Remember when I said I’d never buy clip-in shoes & pedals? I lied. The reason being: I signed up for the Introductory Track Class at the National Sports Center here in town – and they require clip-ins.
I got the shoes and pedals at a store called Scheels, which I would never had heard of if it weren’t for my 4 year-old son’s love of the Choo Choo Bob Show (they’re a sponsor). A set of Eggbeater pedals and Giro shoes were both on clearance, so I was able to get out the door with both for under $100. With the class over, consequently, they are for sale.
NSC Velodrome – A Finite Resource
Our local velodrome first opened in 1990. It is the only outdoor wood-plank velodrome in the western hemisphere. It is also located in Minnesota so you can imagine the weather it has had to endure over twenty years. Needless to say, it is not going to last forever – some say as little as three years. I encourage anyone and everyone in the area who enjoys cycling to at least attend an event, and if your curiosity is sufficiently peaked, try the track class for yourself, before it’s too late.
Introductory Track Class
Am I looking to become a track racer? No, I considered myself to be more of an “embed” than a budding racer. I simply wanted to experience what it’s like to ride on the steep, 45° banked curve – and to learn the rules of what I like to call NASCAR for bikes. Riding with guys named Uri and Gunnar I wondered if my class has some future cycling stars. Then again, Denise, a female rider, out-gunned Gunnar to the cheers of her classmates in a practice race.
I was easily the slowest rider in our class. After our first go-round on the banking I drank all of the water in my bottle and asked if there’s a hose up by the scoring booth. No water was installed at the velodrome. Note to self: bring extra water.
If you’ve never seen The Flying Scotsman, I suggest watching it. It does a great job at cinematically portraying the track cycling experience. It’s a non-stop sprint and I got the same tunnel-vision sensation from riding with the continuous lines around the track.
I had previously checked out a book from the library about track racing. It was painfully obvious that the book was self published – I had never read anything more in need of an editor. I wanted to understand the rules of the different races, but sadly the details were glossed over. So if you’re looking to attend Thursday Night Lights at the NSC Velodrome or events at a velodrome near you, here’s what to look for…
From the inside to the outside of the track:
Apron / Blue Band / Côte d’azur (French: Blue Coast) – this is where riders enter and exit the track, it’s the inner-most ring and doesn’t have the same degree of banking as the rest of the track.
Measurement Line – black line which is used to determine the length of the track (250 meters for the NSC Velodrome).
Sprinters Line – red line. This is the fastest line around the track for a cyclist. Between here and the blue band is the sprinters lane – a zone where the lead rider is (mostly) free from interference.
Steher’s (German: Stayer’s) Line – blue line. The fastest line around the track for a motorbike. During a motor-paced race like a Keirin, the motorbike (and consequently the cyclists) will ride near this line. It’s also considered a relief line for a Madison race – a relay style race where the inactive rider must ride above until they “hand-off.”
Balustrade – the railing at the top of the track. Mass start and Madison races will start with all riders at the railing of the straights.
Pursuit Lines – red lines perpendicular to the track midway through the home and back straight. In a pursuit race two racers will start simultaneously at these lines opposite each other.
200 Meter Line – prominent white line perpendicular to the track 200 meters from the finish line. Used as a standard to time racers for qualifying – which is only needed for races where starting position matters.
Finish Line – white band with a black line perpendicular to the track in the home straight.
Sounds and Starts
The Gun – A cap-gun is used to signal the beginning of a race, whether it’s from a standing start or after the riders have done a few pacing laps.
The Bell – In track racing, a bell is always rung on the penultimate lap before a finish, point interval or elimination. Listen for it, it’s a cue that riders are going to be scrapping for position.
Mass Starts – Riders start at the railing and begin riding when cued. The race doesn’t actually start until the riders are sufficiently “bunched” coming into turn 4 (before the home straight). If the judge decides they are good, the gun is fired and the race begins, otherwise they take another slow lap to let the group come together.
Standing Start: held, but not pushed – On other non-timed races where there are 8 or less riders on track at once, riders will be held in position at the starting line (or pursuit lines) for a standing start. The riders are clipped in to their pedals and held upright by an assistant. When the gun is fired the race begins. The assistants let go, but do not push the riders – they simply pedal away to begin the race.
