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The Rules of Track Cycling

Updated: Mar 31, 2018

Track Cycling is one of the most exciting and exhilarating sports there is. Sadly, it hardly receives the popularity it deserves. One of the reasons for this is the fact that many people don't understand the rules of the sport. However, there is no shortage of exciting action for those who do understand the sport.


source: flickr/misty


With the exception of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Track Cycling has been present at every edition of the Summer Olympics. The World Championships take place every year, and the 2018 UCI Track Cycling World Championships start tomorrow, in the Netherlands. There are myriad diverse events at the World Championships. Some are standalone races, while others consist of many stages. They range from lengths of 3 laps to 200 laps, and these events offer an abundance of variety and action-packed racing.


The Track and the Bike


Track Cycling takes place in Velodromes, which are indoor arenas with oval tracks. The track is 250 metres in length and is often made of wood such as Siberian Pine. One of the remarkable features of the track is the banking, which means that the two turns at each end of the track are tilted and, at their steepest, make an angle of 39-41° with the ground. This allows the bikes to turn effectively at very high speeds.


The bikes used in track cycling differ greatly from other bikes. They are made to be extremely light and aerodynamic. Unlike most bikes, they have only one gear. It is also impossible to 'freewheel' on a track bike. But the most remarkable feature is that the bikes don't have breaks. This calls for incredible courage from the riders who race close to each other, on a track with bankings of more than 40°, and at speeds in excess of 70 km/h. These features of the bike help make track cycling a very fast paced and versatile sport.


The Slipstream


The concept of using another rider’s slipstream is an essential part of the sport, playing a pivotal role in nearly every event. It is a crucial to gaining an understanding of the sport. A rider can use another rider’s slipstream to conserve energy and gain speed. It works as follows: In track cycling, the bikes move very fast and so they experience large amounts of air resistance as they ride. While the bike moves forward, the particles of air that it comes into contact with are displaced (rather unceremoniously) sideways or upwards, due to the shape of the bike. Once the bike moves past those particular particles of air, they move back to their original position. However, there is a slight delay between the passing of the bike and the air moving back. This means that, just behind the bike, there is a region with fewer air particles. A pocket of lower air pressure. Hence, a rider who ‘tucks’ their bike just behind another one can make use of this. As he or she will be moving through a region with less air resistance, he or she can go as fast as the other rider while using less energy, or go faster without using excess energy. Thus, the slipstream is a vital aspect of all races, and contributes greatly to tactics.


source: Wikimedia Commons


The Peloton


This is another important aspect of track cycling, particularly in bunch races. The peloton is defined as the largest single group of riders on the track. They are usually arranged in a line along the bottom of the track, one rider behind the other, in order to make use of the slipstreams of the other riders. As the peloton moves round the track, the leader naturally does the most work, so the riders keep swapping (it’s not a rule though). Every half lap or so, the leader will ‘swing up’ to the top of the track and join the back of the peloton, using the slipstream to recover energy. If a rider breaks away from the front of the peloton (this move is called an attack) and goes around the track to catch the back of the peloton, they have taken a lap. Similarly, if a rider drops off the back of the peloton and is caught by the front of it, they have lost a lap.


The Bunch Races


At the Olympic Games, there are 5 events for men & women each. In the annual Track Cycling World Championships, however, there are double that number. Of these, 3 are bunch races.


The simplest is the Scratch Race. It is a straight race of 15 km (60 laps) for men and 10 km (40 laps) for women. The rider who finishes the last lap first wins and the race is decided by a sprint in the final 2-3 laps. However, if a rider has taken a lap, he or she wins the race regardless of their placement in the final sprint. Moreover, if multiple riders have taken a lap, the race is decided based on their placements relative to each other in the final sprint.


There is also the Points Race, which is 160 laps for men and 100 for women. In this race, the riders have to score points throughout the race and the rider who finishes with the most points wins. How do they score points? There is a sprint after every 10 laps of the race. The beginning of the Sprint Lap is indicated by a bell and the rider who finishes the Sprint Lap first wins the sprint. The top 4 riders in the sprint win points: 1st place gets 5, 2nd gets 3, 3rd gets 2, and 4th gets 1. This makes the race very exciting as there is a fast-paced sprint every 10 laps. The last lap of the race awards twice as many points to the top 4 riders, enabling large changes in the standings at the last moment. Moreover, the sprints aren't the only opportunities for points. If a rider takes a lap, they gain 20 points. Thus, there are numerous attacks throughout the race, maintaining the high tempo throughout. Moreover, if a rider loses a lap, they lose 20 points. Hence, the riders must ensure they don't exhaust themselves. These features make it a very exhilarating event that truly tests the riders’ tactics, strength, and endurance.


The Madison is similar to The Points Race. The main difference is that it is a team event. A team consists of 2 riders. One rider races at a time. When the race starts, one rider from each team races along the bottom of the track, and they make up the peloton. The second riders cycle slowly around the top of the track, not involved in the race, until a changeover. A changeover is how one rider brings his teammate into the race. It is achieved by a touch of the hands or the shorts but usually, one rider ‘slingshots’ the other into the race, providing support so that the partner can push off from their changeover with greater acceleration. Once a changeover is achieved, the first rider goes to the top of the track, away from the race, until the second rider brings him/her into the race again. So, the Madison is like a ‘relay’ version of the Points Race. It is 200 laps for men and 120 for women. The Women’s Madison was included in the program for the first time in the 2017 World Championships. Aside from the changeovers and team aspects of the race, it is very similar to the Points Race in that it is decided by points won in sprints held every 10 laps. The scoring is the same as the Points Race, including the points for taking laps. The fact that it is a team event adds a lot of excitement and creates many new tactical possibilities. As only one rider is part of the race at a time, the other rider has a lot more energy and so the timings of the changeovers are crucial as it could enable a team to have a fresh rider come in just before the sprint, while other teams’ riders may be tired. The team event of the Madison adds a unique dimension to track cycling, making it one of the most exciting events.


source: flickr/johnthescone


The Sprint Events


The Sprint Events are the shortest races in Track Cycling. There is an Individual Sprint and a Team Sprint. The Keirin and the Time Trial are not technically ‘sprints’ but they are short distance events and are contested by sprinters.


