Getting On Track: An introduction to Track Cycling
- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 24 February 2011
The shadow of a rider climbs up the embankment and into the periphery of my vision as I come around the turn into the home straight. I don’t know if the silhouette is mine, thrown there by the overhead lights, or if I’m about to head into the straight with someone on my shoulder. Either way, I’m not slowing down.
There are six people in this race and two of them are in front of me. I need to hold my line and stick to the wheel of the person in front, so I don’t take my eyes off of them. My family is watching behind the barrier to my right, the commissaire and race officials are in the centre of the track and yet I barely notice them. The wind is rushing past me, my heart is beating hard and though it’s cliche, I feel like I’m flying.
I don’t know the guy riding at first wheel, but second wheel is Mel who won every D grade race last week, my first week of racing. I finished second to her in the qualifier earlier tonight and know she is the fastest in this field. The lap board says "1" and the commissaire starts ringing the bell to indicate that we’re starting the last of the 7 lap race. The first wheel kicks up his speed; he’s been pulling us around the track for a lap but he won’t let the lead go without a fight in the bell lap. He looks tired, so Mel and I cover his acceleration. As we enter the first turn we move around him and we’re both past him before we’re into the back straight.
Mel drops down into the sprinters lane and accelerates again. I don’t follow her move this time, instead I put the power on as well and try to draw parallel to her as we enter the final turn. The shadow she is seeing cast on the track is definitely someone on her shoulder, but I’m further up the bank and I have to travel faster to keep up with her. My front wheel is just behind hers as we enter the home straight for the last time in this race. I put my head down, keep the bike straight and pedal like a demon – she does the same. After 3000m of racing, I beat her on the line by less than half a wheel and win my first track race.
D grade races around the outdoor asphalt track at Lidcombe Oval.
Rewind to a few years ago and I, a typical born again cyclist, was watching the Tour de France for the first time, along with my wife. She asked me why I didn’t try a bit of racing, given that I was riding so much now. The idea stuck in the back of my head for a while and I slowly pulled together some good second hand parts to build a road racing bike.
I started checking out the cycling clubs in my area, showing up to their races (usually criteriums) and chatting with the members. While they were all friendly and welcoming to new members, the club I finally decided on (Lidcombe-Auburn Cycle Club) had a great kids development program (with a special forcus on girls cycling; I have three of them), a good calendar of training rides, and a track that they’d been racing at since 1947. That’s what got me in the end – the track.
Criteriums and road races are great, for riders. For the spectators, they get to see the riders pass them only every so often, then all of a sudden the race is over and everyone goes home. Track racing, on the other hand, is a true spectator sport. The whole track is visible from the stands, so you can watch everything that is happening in the race. The races are short, running over a distance of a few kilometres, which is less than a dozen laps. Because the races are short, they’re all action and you get to race multiple times per meeting. To top it off, there is also a great variety of race formats: scratch races where everyone starts together off the same mark, handicaps where they start at different points around the track, point races where there are races within the race, and many other individual and team events. Each race suits different riding styles and they all have their own strategies to master; track racing has been described as "chess on wheels".
The track at Lidcombe Oval was less imposing than I had thought it would be. I had always pictured velodromes as the big Olympic behemoths raced on by skin suited hard men, but many velodromes are shallow banked outdoor asphalt tracks (like our track) or concrete tracks with steeper banking; the big board tracks are quite a rarity by comparison.
My mind was made up and I had the family’s nod of approval, so I signed up for a Cycling Australia licence. This licence allows me to participate in any sanctioned cycle racing event (from BMX to road racing) and provides insurance while I’m doing it. You get the licence through an affiliated club, so the club joining fee is included in the licence fee. I contacted the club and turned up for the track training night the next week.
I had never ridden a track bike before, nor had I ridden with clipless pedals (though I had a set I intend to use on my road racing bike, when it finally gets an outing), so that night was a night of firsts for me. The clipless pedals were less of a problem than I thought they would be, as was the track bike, though that had a steeper learning curve. Track bikes are fixed gear bikes, which means they don’t free wheel. As such, when the wheels are turning so are the pedals and vice versa; you can’t coast. There are also no gears (which is fine since there are no hills to climb on a track) and they have no brakes, which takes a bit of mental adjustment to work through (you slow down by moving up track and by ‘soft’ pedalling).
One of the club’s track bikes. Compare this with?
The author’s commuting bike, which is the same size, manufacturer and approximate age as the track bike
The club officials gave me a detailed safety talk (stressing that I must keep pedalling or bad things will happen), set me up on one of the club bikes and teamed me up with one of their more experienced riders for a few laps on the track. Having an on-track tutor made the whole experience easy and I was soon starting, stopping and flying around the track drafting the other riders.
Race night that Friday saw me in the lowest grade, D grade, in a field of four. The first race was a scratch race and I finished fourth (which was also last) but because the field was small, I qualified for the weekly handicap race. I was on the biggest handicap mark and was told that I should start riding all out from the start until the race was over. Because I was racing against C, B and A graders it didn’t take long before they overtook me, but just riding in a fast field like that was exhilaration enough for me. The third race was a little longer and saw me riding in a pace line, swapping turns at the front and sprinting to the finish. I came third, but that was only because one of the other riders dropped out.
The author getting beaten by a woman 20 years older than him.
Because the night was running early, we finished with an Italian Pursuit race. Two teams of riders from all grades (including junior elite riders) ride against each other with the slowest rider at the front of the team line and the fastest at the back. On the night we had 12 riders in each team, quite a big field. After one lap, the front rider peels off and their race is over. The front rider continues to drop off each lap until it’s down to a one on one sprint. My team won, though I don’t think my "effort" had much to do with it.
Now that I had the experience of racing and I knew how it worked on a basic level, I could focus on improving my performance. Chatting with the other riders, riding on training night, reading about and watching track racing online gave me enough motivation to give it a red-hot go the second time around. In the final race of the night I won.
To put this whole adventure into perspective, I am not an athlete; the last time I won a race was in kindergarten – it was an egg and spoon race and my mum still has the spoon. I’m just a guy who rides his bike to work every day who wanted to take his passion for cycling that one step further. While I don’t know if track cycling is for everyone, it certainly is for anyone, from young kids to the over sixties. Friday night is now family track night for us, at least for the summer. In the winter, I’m told, everyone heads to Dunc Gray Velodrome to race on the Olympic track. My legs are already anticipating it.
If you want to try track cycling, contact your local cycling club and ask where the nearest velodromes are located and who runs them. You should be able to get a day licence to try it out if you don’t already have a racing licence. If you have any interest in cycling as a sport, you should try track riding out at least once. Be warned, however, that it may prove to be addictive.
"That looks easy Dad, I think that I’ll have a go as well"