Sometimes when I’m out riding and I take a break, I’ll stop and sit in the middle of the road. Not to obstruct traffic or try to get hit, but just to remind myself that the road is just a pile of gravel placed in a straight line.
Even if it’s on a “famous” hill on a race or a segment you’ve been trying to get for years, it’s a good reminder for a little perspective; to get your feet on the ground instead of having tires underneath. I’m glad I practiced this on gravel, because I felt a much higher level of intimidation racing in Track at the T-Town velodrome in Pennsylvania this summer.
The governing body of domestic track cycling is USA cycling (USAC), just like road and criterium racing. The categories work the same; you start off as a Cat. 5, win races, and get to Cat. 1 eventually. To compete at the national championships this year, I had to upgrade to a Cat. 2 by August, which was difficult, but not impossible. After racing for a few months, I had already gotten upgraded to a Cat. 1, at which point I felt ready for T-Town, which everyone I met had identified as the highest level of track racing available in the states.
Trexlertown, Pennsylvania has great qualities that make it the bicycle racing capital of the world. It has a good climate - think Kansas, but like 10 degrees colder. Beautiful riding, great food, a quick drive to NYC or Philly, and a top-notch velodrome. If you are in the area, it’s worth stopping by just to look at or ride on this world famous track. As I walked across the track to the infield, I paused. “It’s just a concrete circle with some lines on it.” Don’t panic. I found a bench next to members of the Trinidad and Barbados national teams, who were still just guys that like riding bikes. Several members of national teams were there; Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, and Argentina to name a few. Turns out bicycling is the universal language!
Rolling up to start a race is intimidating. It worked to my benefit that I didn’t know the field; there were olympic medalists, top ranked international riders, national and state champions, and I was a midwesterner with a mustache who wanted to see if he could hang with them. Looking around, I just reminded myself, “These guys all just like to ride bikes too, don’t panic!” I basically didn’t even know what I didn’t know, and learned pretty quickly what I needed to race at an international level in T-Town.
Turns out, not very much. Track bikes are very minimal, they have only a single, fixed (no coasting) gear, and no brakes. To slow down, you can either ride up the steeply banked track, or you can just slow your legs down. There is a big variety of races, but most of them are either the first person across the line, or some form of points per lap. Since the format is sanctioned by cycling’s international governing body (UCI) there are very strict standards as far as how the races are formatted. Since almost everyone there was a Category 1 racer, we were on the hunt for UCI points, which would allow you to compete in the Pan-American Championships, World Cups, World Championships, and eventually the Olympics.
To my (and probably everyone else’s) surprise, I did better than I had ever imagined! Over the course of 4 weekends of racing 2-3 nights/week, I won 8 races, and finished on the podium an additional 6 times. I couldn’t (and still can’t) believe that. I don’t think it has quite sunk in, as it’s been a crazy trip and past few weeks. My car also got stolen after I got back, but that is another story!
The first night of racing featured an Omnium race. This race consisted of 4 events; Scratch (1st person across the line wins), Tempo (1 point per lap), Elimination (last person on each lap gets pulled), and the points race (points for every few laps). I had no clue what I was in for. I finished 19th for the first scratch race, with an average speed of 30 mph. I had no idea it would be that fast, and picked a gear that had me spinning too fast to keep up on a sprint. My goal was to not get left behind, and I decided to work a little harder when I realized that I could hang with these guys if I used a proper gear. I wasn’t a big threat since I was sitting 19th in the Omnium, so I didn’t attract too much attention when I took the lead during the tempo race, winning that event. I finished an abysmal 21/23 for my first elimination, hoped to make up for it on the points race.
An Omnium can be won or lost on a points race.
The points race awards points for a sprint lap, which is usually every 6 laps. 1st place gets 5 points, 2nd - 3 points, 3rd - 2 points, 4th - 1 point. The points are also doubled during the final sprint, and you can get a whopping 20 points for lapping the field. These points are also added to your omnium points, making the points race incredibly important. An omnium can easily be won or lost on a points race! I didn’t have enough points to win, but by lapping the field, (20 points) winning 3 sprints (15 points) and the final sprint (10 points) I had moved from around 20th overall to 7th in the Omnium, 2nd place USA rider, and won the points race. For a first night, I was over the moon!
The rest of the month continued similarly, I started winning races (not just events) the next week, and had an amazing time while I was out there. Getting to race with such talented riders was an incredible experience! Although I had the legs to hang, I didn’t (and still don’t) know a ton about riding tactically, earning myself the moniker of “Dumbstrong” in the process. I hope to learn enough to change that at some point, but I’ll take it for now.
August 1st is the U.S. Track National Championships. Being a Cat. 1 racer, I’ll go and compete in the 4 Kilometer Individual Pursuit (a solo race against the clock), the scratch and points race, and the Omnium. It will be an amazing 3 days of racing, and I am incredibly grateful to be able to participate! I’ll try to post regularly about my adventures, but feel free to ask me in the shop about anything you are wondering. Thank you for your support, your kindness, and for being amazing cyclists. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Lawrence cycling community, my family, and my amazing wife. Lastly, if you want to learn more about track cycling, there are several options.
Watch some Youtube videos!
Go to the Lawrence Grass Velodrome! They do an amazing job of introducing people to track cycling. It’s racing, on track bikes, but slower, and flat. And super close to Lawrence!
Ask me about it! I spend way too much time reading, chatting, and thinking about it, so I’m happy to help you learn more or get started riding a bike from Sunflower Bike Shop!
Watch some news!
Whether you want to race, ride, or just get some exercise, remember: a road is just a pile of rocks in a line. Don’t be intimidated!