Stay Safe in the Track

16 Aug

When I was still in college and majoring in sports physiology after my physical therapy training, I remember my first few lessons with our professor. We started with athletics, specifically track and field and we had to do sprinting in the track for a couple of hours. His belief was that if we experience what the athletes are experiencing then we get to know more about the sport and the physiology. I have to say it was effective. Then cycling came. It was complete torture. We were introduced to road cycling first. And we had to ride at least 200km per week and study all about the sport. I was in shock but I loved the experience. After a few weeks in road cycling, he immediately introduced us to track cycling. The shock was unbelievable, I really was not prepared for the track. And all I could think of was… Hey this is dangerous!!

Ok, so coming from the road those were my first impressions.Some roadies appear to think that track racing must be just like a criterium with no brakes. That would be a crash-fest. Fortunately, track racing is nothing like that.

I think it’s fair to say that track racing is about as dangerous as road racing, minus the risk of hitting a lamp-post or a parked car. (Velodrome designers have cleverly omitted those, too.) In other words, crashes happen, perhaps more frequently than on the road, but some of the worst case scenarios have been eliminated on the track. You can’t go flying over a highway guardrail, and race organizers will never have to spend 30 minutes looking for you in a ravine.

By way of illustration, in the Beijing Olympics, by my count, there was one crash in all of the mass start track races combined. About 1,000 laps of the track in total – and one crash.

Our professor always reminded us these pointers which I still remember until now:

Don’t Lose a Finger. Fixed gear bikes have no slack in their drivetrains, nor free wheels to let off pressure if you get your finger stuck in the chain. No shortage of mechanics and (more likely) amateur dabblers have lost a finger (as in, chopped right off) by getting it caught in the drivetrain while the wheel was spinning. Don’t do this. A track bike’s spinning drivetrain (i.e., when it’s on the repair stand) is a very dangerous thing, and for goodness sake,keep your kids away from it.

Track Bikes Have Two Brakes. You have two brakes – your left leg, and your right leg. Because the gear is fixed, you can slow yourself down by putting reverse pressure on the pedals.

Learn to Use Your Brakes. Using the “brakes” on a track bike requires some advance planning. You can’t jam them on at the last minute; they don’t work that fast. So you need to be thinking about when you may need to slow down, and start easing up in advance. What you’re doing here is analogous to a truck downshifting to go down a big hill – the gear itself controls the vehicle, but it can’t quickly bring it to a halt.

Plan Ahead. Because of how you modulate speed on a track bike, you can’t come screaming up behind someone and figure on slowing down once you get there. If you are chasing down a rider or group in front of you, hammering up towards them from behind, be careful. On the road, you would tend to freewheel as you were approaching their slipstream, and perhaps cheat out into the wind a little bit in order to take some of your speed off – or feather the brakes.

Well, on the track, you can’t freewheel, it’s a little harder to just roll out into the wind to slow yourself down, and you don’t have those kinds of brakes. So, the first time you chase down a breakaway on the track, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise when you catch them and your bike starts naturally accelerating into the slipstream of the rider ahead.

So, plan ahead. As you start to catch the rider in front of you, back off the pedals, and ease yourself into the slipstream. It’s certainly more efficient not to have to put back-pressure on the pedals, so best thing is to time it just right so you don’t have to. Just gently ease into the draft.

Learn to look over your right shoulder. American (and continental) roadies are accustomed to looking back over their left shoulders on training rides to gauge traffic coming from behind. (You may never have thought about it that way, but you’ve probably looked over your left shoulder thousands of times, but rarely your right.) Well, on the track, you need to be in the habit of constantly looking behind you on the right side, since that is your natural blind spot, and it’s also where riders will tend to accumulate behind you. If you’re looking to pull off the front of a group, or just move to the right (“uptrack”), you need to habitually and always look over your right shoulder (“do a shoulder check”). Most track crashes occur when a rider moves uptrack (to the right) without checking his blind spot, taking down the rider behind him.

You need to make sure the space is clear. Looking over your right shoulder actually does two things. Obviously, it lets you see who’s there. But just as importantly, it signals to riders behind you that you are going to be moving uptrack soon – and they’d better clear out. An exaggerate shoulder check – really visibly twisting your head to the right – is the safest route.

Ride fast in the corners. For tracks with a steep banking – all tracks 250 meters or shorter, and even some 333-meter tracks with a steeper banking – if you ride too slow through the corner, you will crash. Very, very hard.

Pass on the outside (right), never the inside (left). The second most common cause of crashes in track racing is when a rider gets down underneath – to the left of – another rider who is already low on the track. This invariably happens on the straightaway, as an inexperienced (or too-aggressive) rider tries to jump through a gap on the straight. Well, when those two riders arrive at the corner, the rider on the inside is going to be forced by simple inertia to come uptrack into the rider he’s just tried to pass. This usually has the effect of taking one or both of them down. It may also have the effect of quickly pushing them both uptrack into the wheel of a rider behind. It’s a mess no matter how you cut it.

Ride at or above the blue line when you are training or warming up. The blue line (or “Stayers Line”) that encircles the midsection of the track doesn’t really have a formal function in most races. But the convention is that when you are training, you should stay at or above the blue line unless you are making a hard effort – i.e., going very fast. If you’re flying, you can be down in the sprinter’s lane (bottom of the track); if you’re cruising along anywhere below 40kph (25mph) or so, you should be at or above the blue line.

So I guess those are the essentials of keeping yourself safe in the track. Stay safe!!

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