The Madison American Bike Race

The Madison - The American Race

By: Rob Stanley  July 09, 2021

The Madison will again be at the Olympic Games in Tokyo and for the first time as a women’s event. Originating here in the USA and named after Madison Square Gardens in New York, the Madison is known as ‘The American Race’ or ‘Course à l'américaine’ and promises to be one of the spectacles of the track cycling calendar. Just as the Keirin heading home to Japan has a special significance for the games, the return of the Madison at the Olympics marks a sentimental moment for cycling fans and is especially momentous as we look forwards to our own home Olympics in LA 2028.

In the late 1800’s, Six Day racing on velodromes was particularly prevalent, not to be confused with the Six Day series of modern times, Six Day races in the 19th century were exactly as they said on the tin, a war of attrition to see who was capable of covering the furthest distance over a six day period. Operating a vehicle of any kind for such long periods of time has its dangers therefore in 1898 the state of New York ruled cyclists should no longer be allowed to compete for more than 12 hours per day, paving way for a relay race (The Madison) whereby cyclists could share the workload and Six Day racing could continue.

The modern Madison, although much shorter than the original races is still the longest duration single event in Track Cycling (200 laps for men, 120 laps for women). Two participants representing each of the 24 teams (countries) ride in relay with each other, exchanging between being the racing and the resting rider with the iconic ‘handsling’. There are designated sprint laps every 10th lap whereby points are awarded to the first 4 racing riders to cross the finish line (5, 3, 2 and 1 with double points on the last sprint). Extra bonus points (20) can be earned by any team who is able to lap the majority of their opponents. The overall winners of the race are the team with the most points at the end of the race.

As well as the huge workload expended by participants to compete at average speed of 55-60kmph for just shy of an hour and reach peak speeds of greater than 70kmph multiple times across the race, the Madison also demands perhaps the most technical and tactical competence of all the track cycling disciplines. Like other mass start cycling races, competitors jostle for position, sometimes trying to conserve their effort by drafting behind other riders and at other times sprinting within inches of each other’s shoulders whilst trying to claim maximum points. However, they must do this all whilst maintaining ultimate awareness of when an opponent’s teammate might come bounding down the velodrome into an exchange. Additional technical ability is required to complete the relay element of the race, the handsling between competitors is a very technical skill whereby the racing rider tries to pass on as much of their momentum as possible to the resting rider to maintain their position in the race.

There are multiple different tactics that competitors might use in a Madison, some teams prefer to try gain maximal points in sprint laps whilst others may choose to rely on taking a lap to earn their points. Whilst the race may seem chaotic, there are regular patterns that occur, made up of pre-determined tactics from competitors as well as evolving responses to the context of the race. As points are scored and the leader board starts to take shape, temporary allegiances and rivalries are acutely formed and adapt as competitors seek to distance themselves from their closest rivals and utilise the efforts of other competitors who do not present any threat to their current ranking. Further, tactics may be dictated not only by the context of the current race ranking but also the known abilities and tactics of rivals from previous races.

The combined, physical, tactical, technical and psychological demands of the Madison will make it one of the most exciting races to watch at the Olympics. If you are inspired by our Olympians and fancy learning the thrill and excitement of the Madison, contact your local velodrome or USA Cycling to find out what opportunities are available!