Hurtling around a steeply banked track on a fixed gear bike, unable to stop pedalling and without any brakes, can be terrifying for a beginner. Not that we want to put you off, far from it. Track riding is a fantastic experience - once you know how to do it right.
Professional riders power through races at break-neck speeds, nipping through seemingly impossible gaps and performing teeth chattering manoeuvres. That top level is a long way off for most of us but the basics used to stay safe and in contention run right through every level of track racing.
It's vital that you learn these basics early on too, because there's little room for error on the track. That's why velodromes insist that you undertake introductory track courses. You need to progress through the basics and learn the etiquette before launching into anything competitive. From there it's a case of thinking, relaxing and learning.
Track racing is as much a craft as it is a competition. Not only is flying around a velodrome in a huge bunch incredibly exciting, the skills it will teach you along the way will be invaluable in most other areas of cycling.
Apart from the super climbers, just about all top pro road racers have either already learned or continue to develop skills on the track. So get out and give the track a whirl.
Multi World Champs medallist Rob Hayles tells us how it's done...
Your first time riding on the track can be a real shock. The sheer intensity and speed can take you by surprise - even I struggle if I've been riding on the road for a while. That's why it is important to put in some basic power and cadence work beforehand.
It doesn't matter how fast you are on the road, things are different on the track. You not only need to have a high power output permanently, you need to have a fast cadence along with it. The best way to replicate this is on rollers or, failing that, a turbo trainer. If you can do this using a fixed wheel then all the better because that's what you'll be riding on the track. Work on the required power and leg speed, but also on attaining a relaxed position. This is where rollers are the best choice because they force you to stay composed.
I use various wheels, depending on the event and the conditions. For long races I'll use spokey wheels because they are more comfortable. I almost always use tubular tyres because they're so much more flexible and responsive than clinchers. Make sure they're stuck firmly onto the rim and keep an eye on the sidewalls; with the pressures you put in and on them they can get ragged and you can't afford any problems on the track. Also try to have a spare set of wheels with you.
For outdoor tracks you can often get away with using high pressure clincher tyres because the surfaces are rougher and the banking is not so steep, so if you do puncture you won't slip as badly as you could when riding indoors.
Get the right bike
For some reason people like to have the best and latest kit when it comes to their road bikes, but want to keep it really cheap for the track. This is okay, and you can easily get away with secondhand bikes, but make sure they are 'straight' - that they haven't had any bad crashes, and that things are in good and safe working order.
Track kit will last a lifetime, and for general bunched racing weight isn't crucial, so you can ride almost anything. Carbon is fantastic for a track bike, but I also use aluminium and even an old steel bike.
Most track bikes will have 165mm or 170mm cranks which makes it easier to pedal fast. For a pursuit race I may use 172.5mm cranks in order to get more power out.
It's always important to make certain that your chain is tensioned and clean too.
Getting a really comfortable riding position is crucial on the track. My bunched racing position is totally different to my road position, but that's not the case for everyone. You need to be very comfortable and relaxed, and able to look ahead.
Remember that when you are riding on the track you will rarely get out of the saddle so this relaxed approach is important.
Talking about gearing can get complicated but at the end of the day I only ever have a choice of three gears. I make my decisions based on the conditions, the event, and how I think I'm going to ride it. I choose from 49, 51 and 52 tooth chainrings, and a 15 tooth rear sprocket. If I intend attacking and powering off the front I'll go with a big gear. If the track is small or there are a lot of sprints then I'll go smaller.
It doesn't actually take too long to get used to riding a fixed wheel (no freewheel). The key things are to keep the pressure on, and to remember not to stop pedalling. It's also important to have fairly tight pedals, because you can't afford for your foot to come out - it would be deadly.
Riding a fixed on the track means that you aren't able to get out of the saddle to ease yourself, so I always use chamois cream in my shorts to ease chaffing.
You really need to build up and get a feel for things when it comes to riding and using banking effectively. Being relaxed and aware is very important - get too tense and you'll make mistakes. Start by building up a reasonable pace and then slowly work your way up the banking lap by lap. Don't try heading straight up there - first develop your confidence. After a while you'll get the feel for things and, as long as you keep a basic speed, you won't slide down.
Think of banking in the same way as a corner on the road; look where you want to go and aim for that line.
As you progress you can learn to move around the banking more, but always look over your right shoulder before moving position to make sure that nobody is behind you.
When riding in a bunch on the track you need to be very smooth, aware, and constantly thinking about the riders around you. Avoid any sharp or erratic movements, hold your line, and always take a look over your right shoulder or down through your legs before moving over - be sure nobody is coming up from behind, or overlapping you, otherwise you'll all be down.
If you're taking your turn on the front of the bunch and intend to swing off, speed up a little before doing so. Otherwise, if you just ease off as you swing out you create a jerk reaction behind which can be dangerous. You also need to keep your momentum in order to get back into the line. Just how far you swing up depends on the size of the track and the number of riders, and only experience will tell you how to get it right.
If you sprint for a lap point be sure not to ease up and swing straight to the top of the banking because it's very likely someone will be about to come around you.
Long before you get to the track you should be thinking about the events and their requirements, and working on that in training. It's not rocket science; logical thinking and replication will help.
Before the start of a race, decide how you plan to ride it. If it's a devil-take-the-hindmost (where the last rider gets eliminated each lap), decide if you intend to ride from the front, staying in the first three or four riders and making sure you don't get boxed in; or whether you plan to hang on the back and come around at the last minute. If it's a points race (where points are awarded for positions at the end of designated laps), decide if you want to sprint for the points or, if it's a smaller track, whether you'll try to get a lap up. However, be prepared to change your plans as the race unfolds.
Handling a meeting
Track meetings can often go on all day, so you need to be well prepared to keep on top of things. Start by knowing your programme; when you are racing and what event is on before you. There's nothing worse than missing your event or being caught unprepared. Stay warm and try to keep moving between events. Rollers are great but even just riding around inside the track helps.
The racing is intense so make sure you are armed with plenty of nibbles and drinks during a meeting. But don't eat anything major just before your race - it'll end up on the track.
British indoor tracks
1 Manchester Velodrome 0161 223 2244 www.manchestervelodrome.com
2 Wales National Velodrome, Newport 01633 656757 www.newport.gov.uk
3 Calshot Velodrome 023 8089 2077 www.calshot.com/cycle.html
- There are three indoor tracks in the UK - Manchester, Newport and Calshot (near Southampton). There are many more outdoor tracks; to find the closest one to you go to www.britishcycling.org.uk.
- If you are a track riding novice you need to get some instruction. Manchester Velodrome, for example, runs regular taster sessions (£8, £6 concessions, including bike hire) where you go along and get coached on the basics such as riding a fixed gear and getting to grips with the banking. You need to complete a taster improver session, a skills session and then an induction session (£11.50, £7 concessions) to get track accreditation. Once you have this you can ride at general Structured Quality Sessions (£8, £6 concessions for two hours. Bike hire is £8.