style race that is still contested today. Though its popularity has waned in this country, track cycling is still very popular in Europe, Australia and Japan.Track cycling oval

I am biased, of course, but I happen to think track cycling is a fun, fast, and exciting sport, both to watch and in which to compete. Like other sports, it helps, of course, to know what you are watching. So, whether you and your child are just going to a track to see what track cycling is all about, or your child has decided to test the waters by entering some races, you'll have a lot more fun if you know ahead of time what to expect.

Hard to describe

Frankly, track cycling is hard to describe. It is like a track meet, in that athletes compete in a wide variety of events, both individual and team, at distances from sprints to distance. Like short-track speed skating, many of the events, especially the individual events, aren't timed and involve a great deal of strategy, drafting and passing at just the right moment.

What makes track cycling so different is the dizzying variety of races and the fact that each track, whether it is here in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, in addition to contesting some of the standard races described below, often contests a race that is unique to that particular track.

Musical chairs

For instance, the Kenosha, Wisconsin track where I grew up racing has a musical chairs race, which is probably the most fun and bizarre race I have ever seen (and an event you won't find on the Olympic schedule or probably anywhere else in the country). Riders ride around the track to music, and, when the music stops, careen off the track into the infield and dive, drag and fight their way onto a chair. Of course, one rider ends up without a chair and is eliminated from the race. The race continues until only two riders and one chair remain. The last rider with a chair wins. Track bikes don't have brakes, so it is a pretty crazy scene.

Local racing offers the widest variety of events, and as you move up to the Olympic level, the number of events contested declines. In December 2009, the International Olympic Committee drastically revamped the Olympic track cycling program, eliminating three classic events and adding a couple of new ones. The change won't impact the races contested at this year's Junior National Championship, but may in coming years.

At the local and regional level most riders compete in all of the events. Riders specialize in certain events as they progress to the national and international level. I encourage your child to try all of the races as he gets started in cycling. It will give you both a good grasp of his strengths and weaknesses and will help him build a solid skill set. Each event described below with an asterisk is an event that is contested at Junior Nationals.

Olympic Events

  • Sprints*

The sprints are probably the most well-known track event. Based on the rider's time during a 200-meter time trial (see below), he or she is seeded into bracket and tries to advance through several rounds of racing to the final. Each race is three laps and is generally contested between two or three riders. The first rider across the finish line wins. Riders generally do not go all out for the entire race; riders most often employ cat-and-mouse tactics to gain an edge in the final sprint to the finish line. The race is very short, fast and explosive.

At Junior Nationals the sprints are contended by both men and women ages 15 to 18.

Tip: Know your competitor's strengths and weaknesses and keep an eye on them at all times.

  • Keirins

Six riders draw lots to determine their start position. The first person to cross the finish line after two kilometers wins. The riders are paced behind a derny (a motorized bicycle), which gradually accelerates up to 50 kilometers per hour (about 30 mph) before it pulls off the track approximately 600 meters from the finish line. Riders jockey for position behind the derny, trying to position themselves well for the sprint to the finish. The event is wildly popular in Japan, where betting on racers is permitted.

Tip: The race is often an aggressive, physical race, so prepare to defend your position.

  • Team Sprint

The team sprint, or Olympic sprint as it is sometimes called, is a 3-lap timed race between teams of three racers. The winner is the team with the fastest time. The riders making up a team line up side-by-side on the start line and begin the race from a dead stop, forming into a single file after the start. The first rider sets the pace for one lap and then peals off and out of the race. The remaining riders continue on, with the second rider taking his turn in front. After completing a lap, the second rider pulls up and out of the way of the final rider who completes the third lap alone. Two teams race on the track at the same time, starting on opposite sides of the track. Originally just contested by men, the team sprint is now also a women's event. The women's event is two laps, contested by two athletes.

Tip: The order in which the riders start is very important to the success of the team.

  • Team Pursuit

The team pursuit is a timed event where teams of four riders race for 4 kilometers. The team with the fastest time wins. Teams are seeded based on a qualifying round and then compete in rounds to reach the final. As in the team sprint, the riders start from a dead stop and then take advantage of drafting by filing in line behind each other. They take turns riding at the front and pull off in the turns, using the banking of the track to help them drop back in at the end of the line. Usually riders take half lap or one lap "pulls" at the front of the pack. Two teams race on the track at the same time, starting on opposite sides of the track. If one team overtakes the other team, they automatically advance, unless it is in the qualifying round where time is the only important factor. Originally just contested by men, it is now also a women's event. The women's event is 3 kilometers and contested by three athletes.

Tip: Don't overlap wheels!

  • Omnium

The omnium is multi-race event. The rider with the best overall performance in all the events, is the winner. The event is best suited to an all-around athlete, one who has speed and endurance.

  • Individual pursuit*

Like the team pursuit, the individual pursuit is a timed event which begins from a dead stop. The rider with the fastest time wins. Riders are seeded in brackets based on a qualifying round and then compete in rounds to determine the winner. Two riders race on the track at the same time, starting on opposite sides of the track. If one rider overtakes the other rider, they automatically advance, unless it is in the qualifying round where time is the only important factor. As part of the omnium, the individual pursuit is contested over three kilometers, but, historically, the men covered four kilometers and the women three kilometers. This event used to be one of the more prestigious events in track cycling, but is being dropped from the Olympics as a stand-alone event for the 2012 Games in London.

