What Makes a Good Track Bike?
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
I Propose a Few Things to Look For......
There is nothing special about this bike. It is a Bianchi Pista Concept. You can find them in Bianchi celeste, black, and white at any velodrome or fixie hang-out across the US. My guess is that it would not generate much interest from very many people.
It is a straight-up good track bike. My evidence is simple. Before we lost him, I witnessed Mark Whitehead absolutely race the hell out of one of these the last years he was with us. My guess is it was his track bike when he passed. Mark knew a good track bike, and how to race one. He was also quick to express an opinion. He told me he liked the bike also.
This bike will not make you feel all esoteric about the builder. It is not one of Rich Gangl's masterpieces. It is a tool. It can get you from the start of a race to the finish, and if you have the legs, you can win on it. The frame has all the numbers (A good geometry) and is made of good materials. It is not anywhere near the pinnacle of bike racing design, or performance either. it's just a good track bike, not an incredible one.
The components you put on the frame are as critical as the frame itself. Parts can make or break a good track bike, so you need good parts. The good news is that track bikes are simple and have fewer parts.
These are not the parts that came with the bike when I purchased it. As a matter of fact, I purchased this bike so I could put the parts on a smaller Pista Concept my Daughter was racing at the Collegiate level. Whatever you have as components should be strong and stiff. They also need to be fairly standard so that you can readily swap wheels, chains and gears between bikes, and so you can borrow parts in a bind. Weight is secondary to function on the Velodrome until you are shaving tenths of seconds.
What you see before you is a bike that meets some very specific needs, while also demonstrating a weakness in a track bike that should be considered if you are putting one together.
If you are looking for a good track bike, I would like to discuss some of the reasons you should look for a bike like this one. I am going to try and keep this very simple. I do not mean to offend anyone, but simplicity is part of what I am proposing you look for. I am attempting to condense 40 years of lessons learned about track riding and parts in an effort to provide helpful information for those just entering the world of bicycle track racing.
What is a Track Bike?
In the most simple terms, a track bike is a competition bicycle designed to conform to the requirements of bicycle racing on a track or velodrome. The bike should conform to the rules of international competition.
I did not state that it was designed to deliver packages, perform elaborate skid maneuvers, or generally ride anywhere other than a track with other track riders. I do not begrudge those who ride track bikes in these manners. I get it, but that is not what a track bike was designed to do.
A track bike needs to do a few things very well. Here are some of those things:
The bike needs to be responsive: Riding in the pack when bicycle racing is a very unique environment. Most racing bikes are designed to turn quickly and be responsive to the immediate needs of the rider. This is required to maneuver yourself around the course, in addition to handling the bicycle as you position yourself in the field.
The track bike needs to do all of these things exceptionally well, except it must do it with a single, fixed gear and no brakes. There is no resting with a fixed gear. If the wheels are turning, your legs are going. the bikes are designed to turn a little quicker, and be a little stiffer and stronger, even at the expense of weight. They are also designed to be very efficient at energy transfer to the track, resulting in faster acceleration and speed.
The bike needs to be strong: Strong has more than one aspect for this discussion. First of all, the bike has to be able to handle the various challenges of track racing. This means the bike needs to be able to absorb the body weight of the rider increasing substantially as the bike is ridden through a steep bank turn at high speed. The bike also must be able to predictably and efficiently execute a standing start, meaning that it must be able to stay rigid as you exert all the forces you can into the pedals and handlebars. If the bike breaks at this point, so will you.
The bike also needs to be strong in respect to taking abuse. If you track race, you are going to crash. If you go down, sometimes you can get on the bike and finish. If your bike cannot be picked up and safely raced in seconds, you are usually done racing. If the bike needs to go to the infield and repair, a strong bike may be able to race later events if you're not too banged up. A good track bike should be able to take a spill, and be picked up and raced to a win. Delicate materials and exotic designs usually do not crash well.
The bike needs to be affordable: This one is hard to approach without sounding ridiculous. Race bikes are not affordable. They never have been.
This doesn't mean that there is not a practical decision required. If you are learning to race, you have a higher probability of crashing until you gain more experience. You are also going to be racing other people of your experience level, thereby exponentially increasing your likelihood of a crash. I would suggest that until you work yourself to the level where people do not crash as much, you should consider racing bikes with high performance value and lower price tags.
At this point you will need to identify wants versus needs. Remember that bicycle track racing is a sport. You will need to travel to go to events, especially if you are gaining the skills necessary to start racing for titles. You are going to want a disc wheeled, carbon fiber super bike. You are going to need a spokes wheeled aluminum trusty workhorse. You will know when it is time to invest in the good stuff.
The Basic Demands: Keeping It Simple
You are going to need a bike that can do a 50 lap points or scratch race, as well as a madison once your skills are ready. You will also be searching for the events you have a talent for, so you need the bike to be able to compete in a Pursuit, a Kilo or a 500, and a flying 200. The bike needs to be capable of a hard standing start, while being comfortable and nimble at high speeds for 50 laps in heavy traffic. This is a tall order. I have seen quite a bit of racing, and I have discovered this particular setup has been consistently present in competition, and is reliably sure to provide a quality platform to learn the fine art of track racing:
The Frame: A well thought out track frame will melt under you when you ride, and you turn more by shifting your weight than moving the handlebar. Look for a short wheelbase, as well as short and fat chainstays. Stiffness and rigidity is paramount in a track bicycle.
