Train Like an Olympic Track Cyclist
British cyclist Jamie Staff talks about the preparation that goes into getting ready for the summer Olympics' fastest sport.
Reaching speeds of over 50 miles per hour at certain moments, track cycling is clearly not an Olympic sport for the faint of heart. Factor in the fact that opposing competitors jockey for position, looking to hold their spot up front or make a move to break ahead, and the threat of crashing at such a high speed is a very palpable risk.
The sport takes place on a heavily banked racetrack called a velodrome, which allows cyclists to maintain their high speeds as they navigate the race, meeting the banked ends of the track with the properly high velocity to stay riding comfortably. Cyclists participate in sprint or endurance events, although there are several more variations within each type of race.
The sport is followed closely in some European countries—particularly Germany, but it’s also popular in the UK, France and some other areas. Believe it or not, track cycling was actually once a very popular spectator sport in the U.S., peaking in the 1930s when six-day track cycling races were frequently held in Madison Square Garden. For some reason, the sport just wasn’t able to sustain its following in post-war America. Still, that doesn’t mean it isn’t exciting to watch, and it definitely doesn’t mean American athletes have given up on the sport.
What It Takes to Be a Track Cyclist
To gain some better understanding of track cycling and the training it takes to compete in it at an elite level, we spoke with accomplished British cyclist Jamie Staff. The general term ‘cyclist’ is appropriate since he started out as one of the world’s best BMX bikers. He was named World BMX champion in 1996 while still in his early 20s. He made the transition to track cycling when he got closer to 30, then eventually, at age 35, took a gold medal for Great Britain in the 2008 Olympic team sprint. He’s since moved on to coach some of the top U.S. track cyclists.
Staff says the U.S. will be sending six athletes to compete in various events at the London Games this summer. All of them train 20 hours over the course of six days per week or more to get there. Training regimens include plenty of road cycling for general endurance and leg strength, as well as gym sessions, generally a couple times a week. However, the dominant part of the training is done on the track, as you might expect, where Staff has his athletes work on different aspects and skills needed in track cycling races, shifting focus from day to day. However, he says the long distance riding he has his athletes do is not something every track cyclist works on, and other coaches don’t believe in it the way he does.
“When we talk sprinting—going fast on the bicycle, [I believe] doing long distance sort of riding will make you quicker,” he says. “From my perspective, the fitter you are, the easier all the other stuff is and the quicker you recover. So, the fitter my guys are, every time they’re coming for track sessions, I think they’re recovering quicker off the end of [them] and they’re recovering post session, so for the next set, they’re coming in fresher as well.”
It’s hard to argue with a guy who took a gold medal in his mid-30s, particularly in a sport where the peak age is usually in the early to mid-20s.
Put simply, track cycling requires heroic levels of leg strength and cardiovascular endurance to keep the bikes moving at such ridiculously high speeds, regardless of the fact that the bikes are some of the most aerodynamic and efficient in the world. There are, of course, other exercises that can facilitate progress on the track, but the low impact nature of biking makes it simpler to just hop on and develop legs and cardio that way, while improving skills in the sport itself as well.
Staff admits that he doesn’t expect any Olympic track cyclists to win medals this summer, but he’s happy to see a bunch of strong athletes developing quickly in front of him. He also still makes sure to add, “Anything can happen in competition.”