Knowledge Level: Beginner
To the casual observer, track racing can appear to be just a confusing blur of lycra going round and round in circles. However the wide range of events call for a complete spectrum of cycling skills, techniques and physiologies. This article explains how the different events work and are categorised.
Contested over three laps, track sprinting is not just a battle of power and speed but also of wit, intelligence and tactics. In the early part of the contest you can expect to see riders slowly circle the track in a game of 'cat and mouse', each trying to out-position their rival in order to launch a surprise dash for the line. The race often comes down to the last 50m but you may see some riders choosing to go early – it seemed to work for Sir Chris Hoy.
Often referred to as 'the one with the motorbike', the keirin is one of the most recognisable track events. Keirin racing originated in Japan where it became popular as one of the few sports on which it was legal to gamble. The name literally translates as 'fight' and when you watch you’ll understand why.
For the opening laps the riders must stay behind the motorbike (the derny) which paces the riders with increasing speed. Positioning behind the derny is paramount and riders will try to jostle each other out of position to get an advantage over their rivals. With 2.5 laps to go the derny exits the track and the race is on.
On the face of it, the scratch sounds simple. Riders race on the track for 15km (10km for women) and the first across the line wins. This may sound straightforward, but between the massed start and final sprint for the line, lies 60 laps where strategy and tactics will play a huge part in the outcome of the race.
Within the bunch will be riders whose strengths lie in endurance and riders whose strengths lie in sprinting. The endurance specialists will aim to ‘lap’ the field in order to prevent the powerful sprinters from saving themselves for the end of the race where they will undoubtedly outpace them at the finish. The sprinters will try to save their energy until the very end of the race by sheltering in the bunch until a sprint finish but they must be careful not to let anyone take a lap, or a sprint for the line will be wasted.
The blend of skills on show and tactics employed make the scratch one of the most exciting races to watch. There is lots of action as riders make attacks and either gain a lap or are chased down by the pack. It’s not enough just to lap the field though –riders need to make sure they have saved enough energy for the finish too.
Aptly named, the aim of the points race is to score as many points as possible with the winning rider the one who has accumulated the most during the race. Points are scored during intermediate sprints which occur every ten laps. The first rider to cross the line at the end of a sprint lap is awarded five points with four, three and one points being awarded to the next three to cross the line. The big prize comes for gaining a lap on the field, which is worth 20 points - the equivalent of winning four sprints. Similarly, losing a lap will cost you 20 points.
Points races can be contested over distances varying from 10 km (40 laps) up to 40 km (160 laps) and will differ for men’s and women’s races. Expect to see tactics playing a big part in these races with alliances being formed and attacks being made. Riders need to race intelligently, as well as having stamina and sprinting power, to ensure they gain as many points as possible.
The ultimate head-to-head endurance event, the individual pursuit is the definitive test of staying power. There’s nowhere to hide and the challenge is to maintain a high speed over a long distance – no mean feat. Whilst an explosive start is helpful, the ability to ride at a consistently high speed is important – some riders may appear to be well up on their opponents, only to fade in the last kilometre.
The event is contested over 4km whilst the women pursue each other over 3km. The qualifying rounds will see each rider post a time with the fastest four progressing to the medal finals. In the finals the first rider to complete the distance wins, unless one rider catches the other, at which point the race is won and it’s game over.
If raw pace is your thing then the team sprint is the race for you. Teams of three men or two women race at exhilarating speeds over three or two laps of the track respectively. Two teams will race at the same time on the track from opposing sides. Each rider completes one lap at the front, sheltering their teammates and enabling them to conserve energy for their turn. Only one rider from the team must complete the race so each rider can hold nothing back on their turn.
Whilst sheer speed is vital, technique is also key in this event as riders must get off the line quickly from a standing start, get rapidly into a tight and efficient formation and race as close together as possible to maximise slipstreaming.
The team pursuit is one of track cycling’s most iconic events and the aim is simple: pursue your opponents and catch them if you can.
Two teams of four riders take to the track on opposing sides. In closely fought battles teams will appear to maintain identical track positions with only hundredths of a second between them, whereas when one team is dominating you can see them visibly gaining on the other. The winning team is the one that crosses the line first (three riders must finish and the time is taken from the third rider’s front wheel crossing the line). If one team catches the other then the race is won there and then.
Stamina is pushed to the limit as the riders maintain top speeds over the gruelling 4km race. Together they must maximise efficiency, taking it in turns to ride at the front. After their turn, the front rider will swing up the track and re-join the line at the back. This must be perfectly timed as riders keep only centimetres apart and any error of judgment can be disastrous.
The omnium is often described as cycling’s version of the decathlon. Contested over two days and six events, the omnium is a true test of a rider’s versatility and demands speed and endurance as well as skill and tactical ability.
The omnium programme at the Olympic Games sees riders compete over two days in a scratch race, individual pursuit (4km for men, 3km for women), elimination race, time trial (500m for women, 1km for men), 200m flying lap and concluding with the points race. The time trial events are real ‘races of truth’, with the strongest riders coming out on top whereas the bunch races allow tactically astute riders to outwit their opponents and steal back the advantage. It all makes for a gripping contest.
Riders score points according to their placing in each event with more points being awarded the higher the placing. Riders take their score into the final event, the points race, where any points scored are added on to their overall total. The winner of the omnium is the athlete who has accumulated the highest number of points across all six events.
Named after Madison Square Garden in New York, the Madison is probably one of the most exciting but also confusing event of the track. It’s essentially a points race but rather than individual riders competing, the race is between pairs of riders. Only one rider in the pair is actually racing at any one moment.
The other rider circles the top of the track and, using a spectacular and often hazardous hand-sling, is relayed into the race. The teams of riders are free to choose when they switch places and with riders continually joining and leaving the race, keeping track of who’s where can be difficult. The pairs of riders will often consist of one rider who’s more of a sprinter and the other who’s an endurance specialist. When the points sprints are coming around, the sprinter will be slung in but, if there’s a break that needs chasing or the team are trying to take a lap, the endurance rider will pull their turn.