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The Track Bike Part 4

28 Aug

So we now finally go to the last part of the discussion about the track bike. You can review the previous posts if you feel lost. This time we’re going to discuss about one of the most important things regarding a track bike: GEARS.

The biggest difference between track and road racing is the attitude towards and use of gears. Gearing on the road isn’t thought about all that much, except perhaps for juniors who have to comply with gear restrictions. At any given time, riders commonly don’t know what gear they are in. By contrast, on the track, gears are a precise matter, and gears are chosen very specifically for each event.

As an opening note, track racers talk in gear inches – not teeth. It’s much more precise and frankly easier to say. A roadie at the track is easy to spot because they will talk about gears in terms of teeth rather than inches. If you’re going to get into track racing, it’s worth learning and thinking about gears in terms of inches. To help you do that, I’ll make reference to both systems below.

Track racers invariably use much smaller gears (and therefore, pedal at much higher cadences) than their peers on the road. When Tom Boonen winds up a sprint on the road, he is in a 53 x 11 or 53 x 12, which yield 126” and 116” gears, respectively. If his sprint tops out at 60kph (37mph), his cadence will max out at either 100 rpm’s exactly (in the 53 x 11), or 109 rpm’s (in the 53 x 12).

By comparison, elite track racers commonly hit 60kph, but would never use a gear larger than 50 x 14 (94”), and more likely would be riding a 49 x14 (92”) or 51 x 15 (90”). So, at 60kph, their cadence is between 134rpms (50 x 14) and 141rpms (51 x 15). To put this in road terms, for an elite track race – say, the World Points Race Championship – the world’s top riders will do the entire race in a gear just a little bit smaller than a 53 x 15.

That’s a pretty big difference in approach. A road racer would never limit himself to a maximum of a 53 x 15 – but that’s what the top track racers do.

The real difference between road and track racing is best understood when you realize that track racers don’t just provide short bursts at 140rpms. Because elite track races commonly proceed at 50 – 55kph (31 – 34mph) for long periods, track racers sustain 120 – 130rpms throughout much of the race, and then accelerate to over 140rpms for the sprints. Hitting 140rpm’s for a sprint isn’t hard – any roadie can do that. Sustaining 120 to 130rpm’s for an entire race (no freewheeling!) and then hitting 140+ rpm’s in the sprint is impossible for most roadies – it takes some training.

So – understandably, when they start out on the track, many experienced roadies just figure that the track racers must have it wrong, and choose an enormous gear (say, a 51 x 14 – 95.5”). That’s what I did. It doesn’t work. After a while, they come around.

So, why do track racers use such small gears? There are probably other explanations beyond what I will offer here. I am not a physicist. But I’ll give you my angle on it.

If you’re going into a race with only one gear, you are going to optimize that gear to the most critical moments in the race. But the most critical moments in a race aren’t just the sprints; they are the accelerations, too. The problem with riding a relatively large gear on the track is that it accelerates more slowly (a distinct disadvantage when you need to jump hard to stay near the front), and ramping that gear up for repeated accelerations will burn your legs out over the course of a race.

So, in simple terms, you want a gear that can do two things: efficiently get you through repeated accelerations from 40 to 50kph, and also get you up to 55 – 60kph for the sprints. In a typical 92” gear (49 x 14), when the field is proceeding along at 40kph (25mph), you will be turning 91rpm’s. When there’s an acceleration up to 50kph, you will need to produce 114rpm’s. To accelerate again up to 60kph, you will hit 137rpm’s.

These accelerations are easier to do in a smaller gear than in a larger one. A true roadie might choose a 53 x 14 (99”) for a perfectly flat race where the speeds range from 40 to 60kph. Certainly, for the 60kph sprints, that gear will wind up to a respectable 126rpm’s. But at 40kph, a 99” gear will be grinding along at 84rpms, and at 35kph (22mph) the gear would truly be in slow motion at 73rpm’s.

Now, I suspect this analysis won’t be entirely satisfying, especially to roadies who haven’t tried the track. I won’t claim that this is the whole story – there are surely more and better explanations for why experienced trackies all use smaller gears than road racers do. Other factors may include the fact that there is no freewheeling – so track racers never get to rest their legs altogether between major efforts. Or the fact that it’s harder to get out of the saddle on the track, particularly in the corners of a steeply banked track, so simply accelerating a large gear by standing up and using your body weight for leverage isn’t as easy to do.