For the Thursday Night Lights series at NSC, they use an omnium format where points are earned by riders in individual races. At the end of the night, rider’s points are totaled and the top 5 riders in each category get 7, 5 , 3, 2, or 1 points respectively – which goes towards their upgrade to a greater category of racing.
A pursuit is a race where two competitors begin with a standing start on opposite sides of the track and “pursue” each other during a fixed distance race.
The race is to see who will cover the distance in the shortest time or if one rider catches the other, but if the matchups are relatively even, they will remain on opposite sides of the track.
Two riders are “matched” up in this race. It’s a standing start with riders together, on the front straight. A lottery determines who is up-track and who is down-track. Their position is important as the rider downtrack should lead (unless purposefully overtaken) until they reach the pursuit line on the other side of the track.
Why is positioning in this race so important? Because the rider behind has the advantage in that he can 1) draft and 2) attack without notice. Because of this, after the riders first pass the pursuit line, the lead rider may slow and even stop by doing a track stand – completely stopping the bike, balancing and not putting a foot down. If the trailing rider cannot perform a track stand, they’ll be forced into the lead position where they can be drafted and attacked.
There will typically be a lot of games like this at the beginning – meandering around the track, going slow, stopping, constantly looking over their shoulder. All the nonsense may seem strange and even boring to some, but it’s all interesting strategy tricks leading up to the final sprint. Then it’s all-out the the finish.
Keirin (Japanese: Racing Wheels)
Like the Match Sprint, this race has a standing start and order is determined by lottery – the furthest rider down track will assume the lead position and so on for the first lap. However, the riders assume their order behind a motorcycle which will pace them up to about 30MPH before the sprint begins.
In contrast to the Match Sprint, since the race is paced by a motorcycle in the beginning, the negative effect of being the leading rider isn’t felt until the motorcycle pacer leaves the track – since the leader is able to draft the motorcycle. During motor-pacing after the first lap, riders can jockey for position as long as their front wheel doesn’t pass the back wheel of the motorcycle. The motorcycle leaves after 5 1/2 laps and then, it’s a 2 1/2 lap sprint to the finish.
Miss-and-Out and Elimination
In these mass start races, the last rider in the pack is eliminated at a set interval – usually every other lap.
In an Elimination, the pack reduces all the way down to crown the remaining rider as the winner. In a Miss-and-Out when 3 riders remain they will sprint to the end to decide their 1-2-3 placement, and race points.
A points race is a mass start race with points given to the top finishers at a given interval (every 10 laps). The points are as follows: 5, 3, 2, 1 for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th respectively. The winners are determined by the number of points accumulated during the race.
One interesting thing is, if a wiley rider can somehow lap the field, they will get 20 points – obviously a huge advantage. In this case, the rest of the field is basically “reset” with one less lap to travel before the end. Then the group can compete for points at the next interval – the lapping rider doesn’t automatically get 1st from then on, she has to earn it again during the sprint lap by crossing the line ahead of the lapped pack. Also, a rider who loses laps loses 20 points, but if they can keep up and “re-compete” with lapping group, they can still race for points and earn some back.
Madison (International: American)
This race is named after the original Madison Square Garden – which held hugely popular velodrome races in the 1890s through the early 20th century. It’s a relay style race where several teams of two compete in a long-distance race – 80 laps for the NSC Velodrome, or over a set amount of time (30, 60, 90 minutes).
Riders in the Madison start at the railing, with half the riders on the home straight – one from each team – and their teammates at the railing on the back straight.
There’s always a racing rider and a relief teammate who rides above the relief line. It is a mass start race, but only the racing riders are bunched and traveling at speed. Racers can then “tap-out” at anytime by touching, but it’s far more common to see a handsling – a roller derby-ish move where the racer transfers his momentum to the reliever by locking hands and catapulting him forward.
It’s a rather busy, confusing, and exciting race due to the number of riders on track mixed with different speeds of the racing and relief riders. Add in the the hand-offs and it can look downright chaotic. There’s a reason I call it NASCAR for bikes.
During the race there are also sprints for points at a given interval (20 laps). Points rules are awarded in a similar fashion to a Points Race, but points are not awarded for lapping the field. The team with the most laps at the end of the race wins, if multiple teams have covered the same number of laps, their placement is then decided by the the number of points.