How to Get Started with Track

Ultimate Guide To Getting Started in Track Cycling

By: Jim Rutberg  February 28, 2023

Whether you dream of competing for Team USA on the track or you’re looking for a fun way to ride your bike and engage with a supportive cycling community, here’s how to get started in track cycling.

Track cycling – or riding and racing a fixed gear bicycle on a banked velodrome – is one of the oldest forms of competitive cycling. Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York City, now home ice for the New York Rangers and home court to the New York Nicks, hosted track races before the start of the 20th Century. Currently, there are 21 velodromes in the United States and track cycling offers the greatest number of potential Olympic medals for cycling. Learn about how to get involved in this exciting discipline with this guide.

What is Track Cycling?

In the broadest terms, track cycling is riding a fixed gear bicycle counter-clockwise on an oval-shaped track with banked corners. Cycling tracks – or velodromes – can be outdoors or indoors and range from 150 meters to 500 meters in length, as measured by the black line at the innermost edge of the riding surface. The banking of a velodrome varies, but generally, shorter tracks feature steeper banking. A 250-meter velodrome is the standard for Olympic and World Championship competitions.

What do the lines on the track mean?

When you look at a velodrome, you’ll notice a series of parallel, colored lines that encircle the track at different levels up from the infield. Starting from the innermost portion of the track, here’s what the lines mean:

  • Apron: This non-banked, broad blue band is sometimes called the ‘Cotê d’Azur’, and it denotes the transition between the infield and the racing surface. It is not actively used during competitions.
  • Black Line: Also known as the “datum line”, this black band is located 20cm from the Cotê d’Azur and denotes the official length of the track.
  • Red Line: Also known as the ‘sprinter’s line’, the red band is located 70cm from the black line. The lane formed by the black and red lines plays an important role in competitions. During a sprint, the rider in the sprinter’s lane must remain in the lane as the challenger attempts to overtake, and the challenger can only enter the lane from above once they have overtaken.
  • Blue Line: Commonly known as the “Stayer’s Line”, this band is the furthest from the infield. During the Madison competition, riders stay above this line until they come down to be slung into the race by their teammate. During training, it is commonly used to separate riders warming up or recovering between efforts, who stay above the blue line, from riders completing focused efforts at or near the bottom of the track.

What is a Track Bike?

A wide range of competitions are contested on the velodrome, including mass-start and individual, timed races. Descriptions of specific track races can be found in this article. Track bikes look similar to road bikes, without brakes or derailleurs. Although there are variations in bicycles used for different competitions, all track bikes have a few things in common:

  • Fixed Gear: A fixed gear is a direct drive mechanism featuring a single chainring connected to a single cog affixed to the rear wheel. The cog is secured directly to the hub such that it must rotate if the wheel is moving. In other words, you cannot coast on a fixed gear. If the bike is moving, the pedals attached to the crankset will be moving too. Riders change the size (number of teeth) of the chainring and cog based on their fitness and the demands of different track competitions.
  • No Brakes: To slow down on a track bike you can adjust the force you apply to the pedals and/or move up the banking, against gravity.
  • Handlebars: For mass-start races, all track bikes use drop handlebars, like you’d see on road bikes. For some individual and team timed events, riders may use specialized handlebars with aerodynamic extensions.

What if you don’t have a track bike?

Many velodromes have a fleet of entry-level track bikes for rent or available at no cost for people learning to ride the track. Just like other cycling disciplines, it is important to ride a bicycle that is the appropriate size for your body. Typically, you can match your frame size from a road, cyclocross, or gravel bike to a track bike. Occasionally, velodromes may allow road bikes with brakes and derailleurs on to the track during introductory classes. But, that is the exception and only allowed under very specific circumstances.

How to Get Started on the Track?

Riding on the track can be beneficial and fun whether you choose to compete or not. Many velodromes have group training sessions or public hours along with scheduled competitive events. Indoor velodromes offer a climate-controlled environment where cyclists can escape excessive heat or cold and stay dry on rainy days. And all velodromes provide a dedicated cycling space free from cars, dogs, and pedestrians.

Find your nearest velodrome

Click here for a list of velodromes throughout the United States, including links to their individual websites.

Essential Skills for Track

The general shape of a standard track bike is similar to a road, gravel, or cyclocross bike. The handling characteristics tend to be quick and nimble because the frame geometries are optimized for the smooth surface, banking, and lack of obstacles. Cycling skills that are specific to the track include:

  • Exiting and entering the infield: To get up on to the track surface, riders typically ride from the infield to the flat apron that includes the Cotê d’Azure blue band. After riding around the apron to build a little speed, riders then transition to the track surface on the straightaways where there is minimal banking. Typically, athletes drop down from the track to the apron on the back straightaway (opposite the start/finish line) so they can slow down on the apron before re-entering the infield.
  • Continuous pedaling, no coasting: Perhaps the most important skill for track riding and racing is to pedal continuously. If you forget to keep pedaling or try to stop your feet, the movement of the rear wheel will continue rotating the pedals anyway. This can cause a rider to get bucked or lose their balance and cause a crash.
  • Maintaining your pace: Many new track riders are concerned they will lose traction and slide down the banking. The minimum speed required to maintain traction and momentum is based on the tires, the track surface, and the steepness of the banking. Although it is possible to lose grip or stall by going too slow, you will not need to work hard to avoid falling.
  • Look first, then move: With lots of riders on the track at the same time with no brakes, it’s important to avoid cutting each other off. The best way to stay safe is to glance over your right shoulder before moving up the track, or over your left shoulder before moving down the track. If you are about to be overtaken, hold your position on the track and glance/move once the path is clear.

Training for Track Racing

There are two primary types of track races: sprint events and endurance events. Sprint events are short, explosive, and very high speed. These include match sprints, team sprint, keirin and the 500- and 1000-meter time trials. Endurance events are also fast but can last from a few minutes to around an hour. These include the Individual and Team Pursuit, Points Race, Scratch Race, Elimination Race, International Omnium, and the Madison.

To be successful in sprint track events, riders benefit from explosive power, high peak power outputs, great anaerobic capacity, and the ability to achieve extremely high cadences. Standing start events, like the team sprint, also require the ability to generate high torque at low speed in order to accelerate.

Endurance track riders benefit from a high VO2 max, a strong aerobic foundation, high power at lactate threshold, and lactate threshold power as a high percentage of power at VO2 max. For the maximum efforts required to make winning moves in mass start track events, riders benefit from great anaerobic capacity and the aerobic foundation to recover quickly between efforts.

The best way to get introduced to track racing is to go your nearest velodrome and participate in a ‘learn to ride’ program or community-based program.

The best way to prepare for track racing is to work with a USA Cycling Certified Coach.