The rear wheel needs to have a wide range of adjustment in the rear facing horizontal dropouts. This is required to accommodate a tight chain as you change gears between efforts or events. Be suspicious of any track bike when you see alot of daylight between the tires and the seat tube or fork crown/blades when the bike is set up to ride. as a basic rule, the tighter these tolerances are, the more effort and skill required to build the frame and there is less material to flex under stress, resulting in quicker handling.
The Fork: I like a 28 rake fork. The rake is, in simple terms again, the bend in the front fork of the bike. The bigger the rake, the more the bike will track in a straight line without effort. The old six day bikes often had long rakes so the rider could rest on the bike at speed without steering because they rode for six days, for goodness sake.
This is a Nice 28 Rake Track Fork.
A 28 rake is aesthetically nice on a track bike, but more importantly, a 28 is right at the point where the rake goes from twitchy to predictable. It is important that the rake work well with the head tube angle on the main frame of the bike. You can observe the interaction of the fork rake and the head tube angle by simply standing over the bike and steer the handlebar left to right slowly. Notice the top top moving as you steer? That little trick can tell you alot about the bike will handle. Too much, or too little movement of the top tube indicates an issue with the fork.
You can find very short, or straight rakes in stunt or clown bikes. these are highly unstable, and with no rake you can spin the handlebar while balancing on a clown bike. It is a cool trick. This is what the fork on a clown bike looks like:
For reasons of maximizing stability I like to use a fork that is either original to the bike, or an exact match.
If you ride slowly and try to turn on a track bike, your cleated foot may contact the tire. This will not happen above terminal speed on a track (the speed at which you will slide down the banking because you are too slow). Do not be concerned if you test ride a bike and this happens.
The Headset: As much as I hate to admit it, I must tell you to stay away from the press fit quill headset systems I am so fond of. I consider them the standard for smoothness and precision. They are also a nightmare if you need to use an aero bars for the pursuit, sprint bars for the sprint and 200, and road bars for the Madison. I would suggest a threadless fork and headset system are pretty handy as you try new events and disciplines. Parts for threadless systems are widely available and the assemblies feel more rigid to me if you consider the stem and handlebar as parts of consideration. Threadless is the new standard for several reasons, like it or not. They are more efficient and much lighter.
Materials: I have spent alot of time on steel, aluminum and carbon. They all are excellent if made well, and awful when they are not. a bad steel bike handles poorly, is heavy, and wastes energy. A bad aluminum bike rides harsh and handles in an unforgiving fashion. Bad or cracked carbon is dangerous. When done correctly, they are all amazing.
I find quality aluminum to be a wise choice. It is light, stiff, and good shaped tubing is forgiving when it needs to be. I notice that my road buddies are racing aluminum again......perhaps they notice this too. Aluminum excels on the track.
The Size: When I was a Kid, there was a theory that you rode the smallest bike you could get away with, and ride a longer stem and seat post. Your track bike might be the same size, or a size smaller than your road bike. I practiced this theory, and still follow it today.
I can only speak to fitting myself for a bike, but I was constantly adjusting stems, handlebars, seat angle and other items to the day. If you can afford a fitting, you will get a head start on your size and position. Make sure the bike you purchase is able to adjust enough to comfortably support your physical efforts on the bike. Remember your contact points are your two feet at the cleats, your hands at the handlebar, and your sits region on the saddle.Those points should be pretty similar whether it is your track bike, or your criterium bike. Usually the handlebars are a slight distance lower on a track setup. Eventually my only size concern was the top tube of the frame and the angles in the setup. The standard size measurements are critical, but secondary to the top tube size.
Components: There have incredible technical advancements in bicycle racing technology. For the most part, they have not affected what folks are riding at your local velodrome on race night. There are some very good components out there, but there are things to look for.
Anything you put on this bike is part of the equation as you build and maintain your racing bike. A component should be of high quality materials so that flex and distortion during competition do not reduce efficiency and handling. this is especially important at the crank, seat post, stem and handlebar.
Crank arm length is usually 165 or 170. If the bottom bracket of your frame is low, be careful going longer than 170 if your track is steep. You should look for 144 BCD as the size standard for the chainrings. the BB will be an important consideration at this point, and may determine your crank selection. A square taper track BB selected for your frame is a good choice offering many crank options. A track crank with 170 mm arms and 144 mm BCD is perfect and a matching BB will help you ensure your drivetrain is efficient.
We mentioned chainrings. If you race for any length of time, you will start to collect these. Eventually you will carry around a stack of these expensive little goodies. I suggest you select a 1/2 inch track drivetrain as your drivetrain configuration and stick to that standard. A 1/2 inch track chain is wider and beefier than a road chain. So are the chainrings and cogs. Look for track specific chainrings of high quality metals. You will feel the flex in chainrings of lower quality. You will eventually want a bunch of chainrings in 1 tooth increments from 46 teeth to 52 teeth so you can adjust gearing to your fitness, the track and conditions.
