What is Madison Cycling? All You Need To Know

Madison cycling is a thrilling test of speed, endurance, teamwork, and racecraft in the velodrome.

With 32 cyclists flying around the track – some racing, others hanging back – and teammates hand-slinging each other forward and tagging in and out, the spectacle can look chaotic to the uninitiated!

But with a proper understanding of the rules of this event, and appreciation for the mastery of the track competitors show, this event goes from a dizzying mess to a thrilling whirlwind.

To help you get to grips with Madison cycling, we’ll be covering:

  • What Are The Origins Of Madison Cycling?
  • What Is Madison Cycling, And What Are The Rules?
  • What Makes Madison Cycling Unique?
  • What Are The Techniques And Strategies Of Madison Cycling?

Ready to get up to speed on the madness of Madison?

Let’s dive in!

What Is Madison Cycling: Title Image

What Are The Origins of Madison Cycling?

From the Six-day to the Madison

The history of Madison cycling is a story of love and hate: fans loved it, athletes hated it.

The Madison is named after the first Madison Square Garden in New York, where the race originated. It gained the name “Course à L’Américaine” (“American Race”) in French, and the “Americana” in Spanish and Italian.

The Madison’s origins lie in the notorious “Six-Day Races” which were wildly popular in the late nineteenth century. The rules were simple: whichever rider completed the most laps of the velodrome in six continuous days won the race.

Initially, these races would only run during the day – but riders soon began racing for full days, forgoing sleep entirely to get the edge on their competitors, and promoters quickly learned they’d make more money by allowing admissions 24 hours a day.

A Six-Day Race at Madison Square Garden in 1908.
A Six-Day Race at Madison Square Garden in 1908.

So the Six-Day Race became a grueling, macabre spectacle of riders racing without sleep for up to 144 continuous hours (six days). Along with extreme physical exertion, it is thought racers routinely used drugs to stay awake.

After days without sleep, competitors would often descend into increasingly fragile emotional states during the Six-Day Race.

A newspaper clipping preserved by historical American cycling legend Major Taylor describes how the crowds would grow in the latter days of the event; spectators came to see the competitors in increasing stages of extreme physical and psychological distress.

Alarmed by reports of delusional competitors having frequent crashes on the track, legislators passed regulations stating that riders couldn’t ride for more than 12 hours a day. Promoters needed to find a way to circumvent the new rule to continue the wildly popular and profitable Six-Day Races.

At Madison Square Garden, promoters had the bright idea of running the event as relays, in which two riders would compete as a team and thus no rider would overrun the 12-hour limit:

The Madison race was born.

A Madison cycling race during the Six Days of Dortmund, 2007.
A Madison cycling race during the Six Days of Dortmund, 2007.
Credit: PurusdurusCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

Modern Competitive Madison Cycling

Over time, the Madison race’s format came down to a more conventional 200 laps of the velodrome.

Though six-day races are still held, (the world record is 1036km); the modern Madison is a different event, and much shorter. Modern Madison races typically take just under one hour.

The Madison was added to the UCI’s World Championships in 1995. It was first included at the Summer Olympics in 2000, before being dropped again and then re-added for the delayed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

A blue team and a red team compete in a Madison cycling race.

What Is Madison Cycling, And What Are The Rules?

These days, the modern Madison is loved by athletes and fans alike as a thrilling, two-person track cycling relay race.

Competitors race on track bikes, which are specifically built for competitive velodrome cycling and have a single fixed gear with no freewheel or brakes.

The men’s Madison race is 200 laps (50 km), whilst the women’s Madison is 120 laps (30 km).

The competition is between sixteen teams of two: one per nation at the Olympics.

The Maddison’s Points System

Madison cycing uses a laps-based points system.

The points system in the Madison is similar to the system used in the Omnium Points Race:

  • Every 10th lap is a Sprint Lap: the first four teams to complete a print lap gain 5, 3, 2, and 1 point respectively.
  • If a team is able to successfully lap the field they are awarded 20 points.
  • If a team is lapped by the entire field they are deducted 20 points.
  • Teams can also be deducted points from unfair or unsafe cycling.
  • In the event of a tie, the first team to complete the final lap wins.

