5 reasons why you should try track cycling
Road cyclists love riding outside because it offers endless variety, exciting new challenges and beautiful scenery, but training on the indoor track can deliver amazing performance benefits too. While many road cyclists routinely train indoors on their turbo trainer or rollers, cycling in an indoor velodrome is less common.
But track cycling offers a host of unique benefits for road cyclists. Many successful professional road cyclists, from 34-time Tour de France stage winner Mark Cavendish to 2018 Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas, began their careers by riding on the track.
And the benefits have powered them throughout their successful road cycling careers. From a smoother pedalling technique to a faster top speed, we reveal how track cycling can power up your performances on the road.
Develop a smoother pedalling system
One of the most intimidating features of track cycling is the need to ride a fixed gear bike with no brakes and no gears. This can feel daunting for road cyclists at first, but once you master the technique you will soon notice how much smoother your pedal stroke becomes.
On the road it is very easy to get into bad habits by stomping up and down on your pedals, which leads to ‘dead spots’ in your pedalling motion. But because you cannot ‘freewheel’ on a fixed gear bike, you have to pedal much more consistently and fluidly, or your bike will give you a gentle ‘kick’ forwards whenever you lose your rhythm. The result is that you learn to develop a more smooth and efficient pedal stroke.
Not only will this make you look more stylish as you ride – a unique quality which the French call ‘souplesse’ – it will also help to maximise your power output. Track cycling teaches you to work as much of the 360-degree pedal rotation as possible, by scraping along the bottom of the stroke, and pulling your foot back over the top of the stroke, to extract every watt of power from each rotation.
British cyclist Geraint Thomas is a good example of this. Thomas won the team pursuit at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, and he credits his track power for his 2018 Tour de France success. “You can actually tell which riders in the peloton haven’t been on the track because you hear that empty ‘thunk’ sound when they hit their dead spot as they pedal,” he once explained.
“Working on the track teaches you to pedal really smoothly and that helps you ride more efficiently on the road because you are getting more out of every revolution.”
Boost your bike handling skills
Racing around an indoor track in close proximity to other cyclists is a great way to improve your bike-handling skills. Mark Cavendish, who won world track cycling titles in the Madison event in 2005 and 2008, says that track cycling taught him about spatial awareness, balance and mobility – all key skills which have helped him to navigate those chaotic sprint finishes and claim 34 Tour de France stages.
Track cycling improves your instinctive awareness of speed and space, and teaches you to move through small gaps at speed, so you will feel more confident and mobile out on the road. Track cycling can seem frightening at first, but even small children learn how to ride track bikes, so once you get over the mental challenge you will soon be flying.
Reduce your energy waste
As fixed gear track bikes don’t have any brakes, you will soon learn how to work with, not against, the natural motion of your bike. When you are riding a road bike, it is easy to over-rely on your brakes, so you might be constantly feathering your brakes to find the right speed, and avoid the wheel in front of you.
This is not only an awkward way to ride, it also means you are constantly wasting your energy and forward motion by using your brakes. But on a track bike you learn how to gently slow your leg movements to reduce your pace, and how to smoothly change direction to avoid crashing into the wheel in front, without using your brakes or wasting your forward motion.
As a result, when you ride on the road you will find yourself less reliant on your brakes, and more skilled at cleverly manipulating your speed and direction without them.
Optimise your aerodynamics
Track cycling is all about speed, which means it offers a great way to improve your aerodynamic silhouette when you head back out onto the road. Bradley Wiggins’s ability to transfer his elegant track cycling position into a beautifully aerodynamic time-trial position – with a flat black and narrow frontal area – was a major feature of his success on the road.
Wiggins won four gold medals, one silver medal and two bronze medals on the track at the Olympics, as well as the 2012 Tour de France and the 2014 world time trial title on the road.
A velodrome is a controlled environment, with no wind and no difference in surface, so it is easy to see how small changes to your position can have a big effect on your aerodynamic shape. Learning to stay low and narrow will give you an important edge on the roads too.
Boost your speed
Track cycling is a high-intensity and demanding activity, which means you will constantly be working above your threshold pace and pushing your top-end speed. Doing laps at full speed, learning how to sprint after other riders, and discovering how to use the shape of the track to optimise your speed will really help your sprint speed on the road.
It will boost your aerobic and anaerobic fitness and mean you can push yourself harder than other road cyclists. You will soon notice the extra zip when you chase down your friends, or make explosive attacks on a mountain.
Most riders do a road time trial in Zone 4 of their heart rate, but track cycling demands hard efforts in Zones 5 and 6 too. This will boost your performances in time trials, climbs and sprints, and speed up your ability to recover from challenging efforts.
Riding on the track also involves pedalling with a higher cadence than you do on a road. Whereas on a road bike many cyclists pedal at around 90rpm, on a track you may ride at 110-150rpm. By expanding your cadence range, your legs will have extra zip and speed for when you really need that extra kick out on the roads.
By Mark Bailey