I like to divide the racing into three categories: Time Trials, Mass Starts, and Sprints. There are two basic types of riders: Sprinters and Endurance riders, but don’t be fooled by these types as sprinters must have decent endurance and endurance riders must be able to sprint. Some sprint riders participate in endurance events and some endurance riders will do sprint events. Also, racers are divided into gender groups, ability categories, age groups, and various groups of para-cyclists. I have raced against, and been beaten by youths, women, senior citizens, a couple of hearing impaired hooligans, and a para-cyclist with one good leg.
Time Trials – timed with a stopwatch or electronic trip timing
The Time Trials have two kinds of starts: the standing start where the rider is held a volunteer or commissaire (a cycling term for referee) or a starting gate and the flying start where the rider gets up to speed and is timed over a specified distance.
The standing start events are the Individual Pursuit (3 or 4 kilometers), Team Pursuit (also 3 or 4 kilometers), the Kilo/500m (for some age groups there is sometimes a 750 meter option), and the Team Sprint (2 or three riders start together and each rider breaks the wind for one lap then drops out.
The flying time trials are usually a Flying 200 meter effort or a Flying Lap. They are usually given 2-3 laps to wind it up for the time portion. The Flying 200 is usually just used for seeding sprint tournaments, more on those later.
Mass Starts – just like it sounds, everyone starts together and races a specified distance.
There are four common mass start events: the Scratch Race, the Points Race, the Madison, and the Miss and Out. Each race has its own set of rules and scoring systems. The number of riders allowed on a track in mass start events is roughly one per ten meters. So, on a 250 meter velodrome they will allow 24 or 25 riders to make a mass start.
The Scratch race is like a NASCAR race where the first rider across the line is the winner and are usually contested over 15 km for men and 10 km for women.
The Points race is a bit more complicated and is an exquisitely tactical discipline that is contested over a longer distance, usually 40 km for men and 25 km for women at major events. The final result is determined according to points gained during sprints (one every 10 laps on a 250 meter track) and when a rider manages to lap the rest of the field. During the sprints the four lead riders get points 5 for first, 3 for second, 2 for third, and 1 for fourth. Any rider or small group of riders that gain a lap are awarded 20 points for their effort.
The Madison is a points race for teams of two riders each. It’s kind of like a relay race or a tag team wrestling match. While one team member races, the other slows down to take a rest. When he/she rejoins the race, his/her teammate throws him/her into the action with a hand sling. The classification is established according to the distance covered and the points won in the sprints (every 20 laps). The Madison is held over distances of 25-50 kilometers, depending on the competition.
The Miss and Out is like a game of musical chairs where the last rider to cross the line is eliminated from the race every 2 laps on a 250 meter velodrome (every lap on longer tracks). When just a handful of riders remain, they sprint for the finish. This race is also called the Elimination Race or Devil Takes the Hindmost as an exciting tactic for a good sprinter is to ride at the back and sprint past the second to last rider just before the finish line.
Sprints – short, exciting races, that are often very tactical
The two most common sprinting events are the Match Sprint and the Keirin. Sprinters are riders gifted with a high percentage of fast twitch muscles and often resemble NFL fullbacks or speed skaters with massive glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Contrary to popular belief, elite track sprinters are among the leanest athletes on the planet.
Match Sprints are a very tactical event in which two riders try to outmaneuver each other. Sometimes riders will come to a standstill in an effort to make their opponent take the lead, which is the least advantageous position before the final sprint to the finish line. Unlike track and field sprinting events where runners Sprint tournaments start with a Flying 200 meter individual time trial. The top riders are seeded in the following rounds, meaning the fastest qualifier will face the slowest qualifier and so on. The number of riders that qualify for the match sprint rounds depends on the competition; in World Cup competitions, 16 riders will advance and in a world championship, 24 riders will advance.
The Keirin is a race that originated in Japan and is contested over 2 km, the field of three to eight riders follows a pacing motorbike at an increasing speed, all the while jostling for position. When the motorbike pulls off the track with two and a half laps to go, the battle begins to win the sprint to the finish. Keirins are contested in heats similar to a sprint tournament. Usually the top two riders of each heat advance directly to the final while lesser placing riders move into more qualifying heats until enough riders are eliminated to make for a final of up to eight riders. There is nothing quite as spectacular in bicycle racing than eight massive riders thundering along at 40 miles per hour in a tight pack.
That's the basics, next time maybe we can talk about overall race formats like World Cups, Championships, Six Days, Grand Prix, and the International Omnium.
Until then, pedal fast and turn left!