RACING ON THE TRACK – HOW IT’S DIFFERENT FROM THE ROAD
To think about how track and road tactics are different, it’s worth asking –how is the event different in general? Let’s take the example of a 50-lap scratch race (i.e., no points awarded, first rider to the line wins). How is that different from a criterium – since a criterium is also a scratch race? There are several key differences:
1. In a Sense, The Track Has No Corners: This seems like a strange observation – but it is actually a very important difference. One of the effects of a track’s banking is to eliminate the thinning-out effect of a corner that takes place in a criterium. In a criterium, riders slow down a bit in the corner, tend to thin out to double- or singlefile, and have to accelerate coming out of the corner – particularly in the middle and back of the field. Experienced criterium riders use this as a device to get off the front, to shake other riders, and as everyone knows, to position themselves for the sprint. In some criteriums (most notably in the USA, Downers Grove), the race is really for positioning in the final corner; the final straightaway is sometimes a formality.
So a track has “no corners” in the sense that the banking allows the whole field to proceed through the corners at full speed with no thinning out and no slowing down – and thus no acceleration coming out of the corner. True – the outside line is a longer line, so in a sprint you are better off (all things being equal) down in the sprinter’s lane, but your competitors aren’t at nearly the same disadvantage taking the outside line that they would be on the road, in part because the line isn’t that much longer, and in part because, unlike on the road, the line is just as “clear” going forward as the inside line. On the road, the inside-line rider can impede the outside rider’s progress by boxing him off into the curb, which is a critical tactical advantage particularly in a sprint. On the track, it’s not really possible to impede someone’s progress that way.
2. The Track Has Short Straight-aways: While we are talking about corners – they do matter, just differently. Like criterium racing, it’s still best for most riders to win a sprint from behind – and on the road, typically you want to pull out of the lead rider’s draft after the last corner. And that’s ideal on the road, because in a criterium you still have 200 or more meters from the last corner to the finish line in which to pass the lead-out rider. On the track, there’s certainly less than 100 meters, and on a 250-meter track there is only 50-60 meters in which to pass that lead rider. In short, there isn’t enough time to come around a lead rider if you only start your pass after the corner has concluded, meaning that you need to pull out of his draft and start taking the longer line in the final corner or even before it.
This is a natural enough point to understand in your head, but when you are going 60kph in someone’s draft through the final corner, it feels counter-intuitive to pull out of that draft and into a longer line in order to start your pass. Riders tend to make the mistake of waiting for the final straightaway to make the pass – but there just isn’t enough room there to get it done. At typical sprint speeds (55 km/h, or about 15 meters per second), the final straightaway (60-75 meters) is going to last four to five seconds. That’s very little time in which to come around your leadout rider.
3. Races Are Shorter: Nearly all track races are quite short compared to any road race. The main implication is that more riders will be able to hang in there until the end, making it harder for strong riders to thin out the field before the final sprint. And it also arguably makes it harder to get away, since even relatively weak riders can put out a good amount of power for ten or fifteen laps. So tactically, non-sprinters need to think and work harder to make a short race hard on the sprinters than they would have to on the road. The other implication is that, for a shorter race, you basically have a handful of opportunities to try to get away; you just don’t have a dozen different opportunities to attack. The up-side to this is that it’s easier to reverse-engineer the race from the outset. If you’ve got a 12-lap scratch race (one of the shorter races), you can plan out your approach to it in advance, and as often as not you can stick to that approach.
4. Smaller Fields: Fields on the track are usually capped at around 25 or 30. The smaller the track, the smaller the field limit. In any event, you’ll never be looking down a straightaway of 100 riders. Teams tend to be smaller, so as a result teamwork may play a more muted role. This is not to say that teams don’t matter, but also given the shortness of the races, teamwork doesn’t have an hour of racing in which to play itself out. But the real implication of the smaller fields is this: when a breakaway happens, if it is four riders or more, it operates more like a split in the field than a breakaway. It does depend on how the rest of the field reacts, of course, but it’s not as if you have 100 riders chasing five. Far more likely that you have 15 chasing five, and if not all 15 are working together – it starts to feel like the field has split, and the “pack” has missed the split. This relates to the next point – which is that the track is short, and that is an enormous difference between road and track racing.