The Individual Sprint has a timed flying lap which each rider rides individually and based on these timings, the fastest riders qualify for the knock-out rounds, where the actual sprint races take place. The race is a one-on-one contest. It lasts for three laps but only the last 200 metres are timed. The better part of the first two laps is spent in tactical manoeuvring. This is due to the fact that the riders draw lots to decide who leads out from the start. This is not always advantageous as the second rider can utilise the first’s slipstream. Therefore, the first rider often tries to make the other rider take the lead. They do this by varying their pace, swinging up and down the track, and precarious stand-stills, wherein the rider balances the bike on two wheels at a halt. As this is extremely difficult, the rider may be successful in holding the position longer than the second rider, forcing his competitor to take the lead. Some riders actually prefer taking the lead. At the end of these tactics and mind-games, the race concludes with an explosive sprint at extremely high speeds. Semi-finals and finals are raced as best of three heats.


The Team Sprint is quite different from the Individual Sprint. It is three laps long and it is a head-to-head encounter but the teams start on opposite sides of the track.The teams start with three riders but after the first lap, the leading rider moves up the track and exits the race. The other two continue, having ridden in the first rider’s slipstream for the first lap. After the second lap, the second rider drops out and the third rider brings it home, having expended less energy due to the other riders’ slipstreams. The teams first have a qualifying round, where the eight fastest teams are selected and then they compete in head-to-head heats; the pairings are based on their timings. The four winners of the heats are ranked by time and the top two race for gold while the other two race for bronze. The Team Sprint is same for men and women, except that the women’s event is two laps long and the teams consist of two riders.


The Keirin is an exciting event that came originally from Japan and includes some very aggressive racing. In a Keirin race, there are six competitors and an official riding a motorized pacer. The six riders are led by the motorised pacer, which starts at a fixed speed and gradually increases its speed as the race goes on. The riders line up behind and follow it. The pacer leads them for three laps, during which the riders try to gain a favourable position. The pacer then peels off from the front and exits the race, and the competitors battle it out in a sprint lasting three laps. The sprint is very exciting as there are many riders involved, so there is often contact between riders.


The Individual Time Trial is perhaps the simplest event in the sport, but it still provides plenty of action and suspense. The competitors take to the track one at a time and ride a fixed number of laps. The winner is the rider with the fastest time. The Time Trial is 1 kilometre (4 laps) for men and 500 metres (2 laps) for women.



source: Wikimedia Commons


The Pursuits


The Individual Pursuit is an endurance event where riders race against each other by trying to catch their opponent. The riders start simultaneously on opposite sides of the track, like in the Team Sprint. The rider must try and catch the other rider by overlapping him or her. The race ends when one rider catches the other. However, this must be accomplished within a fixed distance: 4 kilometres for men and 3 for women. If no rider is caught within the specified distance, The rider who records the fastest time wins. In major competitions, there is first a qualification round where the riders are ranked based on timings. The final heats are decided accordingly; the first and second riders race for the Gold medal, and so forth.


The Team Pursuit is very similar except that teams compete against each other. The race is 4 kilometres long for men and women. A team consists of 4 riders and they ride in a line, using their teammates’ slipstreams, rotating the role of leader amongst themselves. Although 4 riders start, only 3 need to finish and the team is timed on the third rider to cross the finish. This makes the race very intriguing in the closing stages as the riders get tired. One rider can drop off, but the load on the others then increases. The riders must stay together as it is the third rider’s timing that counts. So, even if the fist two cross the line before the other team, if the third crosses after, they lose. This adds a lot of excitement to the race and makes it tantamount to ride to a schedule so that the team doesn’t fall apart.


The Omnium


The Omnium is the Decathlon of Track Cycling. It consists of multiple events and riders earn points based on their performance in these events and the rider with the most points in the end wins. Until 2016, there used to be six events, contested over two days, but the format has changed and now there are four events, all of which take place on the same day. The Omnium is a true test of a rider’s grit and endurance. The events are: a Scratch Race, a Tempo Race, an Elimination Race, and a Points Race. The Scratch is 40 laps for Men, 30 for women, the same as the Tempo Race. The Points Race is 100 laps for men and 80 for women. The Tempo Race and Elimination Race are exclusive to the Omnium. The Tempo is similar to the Points Race but points are awarded only to 2 riders but they’re awarded every lap. The Elimination is an enthralling event. All the riders race together and the last riders to finish every alternate lap is eliminated until there is only one rider left.



source: Wikimedia Commons


The Scratch, Tempo, and Elimination take place before the Points Race and follow the following scoring system: the winner gets 40 points and the points awarded as you go down the rankings decrease by 2. So, the 2nd place rider gets 38, 3rd gets 36, and so forth. If more than 20 rider are competing, the 21st rider and those below receive 1 point each. After these 3 events, the points are totalled. Then, the Points Race takes place and the number of points won in the Points Race are taken at face value and added to the points from the other events to obtain the final standings.



Track Cycling is a very complicated sport and these rules are perhaps only properly understood by watching the events take place, but it is one of the most thrilling sports to watch. Be sure to catch the action of the 2018 World Championships on the Union Cycliste Internacional’s (UCI) livestream on YouTube from the 28th of February to the 4th of March.