If you’re familiar with cycling, you’re likely familiar with the basic concept of long-stage races and individual time trials. Professional cycling, however, gets more interesting and, at times, a bit crazier. We’re talking non-motorized speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Cycling races whose origins are rooted in dodging rubble in cities, and brutal sprints over tough terrain with a bike slung across the back. These five lesser-known types of cycling races are as adrenaline-packed as they come.
Track cycling on velodromes – essentially 250-meter, steeply banked ovals – is all about speed. Try making a tight turn at racing speeds of 50 mph, and you’ll understand why. High-angled walls protect racers from centrifuging themselves off the track or settling for a lot of boring braking. Good thing, because track bikes have no brakes or, for that matter, a free-spinning wheel (in other words, no coasting – if the rear wheel is moving, so are your legs). All of which condone fast pedaling in a handful of racing styles that include the individual and team pursuit, scratch races, the “madison” and “keirin” (which we’ll revisit later). Pursuits pit two individuals (or two teams of four) against one another from opposite sides of the track, the key being either to catch your opponent or, failing that, finish the four-kilometer race with the best time. The straightforward scratch is a simple matter of crossing the line first in a group of riders. But the madison, essentially a tag-team race, gets interesting. It started as a way to circumvent a New York law forbidding riders to race more than 12 hours a day, hallucinating, and passing out to the delight of the audience. Now riders have a teammate or two whom they can slingshot into action when tired in the attempt to complete a certain number of laps with the best time.
Singlespeed racing, which culminates for many in the unsanctioned Single Speed World Championship, is perhaps two parts serious racing, one part irreverent shenanigans, and entirely hardcore. Riders often don odd costumes and wigs, but the racing itself is often brutal. The only fast rule is that bikes must have just a single gear. Whether using a mountain, road, or cyclocross bike, cyclists charge over grueling and technical terrain on a set course – with the occasional big drop – using their one gear. That means some tough climbing and fast pedaling. At the Single Speed World Championship, winners are obligated to commemorate their adrenaline rush with a tattoo of that year’s logo.
Cyclocross racers are adrenaline-fueled beasts. They take their share of beatings traversing all manner of terrain from mud to pavement to grass, on wooded trails and up steep hills, in rain or snow. Cyclocross is, as the name suggests, a hybrid between mountain bike and road racing, but it’s an animal all its own. The course is a short lap of a couple of miles, and racers complete as many circuits as possible in the allotted hour. Bikes are hybrids as well, much like a road bike with thin tires and dropped handlebars, but with a mountain bike’s knobby tread to handle the mixed terrain. Racers navigate a slew of obstacles – stairs, huge berms, sand pits and more – by tossing their mounts, at full tilt, over their shoulders and running on foot before re-mounting on the fly to pedal maniacally. Like a Tough Mudder on wheels, it’s an off-season pursuit for cyclists who tend to race on road or mountain in the summers. Which means the races, held in autumn and winter, get messy along with the weather – all part of the fun. An unscathed rider at race’s end is a rare sight. Because this sort of frenzy makes drafting off of any semblance of peloton impossible, it’s an all-out endurance feat made for those cyclists who suffer best.
Cycle speedway had its improbable beginnings at post-war bomb sites in Britain in the 40s and 50s. Left with a fair amount of rubble clogging roadways, London and other towns set up tracks through the dirt and wreckage for cyclists to race through. Modeled after motorcycle speedway, the modern, now-international sport races cyclists counter-clockwise around dirt tracks on a singlespeed mount with no brakes (who needs ‘em?) for four laps. Racers accumulate points based on their placing in matches that consist of a tiring 8 to 24 heats. Things can get rough, too. Cyclists sport elbow and knee pads, and physical contact is both a legal and a tactical necessity. Though competitors don’t drift their rear wheels like in motorcycle speedway, they’ll touch down the left foot on fast and treacherous turns for some semblance of control on fast turns.
Around the end of the 19th century, folks decided bikes couldn’t go fast enough for their liking under strictly human power and threw physics into the mix. When pedaling in the slipstream of a faster vehicle, it turned out, cyclists could reach greater speeds with less exertion thanks to reduced drag. So race organizers threw a motorcycle in front of a string of riders to pull them to ever greater speeds (around 60 mph), which led to more frequent accidents and a few deaths. A slew of scantly regulated races, anywhere from a hour to six days, popped up, including the original Paris-Roubaix race, now one of the (non-motor-paced) Spring Classics of pro road cycling. Nowadays, races are often held in velodromes, particularly in the form of the keirin. Developed in Japan as a good way to gamble, the keirin is now an Olympic event in which a motorcycle leads cyclists to high speeds for much of the eight-lap race, peeling off before a 45 mph sprint finish. Beyond the world of official racing, though, cyclists have used pacers to achieve incredible speeds, pedaling modified bikes behind all manner of motorcycles and fast cars. In 1995, Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg cruised behind a aero dragster to a record speed of just over 167 mph in Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. And that’s about as insane as things get on two human-powered wheels.