In any event, the fact remains that track racers do all use smaller gears. And while Tom Boonen may be more likely to turn a 53 x 11 than a local amateur roadie, world champion trackies are not more likely to use large gears than local amateur trackies. If anything, elite track racers tend to use smaller gears than amateur trackies do.

So, what does track gearing look like in practice? The table below shows a typical selection of chainrings and cogs that a track racer would keep in stock, and the gear inches they produce with a 700 x 23 tire, rounded to the nearest half-inch.1 For easy comparison to road gears, I have included the gears on a 53 chainring in the far-right column, even though a 53 would be an unusual (though not unheard-of) chainring to find on a track bike.

The gears that might actually be used in races are shaded in gray. The gear combinations that yield gears lower than what is shaded might be used for warm-up. The largest gear shown here (96”, 51 x 14) would likely only be used for a Keirin or another unusual event like the 200 meter time trial; it would rarely be used for mass-start track races.

Looking at this, the short answer to how track and road gears compare is that track racers generally use something roughly equivalent to a 53 x 15, give or take, for most everything they do. They would almost never use anything as large as a 53 x 14, and would occasionally go down as low as a 53 x 16 – but that would be the lower boundary for most track racers.

For a little more detail on this – because it’s near and dear to track racers – I asked an elite track cyclist to discuss his approach to gearing in different races. His answer was so thorough and helpful that I’m just reproducing it below.

Here’s how I generally do it for different types of races:

Scratch: 48×14 [90”]

Match sprint: 51×15 [89”] (I like having a little more acceleration)

Team sprint:

51×15 [89”] (starter)

48×14 [90”] (second)

52×15[91”] (anchor)

Chariot: 51×15[89”] or 48×14 [90”], depending on how I feel

Points: 51×15 [89”] usually, sometimes a 48×14 [90”] later in the season

Madison: 51×15 [89”] here (see Euro stuff below)


If I’m racing at altitude, like at Colorado Springs, I’ll usually go up a tooth on my chainring, and race scratches in a 49×14 [91.8”], and points in either a 48 or a 49 depending on the strength of the field. I haven’t done any sprint stuff at altitude, so I can’t really say if that changes.


As for the little Euro track [note: six-day tracks in Europe are commonly between 150 and 200 meters – very short and very steeply banked], I go much lower in gearing. Particularly for madisons, and for multi-day events. In the 6-days we’re capped at either a 49×15 [85.7”] or a 52×16 [85.2”] (they’re nearly equivalent). In Geneva we didn’t have a gear restriction, so I tried going up to a 50×15 [87.4”]. By the third day my legs were so blown that I had to go back down to the 49×15 [85.7”]. It sounds like a tiny gear, but you can really get that thing moving. We’d regularly get our mid-race sprints into the 64-65 km/h range, and the finish would sometimes crest 66-67 km/h. [Note: in a 85.7” gear, 66kph requires 161rpm’s.]


The highest speed I ever hit in Blaine was nearly 69 km/h behind the motor, in a 48×15! [That’s just over 170rpm’s.] You don’t need a huge gear to really get flying, just good, smooth form. If you can pull that off, all the accelerations in a points race, madison, or scratch become much easier to handle, and you don’t load your legs up as quickly.


Another funny story: I won the state Madison a couple years ago in an 86″ gear. [48 x 15] I didn’t know at the time that I was still in my warm up gear, and didn’t figure it out until I tried to find my 15 tooth cog the next week at training. That really drove the point home for me: it’s all mental. You don’t need big gears to go fast.


As for the real legit guys, all the 6-day pros race on a 49×15. I haven’t really heard of anyone going smaller than that at a really high level event, but that’s smaller than pretty much anyone stateside runs. The largest I’ve heard of is probably a few pursuiters who have been known to push gears in the 51- 52×14 range, but that’s really getting up there.


Because it relates to this topic, particularly how you train on the road if  part of your goal is to race well on the track, I’ll make a few notes about road gears in general.


Twelve-tooth and eleven-tooth cogs only became available in the last few decades, even though they seem obvious now. Eddy Merckx won his races with a 53 x 13 [107”] top gear. What should be obvious now – and can easily be confirmed with an online gear calculator – is that any amateur roadie who claims to use his 12-tooth cog for anything much is actually slowing himself down. In general, an 11 is a waste of space.


