The Chainlink

The Northbrook Velodrome is Track-tacular!

Photo courtesy of Bill Cassidy

By Brett Ratner

What the Midwest lacks in mountains we more than make up for in access to high-quality velodrome racing. And if you've ever tried racing on one, you know first hand just how lucky we are.

Once one of the most popular sports in the entire country (early 20th-century track champions were among the world's highest paid athletes), today it's, well...a niche of a niche. And that's a shame.

Track racing is fun and exciting for both the competitor and the spectator. From an equipment standpoint, it's arguably the least expensive form of bike racing to participate in (fixed gear bikes are relatively cheap to buy and very little wears out or breaks). And since you get to compete 3-5 times over the course of a racing event, if you make a mistake in one race, you can simply shake it off, wait 30 minutes for another chance and try it again.

Another cool thing about track racing is that much of the time, racing takes place on weeknights, leaving your weekends free to race other disciplines, hit the mountain bike trails, pedal to that brewery, or simply relax and do non-bikey things.

And regardless of your goals as a rider and/or racer, track teaches good form, strategy and etiquette.

We here in Chicago are especially lucky. We have a bevy of tracks within reasonable driving distance. These include velodromes in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Kenosha...and two right here in Chicagoland.

We've previously discussed efforts to save the South Chicago Velodrome, which (we're happy to say) look to be successful so far.

A track that thankfully does not appear to be in danger of going away is the Ed Rudolph Velodrome, up the road in Northbrook.

In contrast to the narrow, steeply-banked 166-meter South Chicago Velodrome, Ed Rudolph is 382 meters long, with mellow, 18˚ banks. This allows for big fields, lots of lead changes and (among the elite categories) extremely-high speeds, oftentimes exceeding 40 mph. The long and low profile of Ed Rudolph also makes it a great track for beginners.

Ed Rudolph Velodrome is a great place for juniors as well as adults who are new to racing (photo courtesy of Bobby Honduras).

If you've been toying with trying your hand at track racing...or just trying bike racing in general, Northbrook is a great place to do it, and now is the time to start.

The first step toward velodrome nirvana is to attend one of the clinics held 6pm each Monday and Tuesday night, starting now through the end of the summer.

Clinics held at Ed Rudolph Velodrome allow newer riders to learn in a safe, structured environment (photo courtesy of Chicago Women's Elite Cycling).

For starters, you don't even need to own a track bike. If you want to "try before you buy," Ed Rudolph has a fleet of bikes to use. Simply bring your pedals and get there early so you can secure one in your size.

The clinics are led by Kevin Perez and Chris Mailing, both excellent instructors and experienced racers. Stressing safety and etiquette, Perez and Mailing run the field through a variety of drills that teach track positioning and race strategy while building top-end power. Practically every drill ends in a sprint finish, so by the end of a clinic, you've had plenty of chances to fight for bragging rights...and your legs are pretty cooked too.

On track drills at the weekly clinics teach things like etiquette, drafting, and race strategy (photo courtesy of John Vittallo).

Once you've gotten a few clinics under your belt, it'll be time to test your newfound skills at one of the nights that offer category 5 racing. These don't take place every week, so it's important to take advantage of them when you can.

After meeting a minimum requirement of clinics and category 5 races, you can request an upgrade to category 4. This is when the fun really starts, because you can now compete on Thursday nights.

On warm summer Thursday nights, Northbrook enjoys a strong turnout from both spectators and competitors.

Race categories include Juniors aged 9-14, Juniors aged 15-18, men's category 4, category 3, category 1/2, women's category 4 and women's category 1/2/3. For good measure, they usually throw in a masters race (generally for participants over 40 years old).

A women's 1/2/3 field starting off on a neutral lap. When they come around again, it'll be game on (photo courtesy of Marie Snyder).

The thing about track races is that they are very short (usually about 6 minutes long, give or take). More importantly, the races are structured so strategy can be as important as outright speed. Here are but a few examples of the many types of track races:

  • Scratch Race: A straight up track race where the winner is the first to complete a predetermined number of laps.
  • Miss and Out: Each lap, the last person to cross the start/finish line is pulled. Once the field is reduced to 3-5 participants, there is a neutral lap and then the remaining field contests a short scratch race for places.
  • Kierin: A motorpacing cycle (traditionally a machine called a derny is used, but conventional scooters and motorcycles can work too) spools the field up to a high speed, then exits the track with roughly 700 meters to go, at which point riders sprint for top places.
  • Points Race: Here, points are awarded for the top three places in "sprint laps." For example, if a points race is 15 laps, points may be awarded for top three placings on laps 5, 10 and 15. The rider who amasses the most points over the course of the race wins.
  • Madison: This race is hard to explain, chaotic to watch, but super fun to do. In a nutshell, pairs of riders take turns taking laps at full speed while the other rests at the top of the track. When it's time to swap turns, they will meet near the sprinter's lane where one partner grabs the other's arm and "slingshots" him or her down the track.
  • Flying 200: This is an individually-timed event where a rider completes 200 meters from a "flying" (fast rolling) start.
  • Chariot Race: Here, riders line up for standing start. When the race starts, riders go all out, generally for a single lap.

This all might sound confusing. If it does, blame my poor writing skills. Everything makes perfect sense when you're in the race...and more importantly it's tons of fun.

The men's category 1/2 races feature large fields, aggressive racing, and blistering speeds (photo courtesy Bill Cassidy).

It's hard to describe the feeling of flying around a track in a well-organized paceline, at speeds exceeding 30mph. Not to sound pretentious, but there's a symmetry and a flow and an order to track racing, that, despite the intensity of the effort, kinda chills me out and puts me in a meditative state. It's like yoga on wheels.

Despite the speed and intensity, the track casts a calm, meditative state upon many riders (photo courtesy of Derek Fulmer).

Track racing may or may not be your jam, but I think with such a great facility and racing program a short drive away, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try.

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About the Author

Brett Ratner ( began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.


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Comment by Joseph F. Johns IV on May 7, 2015 at 12:54pm

Any car pools up from the loop/west town area? I'd be brand new and don't have an affiliation with a club or really any cycling buddies. Any info is greatly appreciated.

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