11 October 2022

Track bikes vs road bikes - what's the difference?

What makes a track bike so different to a typical road bike? We explore the key features of these speed machines!

A track cyclist goes all out for the time trial race.

While on the face of it, when you compare a track bike to a typical road bike they may not seem as different as say a BMX bike or mountain bike.

However, there are some subtle (and not-so-subtle!) differences between the two that make them very different bikes to ride.

So, let’s talk track bikes!

Stripping back the gears

One major difference between the two types of bikes is gearing.

While on a road bike you may have around 16 gears (this will differ depending on each individual set up, but in this example, that means 2 chainrings on the front, and 8 cogs on the back) a track bike is stripped back to just one, fixed, gear.

That means just one chainring on the front, and one cog on the back! This is one reason that track cycling is also referred to as “the purest form of bike racing”.

A bike mechanic inspects a track bike's chain and gears
A mechanic sets up a track bike at this year's UCI Track Cycling World Championships at the Saint Quentin en Yvelines Velodrome.

Brakes - but not as we know them!

Track bikes are often said to not have brakes – which is true to an extent! There are no levers on the handlebars to pull in order to slow you down.

However, you can slow down by using your legs!

As track bikes are fixed gear, this means that there is no freewheeling (when you stop pedalling and rest your legs the bike continues to roll).

If the bike is moving, your legs are still pedalling.

To slow down riders will push back against the pedals – it takes a little getting used to!

Designed for speed, not for comfort

While it’s possible to eat up the miles out on country lanes on a road bike, doing so on a track bike would be less than comfy. In certain places, even illegal!

Instead, track bikes are designed for one thing only, riding fast around the banked corners of the velodrome.

To do that, they are very lightweight, with stiff frames and very thin tyres at pumped up to high pressures – all of which are designed to make the rider go as fast as possible.

A pair of riders battle it out in the sprint.
UCI World Champion Harry Lavereysen chases down France's Sebastien Vigier in the sprint.

Super sleek disc wheels

While on the topic of speed – wheels have a big part to play!

On a road bike we tend to use the standard rim and spoke type of wheel, whereas on a track bike disc wheels are far more common.

This solid carbon fibre disc is used in most of the mass start races on the rear wheel, and often on both wheels in the time trial and pursuit events.

Why is that?

Well, they give an aerodynamic advantage which ultimately means quicker lap times!

Raising the bottom bracket

As track bikes are ridden round the steep banks of a velodrome (at the Sir Chris Hoy velodrome the banks are at a dizzying 45 degrees!) the bottom bracket of these bikes tends to be higher.

The bottom bracket is the part of the bike where the front chainrings, cranks and pedals connect to the bike.

This is higher than on a road bike because with such steep corners, riders need extra clearance to make sure this part of the bike doesn’t touch the track when riding – if it did, it would most likely end up in a nasty crash!...

Ouch!

Riders at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow ride past advertising for the 2023 UCI Cycling Worlds.
The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome is the place to be for Track action in 2023!

Got the track cycling bug?

Fancy finding out more about Track cycling? 

Head over to the Track section of our website, or visit Glasgow Life's website to see about arranging a taster session at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome. 

Fancy getting close to the action? We're on the lookout for volunteers to help us make next years's Championships a massive success. Apply to volunteer now!

Finally - make sure you've signed up for ticket alerts to not miss a single second of the action when the UCI Track Cycling World Championships come to Glasgow next year!

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