Saturday, June 20, 2009

New England Velodrome (Bicycle Track)

I arrive at the New England Velodrome in Londonderry, NH, this morning at 8:30, just as it's opening. I find Susan and Mark. Susan and I ride with HUCA, which Mark (among others) coaches. HUCA is awesome, and I am very grateful for it. Susan and I haven't been to a bike track before; Mark is a veteran. Susan and I meet Tony, our host, and we plunk down our $20 ($15 fee + $5 for bike rental). There is a container full of bikes of all sizes, colors, and descriptions. Since we are there early, we get our pick of the bikes, which Tony helps us with. They are track bikes: fixed gear, no brakes. (Fixed gear means that the fates of the pedals and the rear wheel are joined. You can't coast; as long as the wheels are moving, the pedals are moving, and so are your feet.) Tony attaches our pedals (which we have brought) to our rental bikes, and we're off to start circling the track, counterclockwise.

Mark imparts much vital information to Susan and me. I won't attempt to reproduce it all here, but some of the high points are: Look over your shoulder before you move up or down the track, so you don't crash into anyone. If you're on the track and you're not racing, stay out of the way of the racers. Don't go the wrong way around the track. And so on. He also gave us some strategies for that day's specific events, which I will distill and integrate with my own observations.

There is a huge amount of strategy in track racing. Some of the strategy stems from the fact that if you can draft another biker (i.e., follow them very closely), you get sucked along in their wake, and get a bit of a free ride, and don't have to pedal as hard as they do. Also, if two riders are equally matched and separated by more than a length or two, then whoever is in front is likely to stay in front. Also, if you are in front, you can't see what anyone in back of you is doing.

As a result, many races consist of a battle to get into second place, so that you can draft whoever is in first place, save your muscles, wait for them to get tired, and then make your move near the end of the race, often with the element of surprise. This is true even in two-person races, maybe especially in two-person races, maybe especially when the riders are equally strong.

Sometimes riders have different strengths. One might be faster over shorter distances, one might be faster over longer distances. In this case, the race may wind up looking like the "sprinter" trying to keep the other person from breaking away for as long as possible, by blocking them or keeping them up high on the track, turning the whole thing into a short sprint to the finish; and the "long-distance" person trying to break away early without being drafted by the "sprinter".

Any number of other scenarios are possible, especially when there are more than two riders.

We did a number of different types of races:

First, we did an 8-lap scratch race, in which everyone starts at once, and whoever finishes first wins.

After this, we did flying 200m time trials, in which a single rider gets a flying start to complete 200 meters against a clock.

Then, two-lap sprints (with two, three, or four riders, grouped based on their time trial speeds). These races are bizarre to watch. Often only the last lap, and sometimes only part of the last lap, looks like a race. The preceding time consists of slow maneuvering, getting above or below the other racers (depending on your strategy), staying slightly behind them so that you can see what they're doing, and so on. In the professional events, they recently created a rule prohibiting people from standing still! Here are videos that were mailed around by Mark and another HUCA rider. The first video explains some of the strategy pretty well:
Then, 500m time trials from a standing start. Pretty much what it sounds like. Five hundred meters feels like rather a long way at full speed.

Lastly, we did an Australian Pursuit. The riders start, from a standstill, distributed more or less evenly around the track (handicapping optional); anyone who is passed by the person behind them is knocked out of the race (and has to get out of the way, when it's safe to do so). Once only a few people are left, they all slow down, form a clump, and the next time they pass the start line, they sprint a final two laps (or some other pretermined distance) to decide the winner.

I learned a few things today:
  • Track riding involves a huge amount of strategy
  • I'm okay at short distances
  • I'm not so good at going fast for longer than a lap or so (yet)
  • Never underestimate the athletic abilities of teenage boys
We got tons of race time. And time not spent racing was spent watching others race, toodling around the track, chatting, and so on. Good clean fun. I enjoyed it, and I felt like I could be much better with a little work. I think I'm hooked.

Full race results will be posted here.


Anonymous said...

From what I've read bike racing involves a huge amount of strategy. I can hardly follow all of it. I thought it was just "pedal hard, win."

mikecrystal said...

I've just started a track class here in San Diego and have been searching out info on different events on a Velodrome track. This has been very helpful. Thanks


Alex Lewin said...

Mike, glad you've found this helpful! Happy riding.