At Junior Nationals the 17-18 men compete in a 3 km pursuit and the 17-18 women compete in a 2 km pursuit.

Tip: Learning to pace yourself and trying to ride specific lap times is key.

  • 200-meter sprint

This is historically not a stand-alone race, but is used for time trials to seed racers for the sprint race (see above). From a rolling start, riders wind up to see which can cover200 meters in the fastest time. Riders dive down the banking at the start of the race to pick up speed.

Tip: The black line is the shortest and fastest distance around the track, so stick to it.

  • One kilometer time trial*

The Kilo, as it is often referred, is a time trial begun from a dead stop. The rider who completes the distance with the fastest time wins. There are no rounds or second chances, it is a one-time effort and the fastest rider on that day wins.

At Junior Nationals only men ages 17-18 complete in this event.

Tip: On the second lap it helps to float, just a little bit, so you can have a strong last lap.

  • Points Race*

Traditionally a much longer race, the points race combines both endurance and speed. Beginning at the 2012 Olympics, the points race will be 15 kilometers or sixty laps on a 250-meter track. Every ten laps there is a sprint for points. The first four riders across the line are awarded points (five points for first, three for second, two for third and one for fourth). Any rider who laps the field receives 20 points. The rider with the most points wins. This is a very tactical event; depending on their strengths, some riders rely on their endurance and attempt to earn points by gaining laps and others rely on their sprinting ability to gain points by finishing first at the ten lap marks. The point's race has been dropped from the Olympics as a stand-alone event for the 2012 Games.

At Junior Nationals the 13-14 age men race is a 10 km points race and the women's race is 8 km. The 15-16 age men race 15 km and the women's race 10 km. The 17-18 age men race a 25 km race and the women's race is 15 km.

Tip: Try to keep track of how many points you have as well as your competition.

  • Scratch Race*

Scratch races are one of the more straightforward track races. While the Olympic event is 5 kilometers, scratch races can be any length. The event is a mass start event, meaning a lot of riders race at the same time. The first rider to cross the finish line wins.

At Junior Nationals, the 10-12 year olds race both a 1 kilometer and 2 kilometer scratch race. The 13-14 year olds scratch race is 4 km. The distances change for men and women as the kids get older. The 15-16 year old men race an 8 km scratch race, while the women race 6 km, and the 17-18 men race a 10 km race, while the women race 7.5 km.

Tip: Positioning is very important: in most cases it is best to stay up near the front of the group so you can react to moves by your competition.

Other Track Events

  • Madison

Internationally, the Madison was traditionally a 50-kilometer race, which is two hundred laps on a 250 meter track. It is set up a lot like a points race, but,  instead of sprinting every 10 laps, riders sprint every 20 laps. The first four riders across the line at the 20 lap intervals are awarded points for their team for each sprint (five points for first place, three for second, two for third and one for fourth). Riders race in two-person teams. The teammates take turns actively racing. The rider not actively racing "rests" by riding higher up on the track waiting to go back into the race. The riders exchange places by using their hands to sling each other into the race. The team with the most points at the end of the race wins.

Tip: Keep your head up, there is a lot going on and you don't want to run into the back of another team that is in the middle of exchanging positions.

  • Miss and Out

The length of a miss and out is determined by the number of riders in the race. Every lap the last rider across the finish line is eliminated from the race, until only one rider remains. In some cases, riders are eliminated until three remain, and then the remaining three riders race one more lap, with the first rider across the line winning. The most important part of this race is your positioning on the track compared to the rest of the riders.

Tip: The back of the pack, near the bottom of the track, is the worst place to be. Riders surge over the top at the last minute leaving you exposed.

  • Win and Out

In the Win and Out, the first person across the line on the first lap wins and pulls out the race. The race continues, and the first person across the line on the next lap takes second and pulls out. This continues for a set number of laps, often with the last lap being a sprint for the remaining places.

Tip: Get a good start!

  • Point a Lap/ Snowball

The point a lap race is pre-determined number of laps. On the first lap, 1 point is awarded to the first rider across the line, the second lap 2 points are awarded, and so on. Riders have to decide their strategy; whether to go for points early, later, or sporadically throughout the race.

Tip: Decide what your strategy will be before you start, but take the opportunities that present themselves.

  • Unknown Distance

In the Unknown Distance race, officials determine ahead of time what the length of the race will be, but they don't tell the riders. Riders begin racing not knowing whether the race will be 1 lap or 20. The officials signal one lap to go by ringing a bell. The rider who crosses the finish line first on the final lap wins.

Tip: It helps if you're psychic. (Most of the time they aren't very long races.)

  • 500-meter time trial*

The 500-meter individual time trial is a race against the clock. It begins from a dead stop. The rider who covers the distance in the shortest amount of time wins. There are no rounds or chances; it is a one-time effort and the fastest rider on that day wins. The 500 meter time trial was an Olympic event for women, but it will not be contested at the 2012 Olympic Games.

At Junior Nationals, the 500-meter time trial is contended by men ages 10-16 and women ages 10-18.

Tip: Practice your standing start.

Erin Mirabella is a two-time Olympic track cyclist, mother, MomsTeam's track cycling expert, and children's book author.  Her books, Shawn Sheep The Soccer Star and Gracie Goat's Big Bike Race are available online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, borders.com, velogear.com, and at The Olympic Training Centers and select stores.  For more information visit Erin's website.

Created April 28, 2010