5. The Track is Short: At typical racing speeds, it takes 17-19 seconds to do a lap on a 250-meter track. On a 333-meter track, it will take 23-25 seconds. And in nearly every track race (basically, anything other than sprint races or the the miss-and-out), the goal is to lap the field – and prevent getting lapped. In principle, this is no different than a criterium – lapping the field in a criterium is not uncommon, and certainly ensures a top finish. But to lap the field in a criterium, you need to be at least 60-90 seconds ahead of the field (on a very, very short course), and probably more like 90-120 seconds ahead. In a criterium, it’s pretty common for a breakaway to get a 15-20 second lead before the field even starts to get serious about reeling it in.
But the shortness of a track changes all of this. On a 250-meter track, if you have a 15-20 second lead on the field, you have already gained a lap – it’s game over for the chasers.
What does this mean in terms of race tactics and strategy? A few things. First, reactions to breakaways have to be very quick. If the field hesitates for more than a few seconds, the breakaway is very likely to gain a lap. Second, breaking away is far more rewarding on the track, because 60 seconds of very hard effort can bring you around on the field entirely. Also, it means that on the track, breakaways don’t usually stay off the front for very long – they either take a lap on the field, or decide that it’s not going to happen and drop back. And finally, attacking on the track is a more explosive affair – the attack needs to be extremely hard, blowing more energy in the first few seconds than would be wise on the road. It’s basically an all-out sprint effort for the first lap, followed by a few more laps to establish whether taking a lap is possible.
6. No Hills: Getting off the front on the track can be harder to do. On the road, attacks usually come out of corners, on hills, or at some juncture that makes it easier to get away or less likely that the field will want to chase. But because the track is essentially a continuous strip of wood with no corners and no hills, attacking is far more a matter of sensing the field’s willingness to respond, the energy level of potential rivals and positioning the attack in the right sequence vis-à-vis other attacks that have already come or may yet come. There’s also the matter of using the banking effectively.
7. The Track’s Banking: The more steeply a track is banked, the more the banking itself matters tactically. Riding at the top of the banking is an easy way to store potential energy, so that when an acceleration is required, you can descend the banking (move down-track) and accelerate into the attack with far less effort. In fact, if you watch an elite race on a 250-meter track, when the pace slows down, the entire field moves up-track, preparing for the next acceleration. In this situation, the riders are all taking a longer line around the track – but in a much better position tactically than if they were further down-track. In fact, when things slow down, there is nothing worse than being stuck down in the sprinter’s lane while the rest of the field is riding higher on the track. You know the next acceleration will come eventually, and when it does, you will have to expend enormous energy to mark the acceleration. So – when things slow down, move uptrack.
As for how to attack effectively, basic technique on the track is similar to the road. Attack from several riders back, ideally coming past five or six riders to build up a head of steam. If the field is already down in the sprinter’s lane, obviously you’ll have to attack on the right. If the field is riding slower and higher on the track, the opportunity to attack is ideal – drop down the banking with a hard acceleration from several riders back of the lead riders. The field will have the advantage of perfect visibility into what you’re doing – another benefit of riding up-track – but you’ll have the benefit of using the banking to assist your acceleration, and the added benefit of taking a shorter line than the field for a few seconds while they organize the chase.
8. Teamwork: Teams tend to be smaller on the track, but fields are smaller too. For example, three riders on a team in a field of 25 is typical. In that scenario, those three riders make up 12% of the field. By comparison, a team of 9 riders in a road field of 200 is less than 5% of the field. So team tactics can matter on the track a great deal. Team tactics mirror those used on the road: sequential attacks, lead-outs for strong sprinters, chasing breakaways where the team isn’t represented, and slowing down or breaking up the chase for breakaways with a teammate in the break.