A little more arithmetic. A 53 x 12 at 90rpm’s is going 50kmh (31mph). Most amateur roadies will turn a flat, fast time trial no faster than this, and frankly, much slower. A Cat. 1/2 road racer who turns a respectable 55:00 40km time trial has just averaged 43.6kph (27.1mph) – which, in a 53 x 12 translates to a grinding cadence of 79rpm’s. He has no need for this gear at all; even a 53 x 13 is too big (average cadence of 85 rpm’s). He should be riding in his 14 and 15 cogs most of the time, with an occasional dip into the 13 for fast sections. The uselessness of an 11, or of chainrings larger than 53, should be apparent.


Lance Armstrong operated at cadences between 100 and 110 rpm’s with some success. If you do the math, working backwards from his time trial average speeds, his cadences suggest that he didn’t use his 11 or even his 12 very often. And while this will not work for everyone, there is simply no reason to let your cadence drop much below 90. It turns out that Eddy Merckx’s old 52 x 13 will basically do everyone fine. At 64kmh (40mph), a 52 x 13 is turning at 128rpm’s. This is about the right cadence for road sprinting, and it’s fully 30rpm’s less than elite track riders turn during accelerations. Oh, and most amateurs have never gone 40mph in a road sprint before in their lives – and even today, most pro road sprints max out at or below this speed.


So much for needing a 12. But more to the point, training on a gear cluster that has such high gears will encourage you to grind in low gears rather than train where you should – at 100rpms or higher.

Tales from Beyond the Track: Volume 9

27 Aug

The podium moment is a coveted prize for track cyclists. It is in this moment where everyone will acknowledge the track cyclist’s victory. Any track cycling fan will know, wearing the rainbow jersey is something every track cyclist dreams of. Despite all that, the cycling podium is a rather very humble event, a far cry from other sports such as football, basketball, baseball, or even boxing where the victory is a frenetically euphoric affair. That’s not to say that the track cycling podium is a drab affair, rather, the track cyclist upon winning is given time to both celebrate and contemplate on his victory. Deep really is the sport of cycling. It’s not about trash talking or boasting, the victory here feels genuine and heartfelt. In our experience in international track cycling events, the podium moment is an emotional and solemn part of the event and it belies the true euphoria track cyclists experience.

The podium moment begins with waiting. After the final results are verified in any event (and verification is a really standardized and rigid process overseen by the organizing body and the officials involved) the track cyclist and the team is informed of the victory confirmation. At this point, some track cyclists are too exhausted to show their euphoria. Some track cyclists then make themselves presentable to the podium through simple things such as adjusting their hair (especially the women cyclists), while some male cyclists also make a quick fix to their hair by applying hair gel. Other ‘rituals’ done by some track cyclists include applying body cologne, making a quick trip to the bathroom, replacing their cycling shoes (which can be very awkward to walk with) or removing their shoe covers, fixing their skinsuits by removing any visible creases and adjusting the crotch part to avoid any visible awkward bulges, thoroughly rubbing themselves with a dry towel to avoid awkward sweaty hugging moments with the officials wearing business suits. Oh yes, these sometimes funny practices do exist among track cyclists and vary from one athlete to the next while others don’t have any of these ‘rituals’ and just go to the podium drenched in sweat and in their cycling shoes still with shoe covers! (in one incident, a track cyclist slipped while wearing his shoes still with covers).

When we first knew of some of these rituals it was quite funny but still felt totally rational given the fact that a track cyclist must look presentable in his very tight often revealing skinsuit in the podium in front of everyone and the media. Despite that, a lot of track cyclists I know have a problem with avoiding an awkward bulge when the podium moment arrives (Not that the bulge doesn’t look presentable but rather it feels awkward and embarassing to some). You see, this is a physiologic and neurologic response of the body to the intense excitement and euphoria a track cyclist feels after winning. In the end due to this euphoria, the track cyclist wouldn’t actually mind and simply forget it and would just laugh at the ensuing photographs which would showcase a prominent bulge. Yes, my dear readers, cyclists are very well aware of this bulge, but not in a vulgar kind of way. They would then proceed to joke about it. I’m then reminded to this time when we were working with this track cycling team, and one of our friends told this track cyclist who just won ‘pssst, hey your junk is sticking out’ to which this track cyclist promptly replied ‘oh hell yeah its sticking out, let it be, its happy y’know’ and we just all laughed.