Tagging In and Out

What makes the Madison unique from the Omnium is the relay element, with riders tagging their teammate in and out of the race.

  • Riders race in teams of two at the UCI World Championships and the Olympics. Some other Madison events are raced in teams of three.
  • Teams may tag each other out, or “relieve” one another, at any time during the race.
  • Relieved riders hang up at the blue line at the upper outside edge of the velodrome.
  • Tagging in, or changing, takes place as close to the lower inside edge of the velodrome as possible.
  • To change, riders cycle alongside one another and touch to show the change has taken place. This can be a simple touch or push but is typically a “hand-sling”.

A hand-sling is where the “active” rider pulls their relieved teammate forwards, tagging them in at the same time as giving them an initial boost.

Crashes and Disruptions

Riders sometimes suffer a crash, puncture, or something else which temporarily takes them out of the race. If this happens a team at approximately the same position is selected to keep track of missed laps until the rider can rejoin the race.

While this happens, the downed rider’s teammate rides in and out with one member of the selected team until the issue is resolved and the team can fully rejoin the race.

In the unfortunate instance of a major crash, with multiple teams crashing and/or the track becoming unsafe for use, the race is stopped altogether.

How Is Madison Cycling Different From Other Track Cycling Events?

Unlike time or elimination-based velodrome races, Madison cycling uses a points system, similar to the Points Race in the Omnium.

The other, more obvious difference is that riders race in relay teams. Unlike the Team Sprint or Team Pursuit events, in Madison Cycling the teams are made up of the Active rider and the Reliever rider, who switch roles as part of the race.

This means that whilst there are 32 competitors on the track, there should only be 16 active racers at any time, while the relieved racers remain outside the track’s outer blue line.

This is complicated by switches, which happen at any point and take place in the inside lane along with the active racing, and means both the active and relieved racers occupy the inside area of the track.

A hand-sling between teammates during the Madison at the Six Jours de Grenoble, 2011.
A hand-sling between teammates during the Madison at the Six Jours de Grenoble, 2011.
Credit: Fanny SchertzerCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

What Techniques and Strategies Do Madison Cyclists Use?

The Hand-sling

The unique technique you’ll be seeing a lot in a Madison event is the hand-sling, where riders clasp hands and the active rider hurls the relieved rider forwards into the race, swapping their positions and switching in and out.

The hand-sling is more efficient than a simple touch or push, although both are also considered valid rider switches in Madison rules.

Riders generally won’t wear cycling gloves during the Madison so will instead use hand chalk to make the hand sling easier to perform, and to grip their handlebars whilst riding.

Team Composition

Teams will sometimes field a “sprint” rider and a more balanced “endurance” rider.

The benefit of this is that the sprint rider can compete on the sprint laps, or even attempt to lap the field for extra points, and in between be relieved by the endurance rider can who keep pace with the field.

Calculated switches like this obviously require close attention to lap numbers and the performance of the other teams, which in a whirl of 16 competing teams, can be hard to keep track of!

Arena-style seating at the velodrome.

Want To Check Out Madison Cycling for yourself?

Madison cycling looks like becoming a mainstay of the Summer Olympic games – but that’s still just once every four years.

The UCI’s annual World Championships feature a Madison in the Track Cycling event, though. Madisons are also frequently held in national and continental track cycling competitions – so there are plenty of opportunities to catch a race if you’re interested in checking out Madison cycling for yourself!

Or if you’re wanting to go beyond spectating and try getting involved with track cycling as a rider, get in touch with your local velodrome – they’ll often host open days so you can get a taste of velodrome cycling and take it from there!

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Riley Nicholas

Riley Nicholas

One of BikeTips' content creators, Riley spends most of his time on a bike battling the hills of the Chilterns or winds of North Cornwall. Off the bike you're likely to find him writing about cycling or reading about everything else.

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