As I alluded to my previous posts, while there is no shortage of expensive track equipment available, the advantage of a high-tech track bike is arguably less than the advantage of a high-tech road bike. Much of what makes a road bike expensive (brakes, gears) doesn’t exist on a track bike. Because of this, all track bikes tend to be fairly light, so that even a cheap track bike won’t be that much heavier than the UCI lower weight limit. Many experienced track racers do very well on classic steel track frames and classic components; you don’t see that very often on the road.
Having said this, the devil is in the details when it comes to track equipment, and understanding the equipment will help you to understand the sport. So, let me cover the bike piece-by-piece. I’ll start with the things that are generally the same as on the road, and then discuss the things that are always different.
Pedals in use on the track are basically the same as those in use on the road. True, some trackies still ride toe clips and straps, which you would never see on the road these days, but you don’t need different pedals on the track than on the road, and most track racers use standard road pedals.
You will notice that some track racers have fitted their clipless pedals with toe straps as a belt-and-suspenders measure. It has to be said that pulling out of your pedal on a fixed-gear bike is particularly disastrous, since you can’t stop pedaling. It’s hard to re-engage, and you might go down. But this isn’t that much of a risk with most current pedal systems. And while many top sprinters still use the extra toe strap, some top riders (e.g., Theo Bos, a world champion in the Keirin and match sprint) just use stock clipless pedals. Bos can generate as much or more power than anyone in the world, and apparently Shimano clipless pedals are good enough for him.
A final note – cornering clearance. Most pedals nowadays have plenty of cornering clearance, and this is important on the track. In the old days, the difference between track and road pedals was that track pedals had the outer part of the cage removed. This is not because you might clip your inside pedal when going fast through a corner, as on the road. It’s the opposite: this is because you might clip your outside pedal when going slowly through a corner on the track. Having said that, modern pedals all have good cornering clearance compared to, e.g., Super Record pedals of old.
Seat & Seatpost
These are the same as on the road. Some sprinters will show a preference for certain older-style saddles because they are more solid. But for the most part, elite track racers have saddles that are about what they use on the road.
Handlebars & Stem
Track bars traditionally curve more sharply downward into the drops in order to make room for your forearms when your hands are on the drops. Track bikes invariably come equipped with such track-style handlebars. But in truth, different racers have different preferences, and not all prefer that format. If you watch elite international track racing, you’ll notice a growing minority of riders with unusual bar formats that allow them to hang on to the bars at a point where the brake levers would be on a road bike.
The one consistent feature of track bars is that they are narrower than what you might ride on the road. Smaller riders will ride 38cm bars, and larger riders will ride 40cm bars – even if on the road they would be riding 42cm or 44cm bars. Given the tight spacing of riders on the track, it makes sense to have the narrower bars.
It is fairly rare to see a track racer racing on track-specific (pista) tires. Mostly, track racers ride road tires. Yes, there are tiny 19mm tubulars out there being sold as track-specific tires, and I’ve even seen pista clinchers, but they are not the typical thing that track racers use. Those tires are well-suited for sprint events on very smooth, often indoor, velodromes. But most velodromes are not nearly that smooth. And track racers tend to do a wide variety of events, putting a lot of miles on their tires; they aren’t just specializing in sprint events.
So – what do experienced track racers use? Most elite riders use tubulars, and they often just use road racing tires like a Vittoria CX or Continental Sprinter or Competition. In an ideal world, you could ride larger (22mm) track-specific tires like the Continental Sonderklasse, but those are very hard to find, and they aren’t really necessary.
Clinchers are fine for track racing too, and while all the usual advantages of tubulars still apply on the track, many track bikes come equipped with clinchers. Mavic Ellipse track wheels are quite nice, and come with clincher rims, for example.
One tiny detail that might save you a crash if you race on wood is between rubber-carbon and rubber-silica tread. It seems that rubber-silica tread grips less well on wood surfaces, so rubber-carbon tread is preferred. Especially for slick indoor tracks (in the USA, the ADT Center in Carson, CA), but also for other wood tracks, the best thing is said to be a rubbercarbon tread. (The reason rubber-carbon isn’t universally used is that it wears poorly compared to rubber silica; you have to look for it.)