So after the waiting, the track cyclists are called and line in a single file behind an entourage which includes the organizing officials (UCI and other sport officials), some podium ladies, or other people depending on the country hosting the event. After the podium is ready, the entourage is then called and the winners parade toward the podium area as the crowd cheers. One by one the winners are then called from the bronze, silver and gold medalist and take their place in the podium.

When the winners are now in the podium, the officials then proceed to the awarding of the rainbow jersey to the gold medalist (In some events the awarding of the rainbow jersey precedes the presentation in the podium). Anna personally believes this is an awkward moment since the rainbow jersey isn’t handed out to the track cyclist but is, how should you say this, forcibly worn into the track cyclist by the awarding official. So imagine this awkward moment if the rainbow jersey (a long sleeved non-zippered cloth jersey) is too small for the track cyclist, it would look like a mini-wrestle match. But Kean personally believes its a very personal and emotional moment since the rainbow jersey is only worn by a gold medalist.

After that, the medals are then awarded to the winners starting from the bronze medalist or gold medalist depending on the organizers. At the same time, gifts are awarded to the medalists and another official is tasked to give them and if it happens to be a lady, then the track cyclist will offer a kiss. Now, this for us can be awkward as shown in the photo above where Tim Veldt is clearly taller than the lady and he has to bend down for her to reach his cheeks. This is where some preparation before the podium moment pays off, it is but only proper etiquette for the athlete to be dry, and not drenched in sweat, and to at least smell good when standing in the podium (sarcasm alert). But of course, this isn’t a rule, and a lot of track cyclists hug and kiss podium ladies and even track organizers and officials while being drenched in sweat, with body odor emanating from the sweaty parts of the body directly through the skinsuit which may show visibly awkward bulges and worse, inappropriate boners (again which by the way isn’t exactly inappropriate as the phenomena is a natural and appropriate response of the body to excitement and euphoria). The gifts vary from country to country: flowers, mascots, stuff toys and other paraphernalia are given out to the winners. Probably the best one we’ve seen was during the World Track Championships in Australia, where they gave adorable stuffed koalas.

After the gift giving and the presentation of winners comes a very emotional part for both the winning track cyclist, his team mates and his country. The flag raising part where the flags of the winner’s motherland is slowly lifted up towards the roof of the velodrome while the national anthem of the gold medalist’s country is being sung. A truly patriotic and emotional moment indeed. We’ve seen some cyclists and team members shed a tear or two during this part.

After that the winners are again presented and the audience cheers for them, photographers get their best shot of the winners, and the winners themselves try their very best to look like the happiest people in the world.

Then comes the spontaneous parts, the winners themselves play out their bromances and mancrushes on each other, punching each other’s shoulders and shaking their hands, fist pumping, punching the chests, etc. Oh yeah, bromance is alive and kicking in the track cycling world. But of course, this really ain’t about that, podium moments are truly awe inspiring displays of sportsmanship and camaraderie. No one really boasts, and the other cyclists genuinely congratulate their fellow track cyclists.

Thereafter, the winners crowd the podium and wave to the crowd, raising their hands as a display of thanks, appreciation, and sportsmanship. Meanwhile, the photographers crowd the podium area as they try to get the best shots of the winners. Hundreds of flashes happen in mere seconds that some track cyclists actually remarked that the instantaneous flashes can be blinding and quite shocking to the senses.

In the podium of team events such as in the photo above, the track cyclists crowd themselves toward the center embracing and grabbing their fellow track cyclists in a spectacular show of bromance it’s almost borderline homoeroticism as the cyclists grab whatever part they can of their fellow cyclists: asses, shoulders, forearms, legs, etc. But then again of course, this is also a spectacular show of teamwork, sportsmanship and camaraderie all while the track cyclists are wearing very revealing skinsuits! As one of my friends once commented, this is like a throwback to the days of ancient Greece when athletes, practically naked during playing, commend their fellow athletes by hugging, and other sorts of homoeroticism. Truly, track cycling is a wonderful sport! But to see a podium ceremony in action check out this video.

Then again, what we’ve shared here ain’t a generality but rather what we’ve observed. Podium moments are themselves a very interesting part in the sport of track cycling or any other sport for that matter.

