Knowledge Level: Beginner
If you’ve ever watched track racing on the television or even been to spectate live, you can’t fail to be impressed by the speed and the skill of the riders as they hurtle round the steeply banked wooden boards. It can be confusing knowing what exactly is going on though.
What? No brakes?
Not having brakes makes track racing safer. Without having cars, pedestrians or corners to have to slow down suddenly for, the racers are able to ride close together at high speeds without the worry of someone ahead suddenly slamming their brakes on.
No multiple gears either?
There are no hills to climb, so there’s no need for gears. The hub is “fixed” meaning that if the wheels are going round, your legs have to as well. You can’t freewheel on a track bike and again this helps makes speeds more consistent and predictable. Choosing what sized gear to ride is dependent on the event, the strengths and weaknesses of the rider and their tactics. A bigger gear will take you further for each pedal turn but will be slower to accelerate and harder to spin with tired legs. Choosing the right or wrong sized gear to ride can often determine winning or losing a track race.
Why the different shaped handlebars?
For bunch races and match sprints, riders will use traditionally shaped drop handlebars that allow them to manoeuvre their bikes quickly and accurately. In races against the clock, you’ll see riders using tri-bars with elbow pads and extensions, that allow them to adopt a stretched out aerodynamic tuck. In the sprint time trials some racers will use drops and some will use tri-bars. Although the tri-bars offer aerodynamic advantages, some sprinters feel this is offset by the power lost in an aero position and by the time lost settling down onto the tri-bars after their starting effort. The only time you’ll see multiple riders on the track at the same time using tri-bars is during the team pursuit.
Why do some riders wear normal helmets, some which would look more at home at a skate-park and others that you could wear to a Star Wars fancy dress party?
In longer bunch races, such as the scratch, points, elimination and Madison, riders will wear helmets similar to those worn on the road. In a bunch, aerodynamics aren’t such a concern, with ventilation, weight and all round visibility being more important. At the other end of the spectrum are the highly aerodynamic helmets worn by pursuit riders. These are all about maximising straight line speed and, often having long tails that hug the rider’s back, rely on holding a completely still head for optimal performance. With sprint races being short, overheating isn’t an issue so, without the need for venting, sprinters’ helmets will be smooth for aerodynamic gains. However, unlike in a pursuit, sprinters need to constantly be looking around, making long tailed helmets unwieldy and aerodynamically inefficient.
What about the visors?
Visors are often an integral part of the aerodynamics of a helmet and help to smooth the airflow around the rider’s head and face. Also, in the cat and mouse world of match sprints, a reflective visor hides a rider’s eyes from their competitor and helps maintain a perfect unreadable poker face.
Solid wheels, wheels with three spokes and regular wheels, why?
Aerodynamics is key on the track and, as rotating spokes create turbulence and drag, a spoke-less disc wheel will always be faster once up to rolling speed. However a disc wheel can be heavier and slower to accelerate so, in events that require changes of pace, riders may use a disc on the rear only, tri-spoke wheels, more conventional spoked wheels or combination setups. It all comes down to rider preference.
Are their feet attached to their pedals?
Yes and, because of the massive starting and acceleration efforts involved in track racing, often by two methods. The riders’ shoes have a cleat on the bottom of them that clips into the pedal using a system similar to ski bindings. On top of this they will then often have traditional leather straps over the top of their shoes to provide additional security.
What are the bikes made of?
All top level track bikes are made from carbon fibre. This incredible material has unbeatable strength to weight ratios and can easily be formed into to aerodynamic tubing profiles demanded by modern racers.
Do they have super grippy tyres to stay up on the banking?
No, centrifugal force alone keeps the riders up on the forty two degree banking of the Manchester track. In match sprints you’ll see riders stalling and almost coming to a complete standstill but they’ll only do this on the less steep straights. Track tyres are kept meticulously clean though and will never be used outside. Riders will even wipe new tyres down with ethanol to remove moulding residues that may cause them to slip.
Does the lycra really have to be so tight?
With races often won or lost by no more than the width of a tyre, every gain or loss counts on the track. Wind tunnel testing has shown that the slightest crease, badly pinned on number or misplaced seam can result in measurably more drag and less speed. Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, has even had to make rulings regarding skin-suits as manufacturers find ever faster materials and even purposely place seams to trip the airflow and enhance the rider’s passage through the air.