Your chain and cogs should be 1/2 inch drive and of good quality. If you adjust your chain, keep the links. If you start running big chainrings later, you may need to add links to your chain. You will know when this happens, just be aware.
Remember I told you the Bianchi Pista Concept you see at the top of this article had a problem. It is the components. You cannot readily get small parts for the components. You cannot change wheels with your friend if you get a flat. These components ride wonderfully, but they are not practical for a versatile track bike.
Keep you drivetrain clean. It is a reflection of you as a rider and a mechanic.
Pedals are a very personal choice. Track pedals must hold your feet to the crank when you push with your legs with all of your might. This is a time when failure will result in a bad accident. I will not go into pedals in this discussion other than to say use pedals that you can trust. Some track sprinters will use of strapped pedals with two or more straps. Put very serious thought into the pedals you use on the track. Look hard at what experienced riders are using.
Saddles are a personal choice also. Remember, you are not resting on this saddle when you ride. This is a fixed gear bike. Personally I never came out of the saddle when I raced. I tried to do all my work from a seated position. a saddle had to be comfortable and strong. The rails of your saddle do not need to be super light, they need to be super strong. I have broken saddles at the rail just forward of where the saddle clamps to the seat post assembly. I had to ride a 50 lap points race once with a broken saddle. It was hard to do. I use the strongest rails I can get my hands on.
Seat post, stem and handlebars need to be strong and stiff. It does not matter if you use road or track bars, but you must be very comfortable on whatever you choose. Remember this little point:
You will be close to the riders in front, in back, and on either side of you. The more compact you are as you race, the less likely you will be pulled down in a crash. If you are narrower side to side, you are more aerodynamic. This is a great advantage if you learn to use it. In some instances you can slip between riders by being lower than they are in a sprint to the finish. The handlebar determines your width as a race machine. It is also your front contact point to the bicycle. Be thoughtful when selecting your handlebars.
The Wheels: Wheels are everything. When you are ready, look at discs and fancy carbon wheels. They slice through the air like a Katana blade. They are also expensive. They usually do not crash well, meaning after you crash with them, the wheel should not be used again until the wheel is carefully inspected.
A Time tested formula for a track wheel is a high flange track hub, 32 to 36 wire spokes 3 cross mated to a aero rim manufactured of high grade and lightweight metal or carbon. I cannot argue with this formula. I still have wheels I raced in 1982 that are this configuration. They are still race worthy. They will fit any standard track frame. I would argue this is a solid formula for reliable performance and long service.
High Flanges, 32 holes and tied and soldiered spokes. That's how I rolled. Too bad I wasn't faster.....
I always looked at wheels as "stand alone" components that I would be able to move from frame to frame. In retrospect, this philosophy has served me well. As stated earlier in this discussion, I still have several wheels with decades of service that are race worthy today.
A track wheel needs to be stiff. When you stomp on the pedal, you should feel a solid and predictable transfer of power to the track, and quick acceleration. That is what you are looking for. Tires are a huge part of this equation. I guess we had better talk about tires.
A track tire must accelerate quickly, and perform reliably in extreme situations such as diving down a steeply banked turn at 35 MPH and getting into the sprinters lane at the bottom of the track without crashing and looking like a bruised up idiot. That is alot to ask of an inanimate object. Tires are a very personal choice, but you cannot lose with a Continental Sprinter 250 with a file tread, or any Vittoria Pista tire. These tires have always served me well. Buy from reputable sources. I have purchased grey market tires by accident. They were good tires with a serious manufacturing defect. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You are literally trusting your life to these tires, so make a smart decision and buy first quality tires. If you are careful with them, you will eventually remove them from your bike because you have ridden them for a season, or more. I hope you experience that kind of service from your tires. Continental Sprinter 250 will do that readily, but I feel it is a slightly "stiff" tire. I enjoyed the Vittoria Pista tires. They reminded me a little of the old Clement Seta tires back in the eighties. Old Clement Seta tires were amazing.
In conclusion: I have tried to describe to you a lifetime of hard-earned insight into a very specialized aspect of bicycle racing equipment. I am not sure who I am to convey this information. I was a very mediocre bicycle rider, but I was able to earn the title, and I spent a fortune in treasure and time learning these things.
There are many who will disagree with my ideas. That is cool.
I come at this as a guy who never had alot of resources and had to make things work. I have also approached this issue as a Dad looking for expensive equipment so my child could experience bicycle racing.
When I look at the bikes I still have, these characteristics are evident in almost all cases.
I also notice that the track bikes I have are the most lucrative bikes I own. Find a Velodrome, and you will find someone looking for a decent track bike. If you are looking for a track bike, make it known around the track. You could do alot worse than buy a bike from a person like me.
Hopefully I have given you some things to look for. I hope, if you go to the track, it gives you life as it gave me.