Video of the Day: August 27, 2010

27 Aug

Here’s a short ad featuring comedian Lee Evans and British track cycling legend, Jason Queally (yet, again in this blog). Yes, it’s quite a funny ad. But the funnier thing is, these jokes are true. A lot of people unacquainted with the sport of track cycling would do and say the same things Lee just said, such as a bike without a stand, getting lost in the velodrome (oh yes, some velodromes have confusing layouts with the entrance and exits), not knowing the right way to wear that damn helmet, complaining about the very tight clothing, and lastly, not knowing how to ride a track bike. Still, I love this ad.

Photo of the Day: August 27, 2010

27 Aug

Pinning the identification number, at first may seem like a menial job, insignificant in the sense that it is done as part of the rules in track racing, and doesn’t really affect the outcome of a race. But once you have tried attempting to pin a number to someone’s skinsuit, you’ll realize that it’s quite a challenge.

Nutritional Studies on Cyclists

27 Aug

To mark the return of our Sports Sciences Segments, we present 2 interesting cases of nutrition in a track cyclist. The first study aims to determine the effect of protein rich feeding on recovery after intense exercise published in 2007 in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.

Carbohydrate ingestion after prolonged strenuous exercise enhances recovery, but protein might also be important. In a crossover with 2-wk washout, 10 cyclists completed 2.5 h of intervals followed by 4-h recovery feeding, provided 218 g protein, 435 g carbohydrate, and 79 g fat (protein enriched) or 34 g protein, 640 g carbohydrate, and 79 g fat (isocaloric control).

The next morning, cyclists performed 10 maximal constant-work sprints on a Velotron cycle ergometer, each lasting approximately 2.5 min, at approximately 5-min intervals. Test validity was established and test reliability and the individual response to the protein-enriched condition estimated by 6 cyclists’repeating the intervals, recovery feeding, and performance test 2 wk later in the protein-enriched condition.

During the 4-h recovery, the protein-enriched feeding had unclear effects on mean concentrations of plasma insulin, cortisol, and growth hormone, but testosterone was 25% higher (90% confidence limits, +/- 14%). Protein enrichment also reduced plasma creatine kinase by 33% (+/-38%) the next morning and reduced tiredness and leg-soreness sensations during the sprints, but effects on mean sprint power were unclear (-1.4%, +/-4.3%). The between-subjects trial-to-trial coefficient of variation in overall mean sprint power was 3.1% (+/-3.4%), whereas the variation in the protein-enriched condition was 5.9% (+/-6.9%), suggesting that individual responses to the protein-enriched treatment contributed to the unclear performance outcome.

To conclude, protein-enriched recovery feeding had no clear effect on next-day performance. This second studies aims to determine the Acute effects of chocolate milk and a commercial recovery beverage on postexercise recovery indices and endurance cycling performance published last 2009 in the Journal of Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism.

To maximize training quality, athletes have sought nutritional supplements that optimize recovery. This study compared chocolate milk (CHOC) with a carbohydrate replacement beverage (CRB) as a recovery aid after intense exercise, regarding performance and muscle damage markers in trainedcyclists.

Ten regional-level cyclists and triathletes (maximal oxygen uptake 55.2 +/- 7.2 mL.kg(-1).min(-1)) completed a high-intensity intermittent exercise protocol, then 15-18 h later performed a performance trial at 85% of maximal oxygen uptake to exhaustion. Participants consumed 1.0 g carbohydrate.kg-1.h-1 of a randomly assigned isocaloric beverage (CHOC or CRB) after the first high-intensity intermittent exercise session. The same protocol was repeated 1 week later with the other beverage.

A 1-way repeated measures analysis of variance revealed no significant difference (p = 0.91) between trials for time to exhaustion at 85% of maximal oxygen uptake (CHOC 13 +/- 10.2 min, CRB 13.5 +/- 8.9 min). The change in creatine kinase (CK) was significantly (p < 0.05) greater in the CRB trial than in the CHOC trial (increase CHOC 27.9 +/- 134.8 U.L(-1), CRB 211.9 +/- 192.5 U.L(-1)), with differences not significant for CK levels before the second exercise session (CHOC 394.8 +/- 166.1 U.L(-1), CRB 489.1 +/- 264.4 U.L(-1)) between the 2 trials.

These findings indicate no difference between CHOC and this commercial beverage as potential recovery aids for cyclists between intense workouts.

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