— by Sean Mackinnon
Cycling at a velodrome means riding a fixed gear bike that does not have brakes around an oval, banked track. To gain any kind of physical benefit from this cycling discipline, you need to be comfortable whirling around a 250 m sloped wooden or asphalt track with up to 20 people riding in close proximity. If that all sounds a bit scary, don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be.
Any velodrome will offer introductory courses and certification days which will allow you to obtain the required skills to train on a track during open and scheduled velodrome sessions. Here in Canada, you can check a few velodromes in Ontario (Milton and Forest City), British Columbia (Burnaby and Victoria), Alberta (Calgary and Edmonton) and Quebec (Bromont).
Learning the basics of track riding is very simple. However, it does take some time to get used to riding a fixed-gear bike, constantly moving your legs and learning the literal ups and downs of the track.
All new riders start by rolling around the infield, or the “coat” of the track. This is a flat section where you can learn to ride a fixed-gear track bike. I describe riding a fixed-gear bike as being similar to driving a standard car. Unlike in an automatic car, where you slam your foot on the
accelerator or the brake, a standard car allows you to use the gears to change speed or slow down. On a fixed-gear bike, you clip in and accelerate as you push on the pedals. As you approach another rider, obstacle or the place you would like to stop, you use your legs to brake by pushing backwards.
Once you have mastered starting, stopping and riding the entire width of the track, you can finally begin using the track for training. It is important that you feel comfortable not only on the black pursuit line (down low on the track), but also above the blue line in the middle of the track.
When you arrive at a drop-in session, no matter what track you are on, there are rules and etiquette that must be followed. For example, tempo riding is done in the centre of the track on the blue line. This is halfway up the track so you will be taking the steep banked corners well above the inner flat section of the track. By having pace lines ride in the center of the track, the fastest part of the track, which is down at the bottom, is left open for those doing sprints or specific interval training.
Speed is your friend when on the velodrome. You don’t need to be riding at 40+ km/h to stay up, but you don’t want to be going much less than 25 or 30 km/h, either. To stay stable and comfortable on the sloped track you need to be pedalling at a decent rate, which will, in turn, keep your wheels on the surface.
One very important rule while learning the ropes of the track is always look ahead, whether that be the wheel in front of you or even further around the track to know what is going on meters ahead of where you will soon be. I had to really learn this skill for the team pursuit event, a four km, four-man team race against the clock in which you’re literally riding mm behind the rider in front of you.
Track drills, or just riding in a paceline, is most people’s first introduction to training and getting a workout in while on the track. Once you have the basic skills and understand the rules of the track, athletes are able to more or less take total control of what they get out of a training session.
Dreading some of the mindless trainer sessions this winter? Use a drop-in session at a velodrome as a break from your time indoors to work on things like cadence, leg speed, bike handling skills and fitness. You’ll be amazed at how long you can hold speeds over 35 km/h for while riding in a group at the track.
Hydration and nutrition
Unlike other bikes where you carry nutrition and liquids on you, refuelling as you go, at the track, if you need a drink, you will have to get off. Being forced to focus on your training, then getting off the track to refuel and rest, you can get a lot more out of the time you spend on the track.
For someone looking to add track riding to their weekly training program, you don’t need a lot of time. With just one or two hours a week on the track ,you can eliminate a trainer ride and have the opportunity to learn the many skills associated with the track riding discipline.
It won’t take long before you fee like a child again while training on the track. The speed and interconnectedness you have on a fixed gear bike with no brakes while flying around the track provides a feeling that is second to none. In the corners, with enough speed, you’ll feel the G forces that come as you’re riding almost perpendicular to the floor. Not only will you improve your cycling skills, you’ll have fun and get some fantastic training along the way.
Sean Mackinnon moved from triathlon to cycling at the age of 15. He won two bronze medals at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto in Team Pursuit and the Individual Time Trial.