Track Cycling World Championships – the making of modern sprinters

Shane Perkins is just one of the Australians going for gold at the world championships. AAP Image/David Crosling

Today in Melbourne the 2012 UCI Track Cycling World Championships get underway. Results from the five-day competition will determine which riders represent the various national track cycling teams at the Olympics later this year.

So what is track cycling all about? What events are involved? And what makes a strong sprint cyclist?

Track cycling is composed of three different types of events:

Practice laps

In the lead up to the world champs, riders from 42 countries had access to the Hisense Arena velodrome for limited periods in order to train (six sessions of 105 minutes per team). During each training session, riders from seven different countries shared the track.

Those training sessions offered riders a chance to learn (or remember) the features unique to the Hisense Arena track. All velodromes have their own characteristics, including different:

  • lengths (Hisense Arena’s velodrome is 250m long; Olympic velodromes must be between 250 and 400m long)
  • banking angle (42º at Hisense; other tracks have angles as low as 33º)
  • track surface (strips of Baltic pine at Hisense)
  • bend curvature.

By competing or training at Hisense Arena before the event, riders might find they have an advantage that could help them gain as much as a tenth of a second – more than enough to win a race.

The World Championships are being held at Melbourne’s Hisense Arena. AAP Image/Brandon Malone

Fast and furious

While all track cycling events are entertaining, the sprint events are certainly the most electrifying.

Individual sprint

The individual sprint competition starts with qualifying, with each rider trying to set the fastest time over 200m. During the recent Track Cycling World Cup event in London, men had to set times lower than 10.3 seconds, while women had to set times below 11.5 seconds in order to qualify. At the end of qualifying, riders are ranked in order of time.

Riders then go head-to-head in an attempt to make it to the next round. The fastest sprinter faces the 16th fastest rider, the second-fastest sprinter faces the 15th-fastest sprinter, and so on. In this way, the fastest riders will face each other only during the final rounds.

Team sprint

In this event, two teams of riders compete against one another in an attempt to progress to the next round. Men’s races are contested by teams of three over three laps, and women’s races are contested by teams of two over two laps.

After each lap, one rider from each team peels off leaving a single rider to represent the team at the finish line. During the recent World Cup event in London, a new world record was set by the Australian team during qualifying (32.828 seconds); a time that was later eclipsed by the British team in the final (32.754 seconds).

Keirin

The Keirin is a race contested by up to seven riders that starts behind a motorbike (or “derny”). The derny overtakes all the riders at the start of the race (at a speed of 25km/h in the women’s race, and 30km/h in the men’s).

In the opening seconds of the race, the riders will try to strategically position themselves behind the derny without overtaking it. The pace of the race is progressively increased until the derny reaches 45km/h (or 50km/h in the men’s race) and leaves the track.

At this point, with two and a half laps to go, the riders try to overtake each other at the optimal moment, using trajectories that will surprise their opponents.

Riding immediately behind another rider is far more aerodynamic than riding at the front of the bunch (a greater-than-25%-reduction in terms of power output required). However, overtaking a rider requires covering more distance, especially if the overtaking happens on the bend.

Because of the high speeds reached during the final laps (around 70km/h) and the large number of riders on the track, the risk of collision is very high. Each rider has to make very quick decisions about when to put their wheel in a very small gap that can be available for a fraction of a second.

By failing to adopt the right trajectory or to produce enough power, riders can crash or find themselves hundredths of a second behind the leader – enough to lose the race.

Individual time-trials

Raced over 1km for men and 500m for women, individual time-trials are a simple race against the clock. The rider that completes the required distance in the shortest amount of time is the winner. These races can be decided by thousandths of a second.

Anatomy of a track cyclist

Unlike the bikes being used by road cyclists, track cyclists don’t have a range of gears to maximise the performance of their muscles.

Indeed, track cyclists ride fixed-gear bikes with fixed wheels. When the wheels are in motion, the pedals must be too; there’s no opportunity for free-wheeling on the track. This allows sprint cyclists to stand still during races (a “trackstand”), waiting for their opponent to make the move that will start the contest.

Given riders only have one gear to use during the race, they need to carefully choose how big a gear they will use. The bigger the gear, the greater the distance travelled with every pedal revolution and the easier it is to maintain a higher speed.

But the bigger the gear, the harder it is to accelerate at the start of the race and when opponents try to break away. These factors could potentially cost the rider valuable time.

Sprint cyclists normally use a gear that has between 49 and 52 teeth at the front and 12 to 15 teeth at the back – a big, heavy gear that requires a lot of strength to push.

Like a car engine, human muscles can produce a maximal amount of power at a certain range of revolutions per minute (or “cadence”, in cycling parlance). For most humans, the optimal pedalling cadence is around 115-130 rotations per minute.

When pedalling at these cadences, world-class sprint track cyclists can produce incredible levels of power: more than 2,200 watts for men and more than 1,400 watts for women. Healthy men and women in most other walks of life would struggle to produce more than 800 watts and 600 watts on a bike, respectively.

To produce these amazing levels of power, professional sprinters carefully select a gearing that will allow their muscles to work at the optimal cadence at the critical moment of the race.

The key muscles in sprint cycling are those crossing the hip and knee joints, specifically the gluteus maximus and vastus lateralis. These two muscles combined produce 55% of a professional sprinter’s power.

These muscles are strongly developed in sprint track cyclists, as a result of work done during training sessions at the velodrome and at the gym.

Such athletes are specialists, their bodies honed for a very specific task – to ride very fast over short distances. Asking Australian champions Anna Meares or Shane Perkins if they’re going to compete at the Tour de France one day would be like asking Usain Bolt if he’s planning to win a marathon.

And as for appearing at the Olympics later this year? The strongest of the bunch will be there.

Further reading:

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